After a series of setbacks with illness and injury, Elisa Longo Borghini is returning to racing at the UAE Tour Women, hoping she can just be “the real Elisa” in 2024 as she targets the Ardennes Classics, Olympics and all three Grand Tours.
Longo Borghini had one of the hardest seasons in her 13-year professional career as a long bout with COVID-19 in spring preceded a dangerous crash taking her out of the Giro and a nasty skin infection ending not only her Tour de France Femmes and World Championships challenge but her season as a whole.
“I’m a rider, I’m an athlete, so I have to take into account that setbacks are most likely going to happen and that’s part of the job. I try to keep focus and I always try to rebuild, but this year has been extremely hard for me,” said Longo Borghini to Cyclingnews at Lidl-Trek’s December training camp.
“Also mentally, in fact, the last infection that I had was sepsis. It put me in a corner because I just couldn’t come back. I tried but my body was really done with it, done with the season.
“For me, it was like a bell ringing saying ‘Okay, I need rest’. I tried to build up but it was impossible and I was really far from form. Mentally I was there and I was again resetting myself and refocusing but it was mostly my body that left me apart.”
Longo Borghini cites the problems starting with her prolonged time with COVID-19 which forced her to miss important home races at Strade Bianche and Trofeo Alfredo Binda, after which she would never make it back to 100% in 2023.
“I have never had so many illnesses and injuries and I’ve never had any bacterial infection before this year. So I don’t know it’s been just a crazy year,” said Longo Borghini.
“I think everything started with COVID. I was positive for 17 days and that probably already put a lot of stress on my immune system so all the rest was just a consequence in my opinion, but here I am and another year is approaching.”
When Longo Borghini was on the start line and healthy she was taking big results, winning both the road race and time trial at Italian national championships, a Giro stage and the inaugural UAE Tour Women. However, for a rider with nearly every big race on her pamarès, it’s no surprise that a rollercoaster year with big highs and low lows has left her raring to get back to her former self.
“The most important thing for me this year is to be Elisa, like the real Elisa,” she said.
“To be at the races and losing a race because somebody is stronger than me not because I’m weaker because of illness or injury or crashing. You know, I just want to play the game and be in the game again.”
The offseason that followed was similarly one of ups and downs as the reflection of a tough campaign was thankfully offset by Longo Borghini tying the knot with fellow Lidl-Trek rider Jacopo Mosca.
“I had my longest offseason ever and really rested which is strange for me to completely stop and do nothing, but I had my mind busy with some other stuff like the wedding preparation so the time went pretty fast,” she said.
“I feel like I’m ready to go again. It’s only my third week of training [at the time in December] and of course, I’m really bad but I feel much better than when I had the infection and now I just need to work.”
Beating SD Worx and Ellen van Dijk’s return
Longo Borghini’s concept of “really bad” will of course be different from your mere mortal, however, she was one of the very few riders to nearly stop SD-Worx from completely dominating everything in 2023. She took second behind Demi Vollering in a two-up sprint at Liège-Bastogne-Liège after surviving her brutal pace up the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons and finished third at the Tour of Flanders in an emotional return to form after her COVID struggles behind Vollering and Lotte Kopecky.
But as was the same for the whole peloton, the Dutch squad proved too good at the large majority of races. With a big new sponsor on board, there’s significant pressure on Lidl-Trek’s results to magnify the reported 40% increase in budget, but Longo Borghini was careful not to put SD Worx on a pedestal and ignore the other 13 WorldTour teams.
“Beating them [SD Worx-Protime] is just the same as beating everybody else. What is really important is to win and to win with my team. And that’s what I’m focused on.”
For the second year running, the UAE Tour Women will be Longo Borghini’s first race of the season after she took the overall win in 2023. The 32-year-old conquered the queen stage up to Jebel Hafeet in tandem with the new star at Lidl-Trek, Gaia Relaini, announcing the young climber to the world stage.
The Italian pair, alongside Lizzie Deignan, will race all three of the Vuelta Femenina, Giro d’Italia Women and Tour de France Femmes, with Realini and Longo Borghini set to headline the summit finishes including the iconic Blockhaus at the Giro and Alpe d’Huez at the Tour.
Before the Grand Tour campaigns, the Brit and Longo Borghini – who won the first two editions of Paris-Roubaix Femmes – will look to get back to winning ways as they lead the Classics squad alongside Elisa Balsamo and the returning Ellen van Dijk.
Van Dijk will be back in action after giving birth to her first child and taking maternity leave during the 2023 season, but just a couple of days into training in Spain was already making her presence felt in camp. It’s fair to say her teammates were feeling the pace.
“It will be a great thing to have her back because Ellen is such a machine and I think she’s she’s already quite strong,” said Longo Borghini. “So having Ellen back would be a great addition, especially for Balsamo in the classics. She will be the key rider that can help her very well.”
Longo Borghini and Deignan will relish having one of their strongest riders back both for the cobbled races and Grand Tours where Van Dijk’s work on the front and ability to peg back a breakaway while setting an infernal pace is hardly matched in the women’s peloton.
“I’m excited that I had my children first because she is going to set the bar about 10 levels higher than I did,” Deignan told Cyclingnews laughingly. “She’s incredible, I mean we were out training today and she’s phenomenal. So strong, absolute weapon.”
Van Dijk coming back and a touch of better luck could be just what Longo Borghini and Lidl-Trek need to become the team to disrupt SD Worx Protime’s domination in 2024. They’ve done it before at Paris-Roubaix with great tactics, but that will have to extend across the calendar if they are to reach ‘superteam’ status.