Guest Blog: Elisa Longo Borghini talks Italian cycling

Sitting at the breakfast table on training camp last month conversation somehow turned to national cycling federations. From there it was only a matter of time before comparisons started to be drawn between the South African federation and the Norwegian federation, or the Australian federation and the Italian federation.

My Italian teammate, Elisa Longo Borghini, started discussing the development program in place for young female Italian riders. Italy, along with the Netherlands, is one of these countries that just seem to mass produce champions, especially in female cycling.

They’re currently the second ranked nation on the UCI world ranking and have five riders in the world’s top 20. In the past five years they have won three World Championship road races and the years they didn’t win they claimed bronze.

What is arguably most impressive is that both those bronze medals were won by 20-year-olds. Elisa claimed bronze in Valkenburg in 2012 and Rosella Ratto won bronze in Firenze last year.

At 22 Elisa is one of the best riders in the female peloton. In 2013 she was the only individual rider besides Marianne Vos to win a World Cup and she did it in style, soloing to victory in her hometown.

She’s been riding since she was nine-years-old and has come through the Italian federation’s development program. While Elisa is one of those riders who is just enormously talented – her mum is an Olympic cross country skier and competed until she was seven months pregnant with Elisa which might explain a lot about Elisa’s athletic ability – she does credit a lot of her development to the systems in place for young riders in Italy.

The Italian federation don’t rely on older, more established riders like two time world champion Giorgia Bronzini and 2009 world champion Tatiana Guderzo to maintain their powerhouse status in women’s cycling.

They invest in the young generation and create development pathways for these talented riders.

Just look at the young Italian riders racing in the women’s professional peloton. Elena Cecchini (22) won the European Championships in 2009, Valentina Scandolara (24) (who signed with Orica-AIS in 2014) won a stage of the Internationale Thuringen Rundfahrt, Dalia Muccioli (21) won the Italian National Championships in 2013 against the ‘big’ girls, and Francesca Cauz (22) finished seventh overall in the Giro d’Italia, the hardest and longest women’s stage race. Throw in Elisa and Ratto, world championship medallists, and you can bet there is a pretty promising future for Italian cycling.

In a recent blog post I discussed the difficulties young female Australian cyclists face making the transition from the junior to the senior ranks and the subsequent huge drop off in participation numbers we see between these two categories.

Listening intently at training camp to Elisa talk about how – in Italy – first year senior riders are allowed to race with the U19s or about the teams dedicated to junior riders it all started to make sense why there are some many good, young Italian riders beating me.

I asked Elisa if she wanted to write a guest blog for my website and she said in her typical relaxed manner (she’s from the North of Italy) that, “yeah, that would be pretty okay.” In her guest blog she let’s us in on a few of Italy’s secrets when it comes to developing young riders and  how they manage to sustain their already sizeable talent pool.

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During the past five years Italy has become one of the most dominant female cycling nations. Especially for the World Championships the Italians have shown they are more than capable to achieve important results with more than one girl and, curiously, most of these riders are young.

This success is the sum of the organization there is for youth categories and the national team’s development program.

The juniors movement is particularly interesting; there are races every Sunday from March until the middle September just for girls. There is also a special Time-Trial (TT) challenge; one saturday each month a competition takes place and at the end of the season the rider who scored the most amount of points will receive a gold bracelet. 

“I think it’s simply the fact that the federation and single teams are trying really hard to develop women’s cycling starting from the most basic level: young  girls.”

Another important aspect is that the junior teams are more and more organized. They provide technical material, transportation to the races, assistance and also the opportunity for the girls to start to develop ‘team spirit’. 

Last but not least there is the program that the national team runs for the young riders. 

During the winter the best junior girls are tested. 

Before European and World Championships they go on altitude training camp with a complete staff around them (Sport Directors, soigneurs, mechanics, and pyshios) for the best preparation. 

They also take part to some of the most important stage races at the end of the season like the Holland Ladies Tour or Giro di Toscana. 

During these competitions girls can learn a lot about cycling, prove their physical form and understand how ‘real’ cycling is. 

I don’t think it’s that the Italians are doing something really special or something that nobody else is doing. I think it’s simply the fact that the federation and single teams are trying really hard to develop women’s cycling starting from the most basic level: young  girls. 

Results have come and some more I’m sure are coming.

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