This is very much Longo Borghini's local race. She lives at home with her family, a 15-minute ferry ride across Lake Maggiore, and she knows these roads well. This will her first race after a minor injury forced her to miss last weekend's Ronde van Drenthe, and she's happy to be back. "When you are well and when you can race again after an injury, everything is good – everything that happens is really good – so I will be happy to finish the race, or finish in the top 20.... and if I win, of course!", she laughs.
"It's a nice course, normally with a lot of spectators on the local lap. On the first loop, nothing normally happens there. Last year the USA team was in the front, keeping the speed up. And then when we come to the laps, normally we split into groups, and then split again. The second split normally happens at two laps to go, or the last lap – when the best riders want to make the race."
"The hill on the lap is around 3k and first it’s straight up, then it goes flatter, and then there is another climb with two corners, and that’s the hardest part. On the top it’s a false flat, and then you go down with two or three turns, go a bit to the right and it goes up again - and then the road is straight down into the last corner, and it's a really tough finish, because the road goes uphill and normally there is a hard sprint."
While she loves racing on home soil, Longo Borghini isn't a typically Italian rider, and it's a bit of a surprise to say she loves the cobbled Classics - her ideal races to win would be the Ronde van Vlaanderen and the Omloop het Nieuwsblad. Her first experience of them was Het Nieuwsblad in 2011, where she came 5th for Top Girls Fassa Bortolo - "and at the end of the race, I said it was awful! But even if it was awful I really enjoyed it".
Last year, riding for Hitec Products-Mistral Home, she was seventh in Het Nieuwsblad and Le Samyn, then third in Tielt-Winge - and that was just the start of a superb season that culminated in her winning the bronze medal in the Road World Championships. A breakaway group of five riders, including another Italian, Rossella Ratto, had escaped with four laps to go - and then, on the Cauberg climb at the end of the next lap, Dutch superstar Marianne Vos attacked, and only Longo Borghini was able to follow her.
"That was a really hard jump", she said. "There is a funny story about the jump because I couldn’t reach the break at first, and I was hanging at 5m or less to the last rider of the break and Rossella was pulling the speed so I was shouting "Rossella! Slooooooower!", but she didn’t hear me and I had to do it…. I knew I could race well because we rode the Holland Ladies Tour and the last stage was more or less on the Worlds course and I came third there, so I really realised I could race well at the Worlds".
I asked her what she was thinking, in the final lap, as riders dropped off the break, and the chasing group couldn't catch them, and she had a refreshingly honest answer: "Actually I just pedalled as fast as I could, that was how I managed to stay in the break!". She rode hard, despite attacks, and then Vos took off on the final climb, pulling away to victory in front of her home crowds. Behind her, Rachel Neylan of Australia attacked for second, and Longo Borghini did all she could.
"I was just thinking to go as fast as I could to the finish line, I really tried to catch Rachel but it was not possible, so I just pedalled to the end and got to the finish line empty and tired, so tired I had to hang on a van on the side of the road. I think Vos really deserved it as she had been the strongest rider the whole season and she showed at the Worlds. I am glad she has the World Champion's jersey".
That was a perfect end to a great season, but looking back, Longo Borghini says she couldn't really believe how well her season was going. She had never expected to ride so well, and with every result she thought "I'm good enough, then" - and then went on to improve. "If I have to describe it in a few words, then I can only say that 2012 has been amazing." She raced well all season, doing sterling work for her team leader, Emma Johansson - and then it came to the biggest stage race of the year, the Giro Donne, where Johansson won the final stage and came fifth overall, and Longo Borghini came ninth, winning the Best Young Rider jersey in the process.
Again, this wasn't something she had been expecting. "When I had the jersey on for the first time, it was a bit strange
And then I started to believe that I could take it to the finish, and I really fought for it. When you race in your own county, it’s always nice to have such an important jersey in such an important race."
After the Giro, it was straight on to Thüringen Rundfahrt, a six-stage race in East Germany, where Longo Borghini won stage 5, came second in stage 6, and finished fifth overall, all the while supporting Johansson to her third place finish. But it wasn't just her results that made this one of her favourite races of the year - the whole thing was fun to ride for her, and she has nothing but praise for the organisers.
