Elisa Balsamo takes second in thrilling Paris-Roubaix Femmes sprint

Elisa Balsamo displayed incredible heart while falling just short of a defining win

Emotion overwhelmed Elisa Balsamo almost immediately after sprinting to second place in the Roubaix Velodrome. She had to fight back to the lead group of riders just to have a shot at winning cycling’s most famous one-day race. She put her wheel in the lead as the sprint opened up. But Lotte Kopecky, the reigning world champion, simply had the best legs of the day, and rode past Balsamo on her right shoulder to win Paris-Roubaix Femmes.

Immediately after the finish, Balsamo cried tears of disappointment. But that feeling quickly gave way to joy at what she had just accomplished.

“If they would have told me at the start that I was second, I wouldn’t believe it,” Balsamo said. “So for sure, there was a little bit of disappointment after the finish line because, yes, it’s a super important race. But now after 10 minutes, I’m happy.”

Elisa Balsamo moments after a thrilling finish. | Photo: Sean Hardy

For the third time in four years, Lidl-Trek featured prominently on the podium — the team has taken two wins with Lizzie Deignan (2021) and Elisa Longo Borghini (2022), and two third-place finishes with Longo Borghini (2021) and Lucinda Brand (2022). As has been the theme throughout the team’s history, and especially this season, teamwork featured prominently in the proceedings. The Lidl-Trek women have proven time and again that they know how to give Paris-Roubaix their best shot.

“I think that we have the best materials, the best bikes, the best wheels and everything, so they were really testing for months all the materials,” Balsamo said. “They did an amazing job and I was feeling really good with the bike and the wheels. And so I think that this makes a really big difference.”

Ellen van Dijk, who finished sixth, was the most animated rider in the final 40 kilometers, repeatedly attacking from the peloton and ultimately creating an elite split of riders to contest the finish: herself, Balsamo, Kopecky, Marianne Vos, Pfeiffer Georgi and Amber Kraak.

The third time in four years of Paris-Roubaix Femmes that Lidl-Trek has stood on the podium. | Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Balsamo was able to join that split on the wheel of Kopecky, as Van Dijk bolted from the peloton and Kraak followed, creating a dangerous duo up the road. The move set up well for Lidl-Trek, with Van Dijk, a three-time time trial World Champion, forcing rival race favorites to chase back onto her wheel while Balsamo, one of the best sprinters in the world, followed in their slipstreams.

However, Balsamo suffered a setback on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Paris-Roubaix’s famed and most daunting cobble sector. She appeared to be laboring through her pedal stroke, and she fell off the back of the lead group that Van Dijk was helming.

“I was really over the limit at that moment,”  Balsamo said. “But then I worked with Pfeiffer Georgi and we were working together to come back. I was just also surprised by myself to be with these very strong riders in the front.”

Ellen van Dijk was aggressive at the front throughout the race. | Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Balsamo would regain her rhythm and, with the help of Georgi chasing with her, latch back onto the leaders with 12 kilometers to go — roughly three kilometers before Willems à Hem, the final major cobble sector. 

Van Dijk would continue to attack in hopes of cracking Kopecky and crew, but the group held. And after doing just enough work together to hold off the reduced peloton, they entered the velodrome and steeled themselves for the sprint.

“The team did a great job,” Balsamo said. “In every cobble sector we were in the front. And then I want to say a big thank you to all of them.”

Elisa refused to crack. | Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Van Dijk spearheaded the leadout, while Balsamo sat protected at the back and in good position on the outside of the group entering the final lap. Kopecky appeared to be boxed in as Balsamo opened up on the final straight, soaring past the riders’ right. For a moment, it appeared Balsamo and Vos would contest the win, both riders side by side, trading the lead by inches, but Kopecky got free and made an impressive acceleration to take the victory.

“Ellen was really, really strong. She was attacking a lot. And I think that she did an amazing race,” Balsamo said. “In the final she was helping me, and I really want to say thank you to everyone in the team — teammates and staff — because today we did a great job.

“I thought [during the race] that I need a good sprint. And then after such a hard race, Lotte was just stronger.”

Recovering from a brutal race. | Photo: Sean Hardy

Balsamo may have been disappointed by falling just short of winning one of the most fabled events in sports, but she can hold her head high about the way she fought, and how the team supported her effort. She’s in the midst of a brilliant season, with wins at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Classic Brugge-De Panne to go with her Paris-Roubaix podium during the Classics season. 

Balsamo’s performance on Saturday is a sign of more big things to come, including perhaps in a return trip to the velodrome.

“Before the race, they just told me that I really have to fight because in this race, you never know. There is always the possibility to come back. And so yes, I was just really focused today,” Balsamo said. “This was really useful mentally for me. So I think that this also made a big difference.

“I think that now I have to believe more in myself because I never thought that I could be there,” Balsamo added. “So I will try next year.”

Ellen van Dijk getting ready for her third Paris-Roubaix Femmes. | Photo: Sean Hardy

Reactions from Ellen van Dijk

Van Dijk finished sixth in the race after a spirited effort to splinter the peloton, attack from distance, and keep the pace high in the lead group to help position Balsamo for the sprint. Here are her thoughts from the race.

On racing Paris-Roubaix in her first season back from pregnancy: “Yeah, I felt good. I didn’t really know what to expect from the race because I still have really bad memories from the first time I did it. So I’m always actually afraid of this race [that I’m going to] crash bad. But I also know the best way to ride it is to race in the front. And I’m really happy I could race in the front. And I’m happy with my shape, definitely. 

“I worked hard throughout my whole pregnancy and also afterwards to come back. And yeah, my engine is well developed. I know that. So I’m really happy with that. I’m just really happy I could show it in this race today. I also know I missed a little bit of the punch. And that’s also what you need in racing. But for only six months after giving birth, I’m really happy with my level.

“My love is starting to grow a lot for this race. Every year I love it a little bit more. The first year I hated it. Second year, I really liked it. And now again. So it’s getting a really special place in my heart right now.”

Left to right: Elynor Backstedt, llaria Sanguineti, Elisa Balsamo and Lauretta Hanson ahead of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. | Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

On knowing her newborn son was watching: “I was thinking about that a little bit during the race. Like I need to give him something to watch for. To see. I don’t know if he’s actually conscious about it. But he was definitely watching together with my husband, and so I know that they were in front of the TV, so I wanted to show them something.”

On Elisa Balsamo’s performance: “Elisa rode a great race, and I knew she was really strong. And yeah, I mean, we know she’s a great, great sprinter, but so is Kopecky. So of course, it’s never easy to win this race. And so it was really close. Of course, we are disappointed that she didn’t win, but we gave it our all. And yeah, I mean, this is what we could do. So we can be OK with the result.”

Elisa has her eyes on the future. | Photo: Sean Hardy

On whether there was anything more the team could do: “Maybe. We have to look back at how we could have played it differently. But she asked me to do that, so that’s what I did. Beforehand, I could try to get away, but I didn’t have the punch. I knew I couldn’t get rid of Kopecky and Vos, and so that was a difficult situation. And then the best way was to go all in for the sprint with Balsamo. But of course I was wondering where she wanted to be placed in the group, but I was pretty confident that she would find the place that she wanted. And she just said that I had to ride to keep the pace high. And then she did the sprint and all I could do was yell for her in the radio.”