How Elisa Longo Borghini's family guided her career with love and a subtle hand
Eventually, everyone has to make decisions — about work, about life, about love, and so on. The sum of those decisions make up a person. Each is a precipice. None come easy.
For example: Trek-Segafredo cyclist Elisa Longo Borghini, today, is one of the most consistent riders in the world. At 30 years old, she has 28 elite level wins across general classification, one-day and individual time trial races. She is the daughter of Guidina Dal Sasso, a three-time Olympian in cross country skiing, and Ferdinando Longo Borghini, a former cross country ski coach across all levels of the sport. Her older brother, Paolo, rode for more than 10 years in the pro men’s peloton. Elisa’s life as a premiere athlete was seemingly fated.
And yet, in 2012, she faced a decision. She sat in a car with her parents, having just finished 76th in Flèche Wallonne, a race ostensibly tailored to her strengths as a punchy climber. She was dejected, just 21 years old and unsure whether she was on the right path.
“I said, ‘OK, today was a really bad day but I please ask you to give me three years to try to become a cyclist and to put my studies aside,'” Elisa recalls. “And they said, ‘We were just waiting for this, hoping you’d just say it.’ And they were really believing in me.”
Sacrifice, seasoned with passion, is the key to achieving one's dreams and expressing one's potential.
- Guidina Dal Sasso
Elisa didn’t need long to break through; she’d go on to finish third in the world championships road race five months later. But that moment in the car was pivotal. She hadn’t been a pro rider for long, just 21 years old and at a point when she could have easily spun off an entirely different life. (She was interested in studying Japanese and Chinese translation before college, and she’s currently participating in a program with the Italian police training her for a potential post-racing career in law enforcement.)
To Longo Borghini’s family, her talent and passion was obvious, but they didn’t push her. They stood aside, and gave her space to take stock of her career — her results, and her passion — and decide.
“Those crises, perhaps dictated by age, bring you doubts. But it’s the awareness with which you overcome those moments that gives you the strength to go on,” Guidina, her mother, says. “As parents, what we have always tried to convey to her and Paolo is that sacrifice, seasoned with passion, is the key to achieving one’s dreams and expressing one’s potential.”
Elisa didn’t need three years, but if she did, the people closest to her would have seen her to the end. Far from the stereotype of an overbearing, overinvolved sports family, Elisa’s loved ones let cycling come to her.
That deep patience had been developed through their own athletic careers. Elisa’s parents and her brother Paolo had accumulated decades of experience as athletes and coaches. They knew as well as anyone how difficult it is to sustain passion; after all, they had already faced the big decisions in their lives.
Finding one’s calling is a fraught and fragile process. Longo Borghini succeeded — we know that now — but she could have foundered, as so many have, if her family hadn’t been by her side. With a subtle hand, they guided her right up to the moment when, all on her own, Elisa chose her path.
* * *
Elisa loved bicycles as a kid. She used to keep a diary during the Giro d’Italia tracking each stage’s winner, who was wearing the Maglia Rosa and which of Paolo’s teammates crossed the finish line first.
But most of all she loved Paolo. Her brother is 11 years older than her to the day — both were born on Dec. 10, Paolo in 1980, Elisa in 1991 — and with their mother often away competing and their father coaching, Paolo spent a lot of time looking after his sister.
He didn’t mind the responsibility. Paolo had been an only child for 11 years, and he was ready for some company.
“When Elisa was born, my husband was with the national team in the United States traveling from one state to another for the World Cup races,” Guidina says. “Like real fathers, Paolo walked back and forth outside the waiting room. He was the first one to pick her up. And he was the first to tell my husband about Elisa, when my husband called to wish him happy birthday.”
There were people in the middle of the road. [She told them,] 'Go away, go away. This is my brother, this is my brother.' And she jumped literally into my arms.
- Paolo Longo Borghini
Like his parents, Paolo was naturally drawn to sports. He chose to pursue a career in cycling over skiing largely out of convenience. They lived in Ornovasso, down in the Ossola Valley of northern Italy, where it took an hour to drive high enough into the mountains for good snow. To hop on a bike, Paolo only had to walk out his front door.
Paolo had a decade-long professional career as a dependable rouleur. He started nine grand tours, including the Giro d’Italia four times, and won Gran Premio Nobili Rubinetterie, a one-day race near Milan. Like scores of commendable cyclists, Paolo’s career didn’t make many headlines, but it more than held Elisa’s rapt attention.
“She always followed Paolo and she often followed the TV races, the stages of the Giro. She even memorized the dates,” Guidina says. “Then Paolo started racing and she came with us when we went to see him. There was a sort of emulation on Elisa’s part towards Paolo, he was her mentor. She became very fond of it and decided to take up the bike as well.”
Paolo will never forget the way Elisa celebrated when he won his only professional race in 2006.
“She was there with the bicycle, just to follow me during the race. And when I crossed the finish line, after one minute she arrived full gas with the bicycle,” Paolo says. “And there were people in the middle of the road. [She told them,] ‘Go away, go away. This is my brother, this is my brother.’ And she jumped literally into my arms.
