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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — It’s a long road from a wheelchair to the top step of the podium — longer still if that road is paved with cobbles — but it’s the road Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-Honda) has traveled. On Sunday the 23-year-old Italian won the Tour of Flanders, arguably the biggest win of her career, and told reporters that in victory she also saw redemption for a world of suffering.
“I think maybe this is the most prestigious victory of my career after the bronze medal at the worlds in 2012,” she said. “I had a really bad injury in 2013 that affected my 2014 season. But I think this pays off all my efforts and everything.”
If her win on the cobbles of Flanders was payback, she surely earned it.
A professional since 2011, Longo Borghini announced her arrival at age 20 with an impressive third-place ride in the world championship race in Valkenburg, Netherlands. The daughter of Olympic cross-country skier Guidina Sal Sasso and sister of Paolo Longo Borghini — who retired in 2014 after several seasons with the Liquigas-Cannondale squad — her potential on the bike was no secret. And the 2013 season looked like the year she would deliver on that promise with a win at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, one of Italy’s most prestigious one-day women’s races, and a runner-up finish at La Fleche Wallone.
But a week ahead of the Giro Rosa disaster struck at the Italian national championship race. Riding in a two-woman breakaway and inside 3km from the finish, Longo Borghini crashed heavily on a fast descent.
“I crashed on a guard rail, and I broke my pelvis,” she recounted at the Flanders finish. “I had a big wound. I needed almost 100 stitches on my stomach. I still have a big scar that reminds me to go a bit slower in the downhill.”
Instead of racing as a favorite for a first major stage race win, Longo Borghini watched from a wheelchair as the race passed through her hometown, Ornavasso, in the Alpine foothills of northwest Italy.
On Sunday she credited what could easily have been a career-ending injury with helping her maintain perspective while suffering in the race’s closing kilometers.
“I think sometimes you learn by having a bad experience,” she told VeloNews. “You learn that the pain in your legs is nothing compared to risking your life.”
But in the final kilometers on Sunday, the pain must nonetheless have been very real. Longo Borghini went solo off the front at the top of the Kanarieberg climb thanks to a blistering counterattack that quickly earned her a gap of half a minute. Still, with 35km to go — nearly an hour of racing — she seemed destined to be swept up by the chasing peloton.
After the race, Longo Borghini told reporters that she had harbored no such doubts of her own.
“I know it was early, but I felt like doing it,” she said. “Yesterday evening I spoke with [teammate] Giorgia Bronzini and she told me, “You are a rider who thinks too much. Even in your life, then in cycling. So sometimes just follow your instinct. So tomorrow if you feel like going, just do it.” So after Kanarieberg I felt like going and winning the race, and I did.”
Both her youth and plainspokenness belie a racer’s killer instinct. The pivotal move, she said, was no gamble — she intended to ride it to the finish line.
“I wanted to win,” said Longo Borghini. “When I attacked I attacked to win the race. The last five Ks were hard. You never know, sometimes you can explode, but I was too excited. I just pushed as much as I could.”
Behind her, a nine-woman chase group that included world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Rabo-Liv) and perennial top favorite and 2014 runner-up Lizzie Armistead (Boels-Dolmans) gained very little ground. By the time she reached those painful, dangerous final kilometers in the wind, Longo Borghini had stretched her lead to nearly a minute, long enough to leave time to absorb the weight of the moment in the race’s final meters. She threw her arms up in triumph, then buried her face in her hands, overcome by emotion.
Afterward, Longo Borghini credited the support of her team for the victory, telling reporters they had committed to winning for ailing teammate Audrey Cordon, who had been too ill to take the start Sunday morning. Teammate and Belgian champion Jolien D’Hoore doubled down on the promise, storming to second place — and the overall UCI World Cup lead — in the chase group sprint.
“Our strength is our team spirit and we girls are really united,” said Longo Borghini. “We really enjoy the time together. Not only as cyclists, but also as girls. I think we have a really good team spirit. The stuff is also involved in our daily life and this is just a good feeling.”
But the significance of the victory, Longo Borghini told reporters, still had to sink in.
“I feel great,” she said. “It’s a dream. I really can’t believe it.”
Maybe not, but the women she stormed away from — and stayed away from — surely do. And they’ll surely be watching on the hills of the Belgian Ardennes forest in two-and-a-half weeks: Longo Borghini said on Sunday she is already thinking ahead to La Fleche Wallone.
If her success so far this season is any indication, the rest of the women’s peloton had better be thinking ahead too.