‘If you’re not disappointed, you’re not a top rider’ - Tears in the Roubaix velodrome for Elisa Balsamo

The Italian rider cut a dejected figure after the finish despite finishing in second place

The contrast between Lotte Kopecky and Elisa Balsamo’s immediate reactions after finishing Paris-Roubaix Femmes today could not have been starker. While the world champion celebrated with visceral joy after winning the race, punching the air and embracing teammates with the sort of raw emotion rarely seen from the Belgian rider, just a few metres away, tears rolled down Balsamo’s mud-stained face. She sat on the grass in the centre of the velodrome after narrowly losing out in the sprint to her SD Worx rival, consoled by Lidl-Trek teammates with pats on the back and hugs around the shoulders. This is what Roubaix does to riders.

Finishing on the podium is a respectable result for Balsamo, but the chance to win the Hell of the North doesn’t come round often. It’s a race which is so based on luck that if you make it to the velodrome and have a free run at the line, it’s an opportunity that must be grabbed with both hands – who knows when the odds will be in your favour again? Paris-Roubaix is an endearing yet cruel prospect: it’s the hardest but the sweetest race to win. Kopecky tasted that victory today, Balsamo did not.

“I hope she is disappointed today. If you are so close, you have to be disappointed. If you’re so close and you’re not disappointed, you’re not a top rider,” Lidl-Trek’s sports director, Jeroen Blijlevens, said to Rouleur a few moments after Balsamo’s sprint ended in second place. “This makes her stronger for the next races. For me, if you’re not disappointed when you’re second, you’ll never win a big race.”

Photo: Sean Hardy

The decisions that Balsamo made in those crucial one-and-a-half laps of the velodrome determined her eventual place on the podium. After an attacking and attritional race, which saw her chase back to the front group on multiple occasions, Balsamo sat at the very back of the group of six riders, watching as the finale of Paris-Roubaix approached. As she waited and took height on the banking of the velodrome, some questioned the Italian rider's positioning, but Blijlevens said that this was all part of the plan.

“We spoke with the group twice on Thursday and Friday about how it is on the track with the sprint. It was up to the rider. She mentioned that she wanted to take speed from the back and come back over on the corners,” the Dutchman commented.

Balsamo herself was measured after the race, explaining that hindsight makes it easy for her to examine her mistakes, but the chaos of sprinting in Roubaix doesn’t bode well with keeping a clear head when it comes to tactics.

“Maybe I could have started my sprint a little bit later, but after the race it’s always really easy to say. I was really tired, and I think I did the best that I could,” the 26-year-old said after the race. “For sure, after the finish line I was a bit disappointed, but if you’d told me at the start I would finish second today, I wouldn’t believe it. I have to be happy.”

Photo: Zac Williams/SWpix

It’s difficult to find fault with Lidl-Trek’s performance today – Blijlevens explained that the American team wanted numbers at the front of the race, with Ellen van Dijk being a key element of the team’s plan. They wanted her to attack on the cobbles, which she did consistently, so that their rivals were forced to chase and Balsamo could sit in the group behind. With none of Van Dijk’s attacks sticking despite her best efforts, Blijlevens revealed that he made the call for the team to fully back Balsamo in a sprint in the very latest stage of the race.

“With 4km to go we told Ellen to sprint for Balsamo. We knew they couldn’t play in front because it was only 20 seconds and Wiebes was behind. We made the call then that it was for Balsamo,” he explained. Balsamo sang a similar tune, thanking Van Dijk and her teammates for “unbelievable work today.”

Once the post-race frenzy dies down and darkness begins to close in on the slopes of the velodrome, Balsamo will undoubtedly be able to reflect on her performance and appreciate the gravity of what a podium place in Roubaix really means. As Blijlevens points out, however, Balsamo is the rider she is because of her innate hunger to win. Second is not good enough for true champions. 

Finishing runner up is, perhaps, made more bitter for Lidl-Trek by the fact it was a Team SD Worx rider on the step above Balsamo on the podium, after a Classics season of fierce rivalry between the two teams. While the Dutch outfit were once the dominant force in women’s cycling, Lidl-Trek have shown this season that, if they play their cards right, they do have the ability to challenge the world number one ranked team. Narrowly missing out on victory today stings, but the motivation for Balsamo and the entire Lidl-Trek organisation holds stronger than ever.

“We know what happened the last few years: SD Worx won everything. They are the strongest team and they always operate as a team. They still win the most races and of course you are looking at them, but now they also look at us,” Blijlevens asserted. “We want to beat them more often. It will come.”

Cover photo: Sean Hardy

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