“I was very proud that she saw me on that occasion.”
Elisa says Paolo was like an “idol” to her. When their parents were traveling to far flung places like Austria, Russia or Japan to compete in World Cups, Paolo was in charge. He wasn’t quite a father figure, but he was close. According to Elisa, “Dad was Dad, but Paolo was Paolo.”
"[My dad] told me, 'I can't make you suffer as much as I should, because I love you too much.'"
- Elisa Longo Borghini
They only clashed briefly during Elisa’s teenage years, though they both chalk that up to normal teenage boundary testing.
“He would say, ‘Be at home at a certain hour, not late,’ or, ‘Behave well, don’t be silly with Mum and Dad,'” Elisa says. “You’re a little bit stupid when you’re a teenager, so we clashed. As everyone, no? And now I think I can’t stay without hearing from him for more than two days.”
No one dared try to influence Elisa’s blooming passion for cycling. They certainly noticed her aptitude on a bike. She had yearned to ride as young as three years old. She wanted to start racing at seven — to wear the kits, ride a fast machine and experience the same thrills as her brother.
Elisa’s father coached her until she was 18, until he could see for certain that Elisa’s fire burned hot enough to take her pro. Then he deliberately stepped down from the role.
“When I first turned elite, he said, ‘Elisa, I’m sorry, now it’s time that I play my role, which is a dad role and not your coach,'” Elisa says. “‘I can always look at your training and everything, but you need to start a relationship with a trainer. I really want to be your dad, not your trainer.’
“He told me, ‘I can’t make you suffer as much as I should, because I love you too much.'”
Elisa had to discover her joy for cycling by herself.
“Once we were in cycling, they were happy, but they were like, ‘OK, just do it for fun,'” Elisa says. “I really need to thank my family for this because I think if I became who I’ve become, it’s because I never had this pressure when I was a kid.”
* * *
Paolo has talked to Elisa before and after every race since she turned pro, though in the last few years that has sometimes meant just a text saying “good luck,” or “congratulations,” or, in the event of disappointing result, “don’t worry, everything will be OK, we’ll talk later.”
Elisa keeps a laser focus before races, and Paolo knows she needs time to decompress afterwards. When the time is right, they’ll go over the details together.
“For example, during the World Championships [in 2020], she was third, and Annemiek Van Vleuten passed her in the last 20 meters,” Paolo says. “After the race, [I told her] ‘Everything is OK. Very good.’ And then the day after, ‘Elisa, you were on the right side. Van Vleuten was in between you and the barrier. But why did you open [the door]?’
“You have to be very direct. I say to Elisa, ‘Come on.'”
When something is going wrong, she thinks and thinks and thinks, 'Why was a race not good, why is it my fault?'
- Paolo Longo Borghini
Over the years, Paolo has gotten good at reading his sister — the cues in her body language and voice that others might not pick up. He remembers how she seemed to be in another world just before she won the Tour of Flanders in 2015. He thought, “I think that she can do something good today.” Then Elisa went solo for the final 35 kilometers to score a career-defining win. “She won like Tom Boonen,” Paolo recalls.
“After the finish I said to her, ‘Elisa, I saw you pretty focused on the race.’ [She said,] ‘Yes. This morning when I woke up I said, ‘I have to win,'” Paolo says. “In Italy, we say that when you declare that you’ll win, it’s a double win. This was the double confirmation.”
Elisa’s intensity can also be her enemy. On bad days early in her career, Paolo was nearby to lend her perspective.
“When something is going wrong, she thinks and thinks and thinks, ‘Why was a race not good, why is it my fault?'” Paolo says. “Every time I say to her, ‘Elisa, you are 21, can you imagine how many races you’ll do in the future? Don’t think about what’s wrong in the past. Races are races. Moments are moments. Maybe you can have three, four months and you can do some very good races. Don’t stay there and think, ‘Oh poor me, what do I do?'”
Elisa admits that she sometimes struggles to switch off from race mode. Such are the perils of turning your passion into a career. “It’s not going to work at eight and going home at eight and then watching television and forgetting about the things that you did at the office,” she says.
Guidina stressed to both of her children that becoming a professional athlete meant sacrificing time for friends, leisure and potentially their own families. In some ways, she tried to steer them away from her career path, no doubt aware of the time she had spent away from her children to pursue her own athletic goals.
“At the beginning, she really didn’t want me to start with any sport because she didn’t want me to sacrifice as much as she did,” Elisa says. “But once I started, she became my first fan.”
Elisa’s family always wanted her to do what she thought was best, but they also made sure she understood what it took to compete at a high level. They never tried to be discouraging, only realistic.
At the beginning, she really didn't want me to start with any sport because she didn't want me to sacrifice as much as she did.
- Elisa Longo Borghini on her mother
“We tried from the beginning to explain what it means to be in the sport, and to be an athlete,” Paolo says. “We didn’t kick her ass, but step by step, we tried to explain everything to her.”
Elisa’s family had anticipated bad days like her 2012 Flèche Wallonne because they had already experienced their own. And they also knew the obstacles she had yet to face. Living a rich personal life while training to perform at an elite level is perhaps every athlete’s greatest challenge. Inevitably, one has to make way for the other.
