A winning combination

Elisa Balsamo and Ilaria Sanguineti disprove the theory that you shouldn’t work with friends.

At the end of the 2021 season, Elisa Balsamo and Ilaria Sanguineti raced what they thought would be their last race together. Balsamo was in the rainbow stripes after winning a World Championship two weeks before. Sanguineti was Balsamo’s trusted leadout and close friend. The two Valcar teammates knew that Balsamo would be heading to Trek-Segafredo the following season. They had one last chance — the final stage of the Women’s Tour, ending in Felixstowe — to beat Lorena Wiebes, who had won two stages in a row entering the day.

Over the course of four seasons together, they formed a nearly telepathic connection in the peloton. Sanguineti is skilled in tight spaces, and quick to attack any small window in the pack to help position Balsamo for sprint finishes. They rarely had to speak to each other. During the closing kilometers of a race, when nerves were at their most taut, Elisa only had to say “Yaya,” Sanguineti’s nickname, to signal if she needed help.

But in her last race of the season — Oct. 9, 2021 — Balsamo was antsy. The finish was approaching fast, from three kilometers to go, to two, to one. Stage 6 featured a long straightaway to the line.

Elisa said to me, “We are too far back, 1K to the finish” Sanguineti recalls. And I say, ‘No, no, wait, wait.'”

“No, no, we are back.”

Sanguineti waited a beat. Then responded, “OK, now we have to go.”

“On the right?”

“No on the left.”

Ilaria Sanguineti at her debut with Trek-Segafredo, Tour Down Under (©SprintCycling)

After a sharp left hand bend, Sanguineti led a Valcar train of Chiara Consonni on her immediate wheel and Balsamo close behind. They cut through a drawn-out line of riders from the crowded right side of the road to the much cleaner left. With breathing room, Sanguineti opened up, and pulled Consonni and Balsamo to the front of the race. When she finally peeled off with roughly 300 meters to go, Consonni only had to spend a few moments in the wind before Balsamo took over and finished off her first win as a world champion.

Balsamo said it was her favorite race with Sanguineti. Sanguineti called it “a beautiful memory.” If that had been how their careers as teammates had ended, that would have been OK. Their friendship extends far beyond the road. They share a tattoo to symbolize their close bond: Three interlocking triangles, with the third triangle representing Silvia Pollicini, another Valcar teammate. Winning Stage 6 together further cemented what will be a lifelong bond.

Ilaria is the best last woman in the train. ... She's a special girl, a crazy person, but we want her that way.

- Elisa Balsamo

Then this past offseason, an opportunity to ride together again emerged. And the pair of sprinters, naturally, took advantage.

Trek-Segafredo general manager Luca Guercilena was looking to sign a rider who could lead out Balsamo for sprints. Balsamo didn’t hesitate, telling Guercilena that she wanted Sanguineti by her side. That made the search process easy. How can you argue with a rider coming off a 10-win season?

“Ilaria is the best last woman in the train,” Balsamo says. “I am not saying this because she’s here, but because I am deeply convinced of it. She’s a special girl, a crazy person, but we want her that way.”

As in 2022, Elisa Balsamo started her season at Setmana Valenciana (©SprintCycling)

A matter of trust

Sanguineti’s arrival at Trek-Segafredo is in part a reaction to an increasingly competitive women’s field. The peloton is becoming more and more crowded at the end of flat races, and lead out trains have become more common as teams try to position their star sprinters for the safest and most efficient attacks to the line.

Sanguineti is easy to spot off the bike, with short cropped hair, tattoos on her right forearm, and a boisterous personality. She likes to joke around with her teammates, busting their chops whenever she can. She can ease the tension in any situation. And on the bike, she’s also a powerhouse in her own right, with four career wins including at Dwars door het Hageland last season.

In other words, there may not be a rider more tailor-fit to lead out a sprint, and Sanguineti relishes the role.

“If Elisa wins, it’s like I win,” Sanguineti says. “I cry so much when Elisa wins. And Elisa, last year, when she was in Trek and I was in Valcar, when I won a race, she called me just to say, ‘Oh I am so happy for you.'”

For Balsamo, Sanguineti is like a balm. Her presence keeps Balsamo loose and locked in before races. And when racing becomes hectic in the closing kilometers, Balsamo knows that Sanguineti will be aggressive and put the team in the best position possible, consistently and reliably.

There’s a word that underpins everything they do: Trust. When the speeds increase and everyone else has tunnel vision for the finish line, Balsamo trusts Sanguineti to maneuver them safely and expertly in the pack, and Sanguineti trusts Balsamo to stick to her wheel, no matter what.

“When you’re within an inch of each other at high speed, there are not too many variables. You believe in yourselves, or you don’t,” Sanguineti says. “In a sense, you have to turn your brain off. Think as little as possible and rely on instinct. You’re focused only on yourself and who is following you. You focus on the goal and nothing else.”

