Sarah interviews… Elena Cecchini, on her first ever Giro Rosa & more
Elena Cecchini became one of the latest young Italian rider to join a more international team this year, joining Lotto-Soudal, and proceeding to animate the races throughout the Spring Classics, then winning a stage at the prestigious Festival Elsy Jacobs. Last year she’d won the Italian National Road Championships, one of the very hardest of the road champs, and in June she became one of a very select set of riders to win twice in a row, which she followed by racing the Giro Rosa for the first time, and coming home with two podium places, and four stitches in her chin. I talked to her about all this and more, including the secrets of her season, and her advice to future first-time riders, and much more. She’s a really interesting rider, with a lot to say, so settle in, and either listen to her talk, or read the transcript below.
You’ve just come back from finishing the Giro – how do you feel?
It’s quite nice when you finish a hard race, and you know that it’s all about recovery, so I’m just enjoying some rest days at home. I was missing my family so much, and my cat, and my grandmother and grandfather, so today I did a small training on my bike, just to restart, because next week I will race the BeNe Ladies Tour, and I have to be in form. It’s really strange to go slowly, because we had really fast and furious stages at the Giro, so it’s nice to be home and just wake up in the morning and have nothing to do!
And it was your first ever Giro!
Yah, it was my first Giro, because I’m also a track rider, and every year the Giro was the same week as the under 23 European Championships – so this year I’m not under 23 any more, I’m getting old, so it was time for my first Giro. I think it was nice to only ride it this year, because it’s a really hard race, and I talked to my team and my sport director, and he said 23 is the right age to start the Giro. And the last four or five stages were really, really hard, and you really feel that every day you are more tired, and I think you don’t have to start so young, because it can be a real shock to the system, so it was really great to do it this year.
And last year I was feeling a bit sad about not riding it, because I was thinking ‘oh no, I really wanted to do my Giro in my tricolore [national champion’s] jersey’, but luckily that also happened this year, so i’m twice as happy!
I’ve heard when you wear the tricolore jersey in the Giro, the crowds cheer you all the way round – did that happen to you?
I did, and it was super. Being on the climbs, and someone saying “Go Italian champion!” and someone saying “Go Elena!” and something like that – it’s something that really pushes you, and every day, being at the sign-on in my tricolore jersey, I was really proud of it, and as I say, this year at the Italian Championships, they asked me how I could do it a second time in a row… This year’s jersey comes from last year, because last year, when I won my first tricolore jersey, I just pushed so hard until the end of the season, because I really wanted to honour that jersey, and this year was the same. So it helped me to improve and to step up, and so this year was really, really emotional.
That must be wonderful! And I guess when you’re out there in a small breakaway, like you were, people can really see it’s you.
In the Italian Championships, the only way we had to beat Elisa [Longo Borghini] who’s the strongest one in Italy on the climbs, was to be in a breakaway before the last climb, because the last climb was really hard, and I’m not a climber at all, so I was really scared about having Valentina Scandolara and Dalia Muccioli with me, because they are good in the climbs, but when I’m really focused like I was on the front, my team mates really worked for me a lot, so I was so motivated to go for the win. And it happened, and I was quite strong, and quite lucky, so it was all perfect.
You looked very happy in the photographs.
Yeah, I was maybe happier than last year, because last year was quite a surprise for me, but this year, I was so close to my tricolore jersey, I really didn’t want to lose it. I remembered in the Emakumeen Bira, when I thought it was my last race in the jersey, I had a small tear in my eye at the sign-on, so I was so happy to have the tricolore for another year, and I will try to do my best.
The Italian National Championships are one of the hardest ones to win, along with the Netherlands, and there aren’t many riders who’ve won it twice in recent history, either.
This year especially was so hard, because every year we usually have some laps, and it’s always strange, because the strongest girls are always looking at each other, so last year, for example, was one of the first years where the strongest girl really couldn’t stay at the front, and we were in a small break, and just attacking in the descent, and it was a really, really rainy day, so I was also lucky that everyone let me escape and let me have some metres on the front, and they could not catch me before the end, and the end was really technical, so that’s why I won last year.
This year, was, I think, the first year we had the race without laps, so no one knew what to expect about this race, because for sure, Elisa was the strongest one, with the finishing climb of 5k, but she was one, against all the peloton, and my team really did a great job, and we could reach the win.
And that must have been the best way to go into the Giro – that must have been a real high.