For example, Guidina had her sights set on the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. But becoming pregnant with Elisa interrupted her training, and she had to set her ambitions aside.
“I gave up the Albertville Olympics for Elisa, one of the competitions where Italy did better and where I could have aspired to a great result,” Guidina says. “My greatest medal, however, was to have a child, and Elisa arrived.”
Twenty five years later, Elisa won a bronze medal in the road race at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, an accomplishment that Guidina calls “my award.” Elisa is happy to share the credit. Her racing contains influences of all her family members. From her mother, an insatiable competitive drive that has sustained her longevity in a fickle sport. From her brother, her sense of duty to the team, best exemplified by the way she unselfishly attacked in the closing meters of 2020’s La Course to help Lizzie Deignan to a season-defining win.
And from her father, Ferdinando, she gained perhaps her most famous trait, the bravery and commitment to see every attack to its end. When she won Trofeo Alfredo Binda this past March by going solo from long range, she said she was inspired by men’s Trek-Segafredo teammate Jasper Stuyven’s “all or nothing” move to win Milano-Sanremo the day before. But she was also putting into practice a lesson she and Paolo learned repeatedly from their father.
“‘The finish is after the finish,'” Paolo says, quoting Ferdinando. “‘This is a long life. You arrive when you arrive, not two meters before. It’s better to push full gas one meter after the finish than finish one meter before.’ And for sure my dad would say this a lot.”
When in a race something goes wrong, it's a sort of emotional test and that's the moment you can make the difference for the sporting result.
- Guidina Dal Sasso
Elisa doesn’t much need advice any more. She’s 29 and seemingly still searching for her ceiling; after a third place finish at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April, she took over the purple Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey, and currently sits third in a women’s peloton with an endless number of great riders.
Nor does Elisa need to worry whether she’s on the right path any more. There may be nothing in the world she’s better suited for than bike racing. That isn’t to say that she was born or fated to wind up where she is, however. Pedigree helps, but she also had an uncommon amount of good help from a family support system that knew how to push her when she needed them and step away when she didn’t.
Over time, Elisa has made uncertainty her specialty, committing to racing in cycling’s gray areas, knowing that if she fails, she’ll land on solid ground, in her team’s embrace and her family’s warmth.
“Since last year [when she finished No. 2 in UCI’s individual WorldTour rankings], Elisa has been very aware of her value, but the experience gained over the years makes every athlete capable of facing any situation, even at an emotional level,” Guidina says. “When in a race something goes wrong, it’s a sort of emotional test and that’s the moment you can make the difference for the sporting result.”
* * *
Elisa needed to build a steely nerve on the bike for her racing career, but her family knows her as a much softer personality than the impression she gives off in the closing kilometers of a classic. She’s a particularly dedicated aunt to Paolo’s four children — two daughters and two sons, ages 11, eight, six and (almost) two.
“My sister becomes crazy when they are riding the bike,” Paolo says. “My two daughters and my son are looking at Elisa like, ‘Oh, Elisa is coming! Ride with me! No no, ride with me! Come on!’ That’s just beautiful. Elisa loves to stay with them and ride.”
Family provides Elisa with respite. She may have a reputation as one of the most unflappable riders in the peloton, but keeping a steady keel requires constant maintenance. Ever since Elisa’s father stopped being her coach, her family has remained a distinct entity from her career.
The Longo Borghinis are family to one another, foremost. They may understand one another as athletes, but they care for each other as loved ones.
“I feel her fatigue, the joys and the sorrows with her same passion,” Guidina says. “With a grimace of the face, a brief comment, I fully understand her thoughts. My past as an athlete allows me, as a mom, to understand a lot about her moods. Elisa is a very balanced person, but she is certainly not robotic.”
Elisa echoes her mother.
“I look really calm, but maybe inside I’m shaking and everything is going around and my head is bustling with thoughts,” Elisa says. “What I really learned from my parents is that I always need to keep my feet on the ground, and to work hard, because it’s really easy to get to the top, but the hardest part is to keep at the top.”
This is real. This is not like television. I'm not a person with superpowers.
- Elisa Longo Borghini
Even Elisa’s biggest successes are lessons in hard work and humility.
Guidina’s favorite memory of her daughter’s career is her bronze medal in Rio, which she called proof of Elisa’s “character and intelligence, of awareness and strength of will.” It ranks among Elisa’s strongest memories too, though in part because of how strange it felt.
She had dreamed of being an Olympian since she was a kid. But as Elisa took the podium, she was struck by the realization that the men and women she had idolized, who once stood in her position, were never as superhuman as they seemed.
“What I really understood is that getting a medal, you don’t necessarily need to be a superwoman or a superman,” Elisa says. “It was just a strange feeling to me. It was like, ‘This is real. This is not like television. I’m not a person with superpowers. I’m just a girl that has tried hard and made it.'”
Before Elisa could stand on that podium, she had to know that she wanted to be there. The secret to her success really is that simple. Years before, Elisa decided to race. She has never looked back.