"I think Thüringen is one of the best races on the calendar. I really like the place, I really like the accommodation, I really like how it is organised and there are always a lot of people on the roadside and the commentator is really great – he involves the crowd during the ceremonies." Is this because Vera Holfeld, the race director, is a former pro-cyclist, I wondered? "I think so, because being a rider she knows how a rider has to be be treated. She tries to do the best for the riders – and she succeeds! In my opinion it is really one of the best races on the calendar. Of course, I haven’t raced all the races, but that one has been my favourite."
The fact Longo Borghini is doing so well at such a young age is perhaps less of a surprise when you look at her family. her mother, Guidina Dal Sasso, was a cross-country skiier, who competed in three Winter Olympic Games, and her father, Ferdinando, started off skiiing, and then became a ski coach and worked on the technical side of the Italian ski team. The couple had two children, eleven years apart - Paolo Longo Borghini, who races in the World Tour for Cannondale, and Elisa, who followed him into cycling, when she was nine years old. Their mother had worried about her children taking sports so seriously, and wanting to become professional athletes, because she knew how hard the life was and how many sacrifices they have to make, but of course, once they started racing, she was their biggest fan.
Having her big brother involved in the sport is perfect for Elisa, and whenever they're home together, they train together - "I try to hang onto his wheel!" - and she says that without Paolo, she wouldn't be the rider she is today. "I always get a lot of good tips from him, it’s always nice to have someone close to you who does the same job and can help you in your life, in your career - he's a person I look up to, as an example for me".
Longo Borghini works just as hard off the bike as on, studying Communication Sciences at l'Università dell'Insubria in Varese. It's not easy, because there aren't special programmes for athletes at Italian universities, as there are in other countries, so she has to juggle her studies and her racing, missing not just the regular student life, but also having to fit exams around her calendar. But it's worth it for her - she knows full well that cycling doesn't last forever, and she feels like it helps her racing as well. "It’s nice to have something else to focus on", she says.
Like most of the women's peloton, she speaks excellent English, and languages are one of the things she enjoys. "I can speak a bit of English, French, Spanish and German - I have a Belgian boyfriend so now I can say some things in Dutch, its close to English and German so I can understand it". And learning about different cultures from her team-mates is obviously intriguing to her. One of the great things about riding for Hitec, for her, is learning about other countries, the differences and the similarities. "We are so different but we don’t feel it, this is really good for me. This year we have some Australians and a Swede and it’s like there are no barriers, we are all the same and it’s really nice."
The team obviously suits her, and she thrives in the atmosphere. With Emma Johansson having moved on, Longo Borghini will step up to become team leader in the races that suit her - but this isn't intimidating, and she sees it as a challenge, rather than pressure, and relishes the thought of working for team-mates in the sprinting races, saying that when she works for other people, she enjoys being the protected rider more - that knowing how to work for other riders makes her a better team leader.
This is very typical of Elisa Longo Borghini. Throughout our conversation, it's clear that she loves what she's doing, and is happy to be racing - the results are the icing on the cake. I asked her what it is she wants from the year, and her reply, like our whole conversation, had that mixture of modesty and ambition that makes you only want good things for a rider: "I would be really glad to have a season like last year because it was really great, but of course, being an athlete you aim to get better and better, so if this season is like last year, that would be really good - but if I can improve, it would be better!"
Coming back off her injury tomorrow, don't expect Longo Borghini to be at her best - but imagine her racing with a smile on her face - happy to be back on her bike, happy to be racing in front of her friends and family, and above all, happy to be riding. Her friends and family will be on the final corner of every lap, and she'll be racing he heart out for them - but however she does, she's bound to have an exciting season, and a long career ahead of her. After all, she is just 21, everything's waiting for her.
Highlights of the Trofeo Binda will be shown on RAI Sport 2, 18:15-19:15 CET, Saturday 24th March 2013. To follow the race live on twitter, try @TrofeoBinda, and my list of people who tweet updates in races.
For more information on the race, see the race website and Monty's excellent preview of the race - and both Velofocus and Les Déesses de la Route have great previews too. ORICA-AIS' Amanda Spratt has previewed the race on their team website, and Joanne Hogan (Bizkaia-Durango) has a video preview of the climb of the small lap (part 1 and part 2)... and if that's not enough, have a look at this year's race promo video!