For sure. I think cycling has really changed in the last years. You could have one person who could do everything, like Marianne Vos, you had some really strong cyclist who could do it all alone, but now it’s all about the team. And more and more, the girls with the talent at the top are on a really similar level, and you are finding more and more all-around riders, and I think at one time there was the sprinter, the climber, the TT woman, but now it’s a little different, and you can only reach some goals with the help of the team, and it’s such a good emotion to share your win with other people.
That must be quite interesting, because you’re a very good track rider, you were European track champion twice, had you won a silver medal in the World Track Championships as a junior, and you’ve got so many good track results – but track is quite individual, which do you like better, or do you like them both for different reasons?
I think track is more individual, when you ride some of the international races, for example at the Worlds, you are the only one from your nation, and at the Europeans, you can start with two, so it’s really different from the road, and it’s only the team pursuit that you ride in a team. So it really changes from race to race. Being a track rider gives me a lot of satisfaction, a lot of results when I was younger, but since last year, I am doing it less and less, because I am more focused on the road. Road is my favourite part, and I think, like cyclocross, or other types of cycling can really give you something more – for example track really gives you a good race speed, and you can do lots of specific training on the track, like standing starts, some real power work, which on the road is difficult to do.
So I think I will combine the two things in my career, but next year is a really important year – and on the track Italy has only qualified in the Team Pursuit at the moment, and has to have a really good winter on the track to go to the Olympics. I don’t really know the Rio road course well, but I think that it’s really, really hard, so I think doing both could be really difficult, and I just want to ride there on the road, so I think that for sure, I am also on the national team for the Team Pursuit, but next year I think I will be more focused on the road, and I think it’s the right thing to do, but I hope to be on the track for other races, like the Worlds, for the points race or the scratch race, and I think that after Giorgia, I can try to get a place. I’m trying to do both, and I think it’s really good for your body and to be a good cyclist.
And looking at your track results – you were the European under-23 points race champion, you were 3rd in the European elites – it feels like you’ve got that tactical brain you use both on the track and on the road. You can’t win a points race just by being strong, you’ve got to be clever too!
For sure, you have to be smart and clever. The points race is actually one of my favourite races on the track, and I think a good road cyclist can be really good at the points race too, because it’s all about endurance and being fast. At one time it was only about the sprint, but now it’s about taking the laps, so it’s quite easy for a road cyclist to go to the track and be good at the points race, and you have to be so smart and have some technique also.
Some races on the road are the same – you have to be really smart to understand which are the best breakaway, the breakaway that can go to the finish line. In women’s cycling, it’s so different, because really, any breakaway can go to the finish line. This year, I have to be honest, I knew, for example, in some races that a breakaway could go to the finish line, I was always looking for Lucinda Brand, because I know she is really good at getting in the right breakaway, and it really helped me.
When I was younger, everyone told me “cycling is a sport of experience, you need a lot of experience to be good”, and I was “oh come on, you have to be strong”. But you can’t only be strong, you have to have experience. Now it is my third year in the elite peloton, I sometimes really know that something will happen in the moment after, and it does happen. So I’m thinking about, for example, Emma Johansson, or Annemiek van Vleuten, they really can, more than me, really know what is going to happen, and it’s easier for sure, so that’s why, maybe, they’re always in the right place at the right moment. This is something you just learn year by year, so I hope I still have some things to improve!
When you said you were happy you didn’t ride the Giro when you were younger, you must be happy now, because that experience really showed, you had two third places and a fourth place, and that’s using all the skills you’ve learned about positioning, and who to follow, to get there.
You have to for sure be in good form for this race, in general in cycling, but especially in the Giro Rosa where there are the best riders in the world, and you have to be on the front, watching what’s happening, so getting this result was really important for me, and for the team, we just wanted to get onto the podium as much as possible, and me and Carlee [Taylor] both reached this goal, so I really was really happy.
For sure, winning a stage is another thing, and I’ll really fight for that next year, and through my career, because now that I’ve raced the Giro, I really understand how important it is. And I was so surprised to see how important it is not only for Italian teams, and Italian riders, but for all the peloton it’s the biggest race of the season. So I’m happy to really understand when something really important is happening in the race. In the sprint when I came third, I was lucky, but I also understood which was the best wheel to take, it was for sure one of the Velocio train, because they are such a good team in the sprint. And the stage when we arrived from the breakaway, it all happened because there was a narrow road with a lot of turns, so I really knew that Boels wanted to be in a breakaway at the front to take the bonus, so if I was on the front at that moment, and I managed to stay with the breakaway, it was another good chance for me.
