Analyzing Elisa Balsamo’s year in the rainbow jersey

The Italian sprinter won in her final race as reigning world champion as she looks to defend the title in Wollongong next week.

Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

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Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) finished her stint in the rainbow jersey in perfect style with a dominant win on the Paseo del Prado in Madrid on the final stage of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta.

Balsamo stormed past her teammate Elisa Longo Borghini, who had launched a stinging attack in the final kilometer, to win by several bike lengths.

While she’s a favorite to take the title again next week, it was the perfect way for the Italian to end this 12-month stint in the rainbow jersey. The emotion of it was clear as she kissed the bands on her jersey after crossing the line.

“I really wanted to win today, the last day of this incredible season in the rainbow jersey. I won the first race, in February, at the Setmana Valenciana, and with today’s win it’s like I’m closing a circle. Today’s is a special day, full of emotions. Madrid was a crazy setting,” Balsamo said afterward.

“I am extremely happy. This is my last race with the jersey and there is no better way to end such a wonderful season for me. Today we really were the strongest team, and I have to say a big thank you to my team.”

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With each new world champion, there is always discussion about how they will step up to the pressure of the jersey. Though it brings with it added respect within the bunch, the rainbow bands also amp up the attention that the wearer gets, and the expectation laid upon their shoulders.

Some riders have buckled under the pressure, while others have flourished. Balsamo can certainly be placed in the latter category after racking up nine victories during her 12 months in the jersey.

One of those came at the end of 2021, with her final stage win at the postponed Women’s Tour. The other eight happened this year with a mix of wins, including two stage wins at the Giro d’Italia Donne, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and the Italian national title.

The 24-year-old appeared to be one of the only riders that could beat the supreme Lorena Wiebes in a straight-up fight for the line. Wiebes has dominated the sprint competition this year, but Balsamo has offered up a sense of jeopardy in the bunch gallops, even if the Dutchwoman did have the upper hand most of the time.

There were some serious lows among the highs of Balsamo’s reign as world champion, namely her disqualification from Paris-Roubaix for a ‘sticky bottle’ that was considered too egregious for the commissaires to ignore. While a hugely disappointing moment for her, it was also a potential learning moment for the young rider.

Promising more for the future

Elisa Balsamo won on her opening race day with Trek-Segafredo
Elisa Balsamo won on her opening race day with Trek-Segafredo (Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

Balsamo’s eight victories this season, plus the team time trial on the opening stage of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, is the biggest haul she’s had since turning pro and sees her really deliver on the promise she showed when she took the junior world title back in 2016.

The current development structure in women’s cycling means that young riders are thrust into the pro peloton very early, often too early. Balsamo had the same experience as many and has had to fight her way through to the front of the bunch over the last six years.

While U23 men can jump into a WorldTour development program that continues to highlight their skills as a rider with opportunities for victories, it can often seem as though their female counterparts have disappeared.

Since her junior worlds victory, Balsamo has been making gradual improvements each season. She took her first professional win at the 2018 Omloop van Borsele, during her second season, adding the GP Bruno Beghelli Donne at the other end of her season to her tally, beating Italian former world champion Marta Bastianelli to the line.

Balsamo’s development as a road rider has been combined with her growth on the boards as one of Italy’s top track stars.

Her 2021 season was shaped by targeting the track program at the Olympic Games, but a strong classics campaign over the spring showed that she had become a serious threat on the road and so it was no surprise to see her up at the front on the classics-style worlds course in Leuven.

That Trek-Segafredo snapped her up on a three-year contract before her worlds win was a sign of her growing prowess in the pro peloton. With a slick WorldTour set-up around her, some of the peloton’s top riders to support her, and the rainbow jersey on her back, Balsamo’s 2022 season was always going to be a case of sink or swim.

Balsamo has never looked overburdened by the pressure she has had placed upon her and has built upon the foundations she has built since turning pro. The far smaller track program has allowed her to really hone her road craft and it has really shown.

The worlds can be unpredictable due to the mixed-up peloton making the race far harder to control. However, Italy comes with a full-force team of seven riders that has a better chance of doing it than most.

If Balsamo can survive the early climb, or at least stay close over it, she will be a serious danger for a second consecutive title. It will be hard to replicate the stellar season she’s had through 2022, but Balsamo has the talent to do it.

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