“Following Ilaria, I have the feeling that we’re finding the best hole in the peloton to be in the best position,” Balsamo adds. “Then there’s the communication aspect. You have to understand each other immediately, with a gesture or a single word. There is no time to explain during the sprint.”

It took her a while to trust me. The first few races she would always yell at me about what to do, and I would then talk back to her.

- Ilaria Sanguineti

That trust needed time to develop. When they first started racing together with Valcar, in 2018, Balsamo by her own admission could be overbearing. She was just 20 years old at the time. Sanguineti is four years older. Balsamo would push Sanguineti to up the pace sometimes 15-20 kilometers from the finish, and Sanguineti would have to tell the young rider to relax.

“It took her a while to trust me,” Sanguineti laughs. “The first few races she would always yell at me about what to do, and I would then talk back to her.”

Balsamo doesn’t dispute the recollection.

“I had anxiety that I was too far back in the peloton, that I was not in the right position, and in response I would get a ‘shut up’ from her,” Balsamo laughs. “Now I glue myself to her wheel and blindly follow. I could pedal without thinking about what’s going on. I’m mute and totally rely on her instincts.”

Ordinary administration in the peloton at Setmana Valenciana (©SprintCycling)

Letting Yaya loose

The two see themselves as similar people. Sanguineti may be a bit more outgoing in group settings, while Balsamo is better at being direct when addressing any issues (“I hold my tongue in moments of tension, because I could be even more direct and then make a mess,” Sanguineti laughs), but they both share an innate silly streak, and love for the magical creatures in their lives — Balsamo for unicorns, Sanguineti for her French Bulldog named Stitch.

It can’t be emphasized enough how much joy they bring each other with their successes. Even when they were on separate teams in 2022, they could be moved to tears when the other won. Now that they are teammates again, Balsamo and Sanguineti can win together again, and celebrate each other without reservation.

Their reunion has so far been everything they hoped. In their very first race of the 2023 season together, Stage 1 of Setmana Ciclista – Volta Comunitat Valenciana Fèmines, Sanguineti helped navigate Balsamo through a technical finish that included 10 roundabouts in the final seven kilometers. Just like old times, she was Balsamo’s final lead out rider, dropping off the Italian champion with 250 meters to go before a dominant victory.

Valenciana almost certainly won’t be the last time the two embrace after a victory. Though as part of her forthright personality, Balsamo makes something clear: She wants to see Sanguineti win.

Sanguineti may have mastered the art and science of leading out a sprint, but she wouldn’t be so good if she didn’t have plenty of horsepower, too. And going back to their Valcar days, Balsamo has constantly been in Sanguineti’s ear, encouraging her to leave her selflessness aside and take a bit of well-earned glory for herself.

First race together and first win (©SprintCycling)

Balsamo becomes indignant when Sanguineti suggests that Balsamo is the stronger rider.

“It’s false!” Balsamo says. “The fact is that she never wants to do sprints. So many times I’ve told her, ‘Today I’m going to lead the sprint for you,’ but there was no way to convince her.

“I repeat, she is the best last woman in the peloton for sprints, but she has all the potential to carve out her own spaces, to make her own sprints. She just has to convince herself of her abilities. In my opinion, she underestimates herself so much. Too much.”

Sanguineti doesn’t disagree. She admits that she has struggled to flip off the fear switch in her brain that could make her among the most fearsome sprinters in the world. But she also knows that Trek-Segafredo signed her to be more than just a leadout woman. Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, the head director for the women’s program, told her directly that she will be given the green light to win several races this season.

“When Luca called me the first time, he said to me, ‘You can do your part,'” Sanguineti says. “It’s nice to hear this, because you come to Trek, and it’s a bigger team and everyone has a role. But when the boss says to you, ‘You have to do the sprint,’ then OK. For me, then it’s a duty.”

Much like how Sanguineti gives Balsamo peace of mind on and off the road, Balsamo keeps a fire stoked in Sanguineti’s belly. Sanguineti is 28 years old and has been racing as a pro since 2013, but she’s stepping up to a World Tour team for the first time in her career and she still hasn’t found her ceiling.

As sprinters, it’s their jobs to recognize windows of opportunity. And in this instance, Sanguineti may be wise to adopt some of Balsamo’s impatience. Her hungry instinct to attack as soon as she receives the faintest whiff of a nearby finish line.

“Thanks to Elisa, I’ve learned to be more organized in my life as an athlete,” Sanguineti says. “If it were up to me, I would be much more naïve. But with her I learned a method, to take more care of the details. She gave me determination.”

As teammates, Balsamo and Sanguineti make each other stronger, and together they will be a sight to behold. In many ways, a well-executed sprint is a complex endeavor. In one important way, it’s not: No matter what, you hold nothing back.

“Sometimes I say to myself, ‘I’m 28, I’m old.’ But I think my life with the bike starts right now,” Sanguineti says. “Coming to Trek-Segafredo, I feel young. Like it’s a new world. Like it’s the first day of school.”