You were a lot of fun to watch!
One of the thing that’s sad about the Giro is you always quite a lot of young riders from the small Italian teams who’ve never ridden anything anywhere near as big as this, and they pull out half-way through because they’ve missed the time cut, or are exhausted – that must be a horrible way to have your first Giro – it must make you want to go home and just cry a lot.
For sure. I had a really bad day, the day after my crash, and I really thought about these girls, who are in the grupetto every day, and it’s tough. When you do grupettos, it’s not like “oh, go easy to the end”. It’s boring, and you are doing a lot of effort to be there. So I was laughing one day with Carlee, because she was saying “You know my first race ever in Europe was the Giro”, and I said “I really don’t know how you kept on cycling after that!” Because it’s a real shock to the system – and I think that, for example, I’ve raced the Giro and now I really feel stronger than I was before, like today I was feeling really strong, because your body has a memory, so now I have some race speed, and strength, and endurance, so I’m feeling good. But if you’re not going to race anymore for one month, or if you didn’t really race for one month before the Giro, for those young girls, it really is a shock. You just do ten days full gas, and then stop, and you don’t have the chance to improve, and to try to get some results, and it’s a difficult thing.
In Italy we have a difficult situation, about cycling, and that’s why, I think, some girls really want to go to a foreign country, and foreign teams, and they don’t want to come back any more. It all started with Giorgia Bronzini and Noemi Cantele, and now Elisa, followed the same steps, and me, and Scandolara. I think it’s not things that happen by chance, we just really want to go where the true cycling is, and this is a sad thing, I know.
The good thing is that you’re allowed to, now, because I remember Giorgia wasn’t allowed to race in foreign teams for some years, was she, the Italian Federation wanted her to stay in Italy.
Yes, because she’s in a military team [that supports her cycling], and I am also in a military team, so for example, in 2012, I had the opportunity to go to a foreign team, but my military team told me no, because the Italian Federation didn’t allow it. And now luck has changed, because they also know for us, it’s the best thing to do, to be in top shape at the Worlds, and to be at 100%, we really need to race a full calendar and do some important races, so they knew that they had to change something, and luckily they did.
Luckily for Lotto-Soudal as well! What’s the difference, riding for them, after all your years riding on Italian teams?
I think the main difference is in Lotto, because I haven’t experience of any other non-Italian team, they really treat you as a professional rider. In Italy, your sport director is like your dad, someone really going into your personal facts, or they just want you to show that you train every day, that you eat the food, that you are doing the “right” things. Instead, in Lotto this year, I remember on the first training camp, there was a girl feeling sick, and she just said, “I’m not coming to training today, because I’m not feeling good”.
This could never happen in an Italian team, because everyone would just think she is going to lie, and this is not a good thing. We need to be more responsible, so this is the first team that I really understand that, and this is better for me, because I’m trying to be really professional, and for me it’s normal to be like that. And if you just give me no pressure, and don’t ask me every day “What did you do? How much did you train?” it can really be mentally easier, and when you are mentally happy, the results just come, so this is the most important difference, I think.
And your results have been fantastic. It makes me laugh, because everyone thinks Italians like the track, riding indoors, riding outside in the heat, and there you are, sixth in Omloop het Nieuwsblad, fifth in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, all these cobbled races!
I was so surprised, to be honest! One metre after the line in Flanders, it was like – oh shit, I just missed the podium. I was on Jolien D’hoore‘s wheel, but it was too much for me, and I just lost the third place in the last 50 metres. But then I was so happy, and I really understood that next year it can be a really good goal. Also I know that everyone really wants to win Flanders, so it’s harder and harder every year. But I was happy for the team also, because it was Easter, and I just remembered that no one had said “Happy Easter” to me – in Italy, it is a really important day, but there it’s only “Flanders Day” for the Belgian people, and it means so much, and my team was so happy that I was in the top five.
They really give me everything I need, and it’s not the team with the most money, or something like that, but just being happy and smiling every time, and no pressure at all – this is maybe what a lot of girls need, and I’m happy to be there.
I look at your results, and tenth in the Strade Bianche, which is such an exciting race – tenth in the first time that race happened, that’s excellent!
