Elisa Balsamo was out for revenge.
The 23-year-old Italian had the fresh disappointment of a difficult Olympic Games campaign in the back of her mind as she lined up in Antwerp at the start of the women’s road race at the Flanders world championships.
Competing in Tokyo was the central goal of her season, and becoming an Olympic athlete was the realization of a childhood dream. As the reigning European champion in both the Omnium and the Madison, as well as a silver medalist in the Team Pursuit, Balsamo hoped to leave Japan with some excess baggage.
However, her dream became something of a nightmare as Italy slumped to sixth in the Team Pursuit, and some big crashes eliminated her from contention in the other two events.
“I did a great spring, and I had some good results in the spring classics. I trained a lot for the Olympic Games on the track, but Tokyo didn’t go as I had hoped, and this world championship is like a revenge for me,” Balsamo told VeloNews.
“It was very hard for me mentally and some people helped me a lot, like my boyfriend, my coach, and my nutritionist. Thanks to them, I’m here today and I won this jersey. Without them, it would be impossible.”
With her big engine and quick finish, Balsamo was always going to be among the frontrunners in Leuven late last month, but she didn’t appear in many lists of the top favorites for the rainbow jersey. However, her Italian teammates had full confidence in her and ensured she had a proper lead-out when the race reached its denouement.
Still, Balsamo had gone in with the hope of coming away with a medal of some color and that it was gold is something she’s only just coming to terms with. The rainbow accents on her Cannondale SuperSix Evo Hi-Mod and the jersey she will don each day is a blunt reminder of what she has achieved.
“[Marianne Vos] is one of the most successful women in cycling and she’s an example for me and, for me, arriving first in Leuven and her coming second was something unbelievable,” she said. “I’m starting to realize now what I have done, wearing the jersey every day and with the bike.
“I have a lot of good feelings, and for me, it’s unbelievable to wear this. It’s like a dream.”
Balsamo has now already notched up her first win in the rainbow bands, taking victory on the final day of the Women’s Tour, and of her road season, into Felixstowe.
Growing up at Trek-Segafredo
At the relatively tender age of 23, Balsamo has been a professional for five years, after signing with the Valcar PBM team in 2017, where she has been ever since.
The Italian rider made her name on the world stage with her hugely impressive sprint win in the junior road race at the Qatar world championships in 2016, beating American Skylar Schneider and Norwegian Susanne Andersen to the punch.
With almost no U23 racing for the women — then and now — Balsamo had to follow the path of many promising young riders and go straight into the professional ranks after her junior win. It was a tough environment to be put into as a 19-year-old, but she continued her promising rise and earned her first pro win at the 2018 EPZ Omloop van Borsele ahead of fellow youngster Lorena Wiebes.
Having been thrown in the deep end as a teenager, Balsamo has utilized her time at the Valcar team well and made steady progression each year — progress that was rewarded with a WorldTour contract after she was snapped up by Trek-Segafredo on a three-year contract in August.
She rewarded their belief in her with the rainbow bands and the move to the American set-up is a chance to learn from the best.
“It’s a big change for me and I hope to grow up and learn a lot from such great champions as Elisa Longo Borghini, Lizzie Deignan, and Ellen van Dijk,” Balsamo told VeloNews.
As well as a strong current crop of riders, the move to Trek-Segafredo also links her up with stars from the past. While she has missed out on an opportunity to work with fellow Italian and former double world champion Giorgia Bronzini — who moves to Liv Racing as a DS next year — she has the wealth of experience from remaining DS Ina-Yoko Teuetenberg, one of cycling’s most prolific sprinters.
“I really think she can teach me a lot because she was a super-strong sprinter. She can give me a lot of advice and help,” she said.
With the biggest win of her career so far, perhaps ever, already secured, what next for the world champion? The step up to WorldTour-level opens up a whole new world of support and race prospects, and she wants to take aim at the classics.
It is an area that she has shown plenty of potential in over the years.
“I’m not only a sprinter but a good classics rider. If I wasn’t like that then I wouldn’t win in Leuven because it wasn’t a sprint race,” Balsamo said. “I always dream to win a spring classic, maybe Gent or Flanders, I really like them.”