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Champion of Italy

An interview with Elisa Longo Borghini.

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“I wear it with pride,” says Elisa Longo Borghini of her green, white and red Italian national champion’s jersey, “and I like to show off my flag. It’s my country and I also feel like I’m representing my country everywhere in the world when I’m racing. It’s nice when you are training for a race and people on the road they say, ‘That’s the Italian champion, that’s Longo Borghini.’ To me it’s nice because they recognize the jersey. It’s an iconic jersey in the peloton and it always has been.”

paris roubaix 2021
Paris-Roubaix 2021. Image: Chris Auld.

AT AGE 30, LONGO BORGHINI IS AS PROUD AN ITALIAN as you’ll find in the professional peloton, and wearing the Italian tricolore is one of the highest honors she could achieve. She’s been able to do it a lot in her career, having won the national road race title three times and the time trial five times. Wearing the champion’s colors could only perhaps be matched by representing her country and donning its iconic blue jersey. To be a member of the Azzurri squad is to push herself to her limits.

“When I have the national team jersey on,” Longo Borghini tells Peloton, “I feel the responsibility to honor it because it means that you’ve been chosen. This means that you have to honor it until the very last second of the race, to the very last meter of the race, and to make it count.”

Representing Italy on the international stage is in the blood of the Longo Borghini family. She is the daughter of former Olympic skier Guidina Dal Sasso, while her father Ferdinando used to work as a mechanic for the Italian skiing team. Her brother Paolo is also a former professional cyclist who has represented his country at under-23 level.

Family is important to Longo Borghini. While many pro racers have moved to places like Monaco or Nice, she still lives in her hometown of Ornavasso, close to her parents’ house, and will see people she has known since childhood on an almost daily basis. There, she is simply Elisa and not the world-beating cyclist Longo Borghini. “People will always recognize you and always like, say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ or you can go to the bar and have a quick chat with the locals because everybody knows everybody,” she says.

When she’s away for racing, Longo Borghini misses her tightknit community, the stones that roof many of the local houses and her parents’ fireplace. For her, home is seeing her family and being able to sit in front of that fireplace. It’s also about what she calls her mother’s “welcome-home” pudding.

“Most of the time, the first thing I do when I come home is have a pudding. My mom is always making pudding for me and my boyfriend when we come home. It’s kind of famous to have the return pudding,” Longo Borghini says. “When I come over for some food or to get stuff, we have this big fireplace and I miss the fire. I just like to sit in front of it and to put wood in and a look at the fire itself. For me, the fire has always meant family, it is what I miss the most.”

Aside from being close to her family, there’s another very good reason for Longo Borghini to stay in her hometown, and that is the mountains in this part of Piedmont, 100 kilometers northwest of Milan. While she does not live near some of the Giro d’Italia’s most famous climbs, she still has her pick of tough ascents and picturesque routes. She has three in particular that she likes to ride when she’s at home.

ceratizit challenge 2020
CERATIZIT CHALLENGE 2020. Image: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

The first takes her north along the picturesque Valle Vigezzo before looping around and along Lake Maggiore toward Miazzina and then home. The second brings her south to the lake and over the Mottarone mountain to Omegna where she can have her pick of climbs to ride over on the way back home. The final one features a loop of Lake Orta, which is to the west of Lake Maggiore and south of her home in Ornavasso. Each loop brings in different qualities in terms of her training, but they all have one thing in common: beautiful scenery.

“I like the fact that you can pass from mountains to the lake in, let’s say, an hour and then you have a completely different environment around you. It’s really nice,” she says. “If I don’t have specific training or specific efforts, I like to have good scenery because there’s no point in going somewhere that isn’t nice.”

Taking on the Monte Ologno is also a favorite for Longo Borghini. Fans of the Giro d’Italia might remember this climb as the scene of a race-defining attack from Alberto Contador in 2015 when he was wearing the pink jersey (right) that would help him go on to win the overall classification. That day, after getting into the early breakaway, Philippe Gilbert won stage 18 into Verbania, the town next door to Ornavasso. “Monte Ologno is one of my favorite rides that I always do,” Longo Borghini says. “It is a really stunning climb, which is super-nice and cool, and I always pass by there for my training.”

Continuing to live in Italy means that she has ready access to her home country’s cuisine, too. Like all proud Italians, Longo Borghini loves her homecooked food. Simplicity is the key to good Italian food and, in addition to her mother’s pudding, her go-to dish is gnocchi with just a touch of butter and some sage.

Of course, it’s not just Italians that love their native food. It has become one of the most popular in world cuisine. However, as the food has spread across the globe, other nations have put their own spin on it, and it doesn’t always meet the approval of Italians. Indeed, there is a whole group of social media accounts dedicated to Italians expressing their displeasure at what other countries have done to their treasured food. Longo Borghini tries to take a measured approach to it, but it does hurt her a little bit when she sees what some people will do.

paris roubaix 2021
PARIS-ROUBAIX 2021. Image: Chris Auld.
hosking is less cautious about sparing blushes
Trofeo Alfredo Binda 2021. Image: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

“I’m devastated and I need to look away,” she says at the mere thought of it. “When I see people putting ketchup on the pasta, yeah, I’m like, ‘I’m very sorry for you first of all, and then I’m sorry for the pasta.’ I’m sorry for everything but I need to turn away. I can’t. But I also I understand that if they like it, they like it better; for me, it’s like a blasphemy.”

She won’t say if any of her Trek-Segafredo teammates are partial to a bit of the red stuff on a bowl of pasta, but Chloe Hosking is less cautious about sparing blushes and revealed on Twitter that former world champion Amalie Dideriksen is the guilty party involved. When asked if ketchup on pasta is the worst thing she’s witnessed, Longo Borghini adds, “I don’t want to think about it please. I’ve seen people putting salad into a risotto. I think this is the worst. After that, I don’t know what there is. Probably only death.”