That was another great day for women’s cycling, and doing it for the first time, everyone was so excited, and the organisation was so good. Having new races on the calendar is such an exciting thing, and I’m really happy about that. I think also in Italy, something is moving, so I hope that next year we have more races with the men, maybe, so it could be great.
And then you won that stage in the Festival Elsy Jacobs in that incredible breakaway! That breakaway only made it by a couple of seconds, and you won that stage – how did that feel?
We had like one minute in the last 2k, and then I remember that I knew for sure that the woman to beat was Lucinda. Me, her, and Amanda Spratt was with us, so we worked so much to arrive at the finish line. And then Lucinda started her sprint so early that I really passed her easily, and when I arrived, I didn’t know that the group was just ten metres behind me! I was so happy that day, because it was my first win with my National Champ’s jersey, and I was really, really happy, so it was special. Also because you know, I think that sometimes, when certain things have to happen, they just happen. I don’t know if there is destiny, or something like that, or fate? But everyone told me, “Luxembourg is a perfect race for you”, and after the Prologue I was “oh, I don’t think it is the perfect race for me!” – and then everything went well, and I was really happy!
The photos were fantastic! That photo of you celebrating [in Velofocus’ gallery] with the peloton just there, behind you…!
Yeah, I was quite lucky I think, also!
But sometimes you make your own luck – sometimes you can put yourself in the right position where you can take advantage of luck – and actually I think that’s all skill, as well
I think maybe the sprint was better, because I didn’t expect it. I mean, I don’t know what I am, to be honest – someone told me “you are an all-rounder”, but I’m not the best in the sprint, and I’m not the best in the climbs, at all, especially the long climbs as in the Giro, so I really was not there for the GC. And when I got these two podiums, I was really happy with both. Maybe I was a bit disappointed also after the podium at the end of the breakaway, because I knew that Lucinda was the strongest, but she was also the strongest because she was in the position where she didn’t have to work on the front because she had the GC riders behind her, which I think for sure was the team tactic, so she just beat us, and I was maybe a bit disappointed about this, but both were really special. Maybe I was a bit more surprised by my bunch sprint!
It must be interesting when you are an all-rounder, because that’s something I think Elisa Longo Borghini kind of suffers from sometimes. She’s not the best climber and she’s not the best sprinter, but when she wins, like when she won the Trofeo Binda, when she won Flanders this year, when she got onto the World Championships podium – she’s not going to win every race, but the ones that she wins are special.
I think she has to really sweat a lot to win, and sometimes I think about sprinters – they are so lucky, because they are talented… Kirsten Wild, for sure she is the best sprinter in the world, and she can get maybe fifteen wins a year. Maybe Elisa is making the same efforts as Kirsten, but maybe she can only get two or three wins. But being there in every race is what’s really important. I think all the riders know the value of Elisa, and this is what’s really important. Winning is always special, but helping the team to win is also special.
For example, I talked with Elisa this year, and she got some injuries from the Giro, to her leg, and I just told her, remember what you won this year. I think it was one of the most important races, and you have to be happy with that, because you did it in a great way, and you don’t win so much, but you won it in a great way, and this is what is important.
So looking back at the Giro, what was your happiest moment, on or off the bike?
I think my happiest moment was at the team presentation, the evening before the prologue, because it was so nice that they put on some pink lights for us, and there were a lot of people standing there and cheering for us, and we’d just seen the Tour de France team presentation, and it was like a small version for us, and it was nice.
And for sure, every moment I was in difficulties on the climbs, there were people cheering for me, and it was really emotional. Off the bike, sharing your feelings with your team mates. The Giro is something that really pulls the team together, and you share every feeling – the pain, the joy, everything, so these are the best things I’m bringing home from the Giro.
That’s lovely! And obviously you had the two podiums, and then you had that horrible crash on Stage 5 – how’s your chin?
Now it’s better. I had this terrible crash in the neutral zone. Two girls in front of me just touched each others’ wheels, and it’s something that can happen when you have 150 girls on the same road, so it’s no one’s fault, but they were just in front of me, and I could do nothing to avoid them. So I crashed on my chin, and on my breastbone, and I really couldn’t breathe for thirty seconds, and I was totally in panic. I tried to breathe, but no air was entering my chest, so it was quite a difficult situation. But then everything went well, and the doctors said “come on, get into the ambulance”, and I was like, no, I want to start again, and they told me “no you can’t” – and I said “YES, I want to, I want to try”.
So then he really examined me and saw that I really wanted to start again, so he put in four stitches and said “OK, you can go”, and I just restarted. It was nice that a lot of girls asked me how I was. It was quite a hard stage, but I really wanted to help Carlee, who was in the green jersey, so I just tried to stay with her as much as I could.
The day after it was very painful, a lot of hurt coming out, so it was worst day on the bike, but being in the Giro was special, so I just said OK, I just have to go – and now I’m feeling a lot better.
That photo of your chin looked really scary. But super-tough of you to carry on. It must have been tempting for you to get in that ambulance and let them carry you away – or not? Or was there no chance? Were they going to have to carry you off the road?
Yes, I just gave no chance to the doctor! I think the mind is the most important thing in cycling. I was not in a little race, or a race that didn’t matter, so I just wanted to keep on going for me, and for the team, and it was the right choice, so I’m happy about it.
Two more questions – what was the best thing that either you packed, or your team mate took – so if we have a first time rider next year, what would you advise her to take with her for the Giro?
I think I’m not the right person to give this advice, because if my team mates have only one bag, I always have two, or three! Every time, my sports director is looking at me and saying “oh my god”! You have to be really good at combining the things you really need, and the things that maybe could be useful. We are women, so we have a lot of things every time, but for example this year, I brought only two kits to the Giro Rosa, because I knew that the temperature was really hot, and we washed the kits every day, so the day after, you could use the same one, so it was useless to bring a lot of kit. And we didn’t need a sweater, or something to keep you hot – we only wore t-shirts.
I think the most important thing to do is when spring comes, just keep a small bag in the team van or mobile home, which you have all your winter things in, because you never know in the season what the weather forecast will be, but if you are racing and it’s raining, or a bad day, you have everything in the team mobile home, so you don’t have to bring it every time, it you can really save a lot of space – so that’s the best advice I can give!
And if you have riders who want to ride the Giro for the first time next year, what advice would you give them about racing it?
For sure, I think you have to train really well, before coming to the race, and be honest with yourself. So if you know you’re not 100%, just don’t waste energy – but at the same time, you have to be brave. Sometimes going in a breakaway can be the right thing to do if you’re not 100%, because you can have two minutes at the climb, and you can try to stay with the best climbers, when they catch you, riding it at your pace until they take you.
And then a stage race is all about recovery. When you start the race, you can be good every day, or not, and it all depends on how you sleep, and how you eat. It’s good to eat something that has carbohydrates directly after a stage, to put some energy into the muscles for the day after, and then sleep for eight or nine hours every day. For sure, this year it was also really important to drink also, because keeping your muscles hydrated. I really think these are the most important things to do.
So, last question – what are your goals for the rest of the season?
Well I just planned everything with the team during the Giro, so now I’ll just keep on going until Sparkassen, because I know it’s a World Cup I can try to do well in, and also because we are not going to Sweden for the Vårgårda World Cups there, so this and Plouay will be my last two World Cups of the season. I’ll try to do my best until the first of August, and then I’ll have some rest, just four or five days, and then I’ll go to train at altitude, in Livigno, to prepare for the Worlds, and after the altitude training I’ll race Trophée d’Or and Plouay, and then I’ll see if I ride the Holland Ladies Tour and the Lotto Tour, or only the Lotto Tour.
I really want to have a good result this year in Richmond [Road World Championships]. I think it’s the right time to be good this year. Maybe that doesn’t mean to have a good result, but to be in the hot part of the race, so when the race explodes, to be with the best girls on the front, and do my best for the team. I really want to be one of the girls who does the race with my national team mates. I think this Worlds will suit me well, because they tell me it’s like a spring classic, with two climbs that are not so long, but are really hard, so I think I would really like this race. And I’ve experienced racing in the USA, and it’s always something really, really special – so I just want to be there, on top form, and then we will see!
Good luck! I hope we will see you there!
Follow Elena on her facebook, twitter, and her instagram – you really should do this, and help her get more followers! Read her Q&A just after she came third in Stage 3 of the Giro, and you can find out more about her on her team page, and follow all the team news and results through the Lotto-Soudal twitter.
All my 2015 Giro Rosa coverage, including the daily collections of videos and photos, is here, and you can read and listen to my other recent interviews here. I’m able to fund the time I give to my women’s cycling interviews and writing thanks to the generosity of my Patreon supporters, who I appreciate endlessly!