Meet Ilaria Sanguineti: Lead-out specialist, dream-chaser

Get to know the woman who's helped steer Elisa Balsamo to so many victories.

Ilaria Sanguineti at the 2023 Tour Down Under. (Image: Trek-Segafredo)

José Been
by José Been 27.04.2023 Photography by
Trek-Segafredo, Cor Vos
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After many years racing for Italian teams, Ilaria Sanguineti moved to Trek-Segafredo in 2023. There she has joined an ever-growing contingent of Italian riders but most importantly, she has reunited with her friend Elisa Balsamo. Sanguineti wants Balsamo to be the best sprinter in the world with herself as the best lead-out. It’s a special working relationship built on a friendship.

Sanguineti was born on April 15, 1994 in San Remo. She lives in Ventimiglia, close to the border with France but don’t call her almost-French. In her own words: she is very Italian.

My first question during our interview was about Milan-San Remo. Would she like to see a women’s edition finally happen?

“I grew up and still live in Ventimiglia but was born in San Remo [25 km to the east],” she says. “Being part of a women’s Milan-San Remo would be an absolute dream come true. I know these roads so well. This is my home and it would be fantastic. I think a race of around 200 km would be absolutely perfect for us. It would be a lot longer than our usual races but not as long as the men’s. It’s the perfect balance. I hope it will happen before I retire.”

“Yaya”, as she is affectionately called by her teammates, isn’t thinking about retirement though. She feels like she only just started. After all, she still has quite a few dreams to chase. One of her 29 tattoos even says: “Continue to sleep with your dreams or wake up and chase them.”

My tattoos remind me of important moments in my life,” she explains. “I also happen to be 29 but I don’t keep up with my age. I did seven or eight [new tattoos] per year a while back but now slowed down a bit. Elisa Balsamo and I have one together with our former teammate Silvia Pollicini who now retired. It’s three interlocked triangles.”

Sanguineti and Balsamo after the latter won stage 1 of the Volta Comunitat Valenciana Fèmines 2023. (Image: Trek-Segafredo / Rafa Gomez / SprintCyclingAgency).

Sanguineti and Balsamo grew up together in the Valcar team. Balsamo joined Trek from Valcar in 2022 while Sanguineti stayed on the Italian one year more. The special relationship they had forged before the ‘break-up’ was the reason to join Trek-Segafredo a year later.

“When Elisa changed teams, she said ‘don’t worry, we will be together again’,” Sanguineti says. “The next year she asked me if I wanted to join Trek-Segafredo and I said ‘yes, that’s my dream’. When Luca [Guercilena], the boss of Trek, called me and asked if I wanted to come to the team I said ‘yes, even if I have to give the bottles. No problem.’” She laughs.

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The partnership that was so fruitful at Valcar continues at Trek-Segafredo. Sanguineti has won a few bunch sprints herself but more often finished around fifth to seventh place. That’s the mark of a good lead-out, something she is now specializing in. 

“When we were teammates at Valcar we learned so much together,” Sanguineti says. “She learned to be a top sprinter and I learned to be the best or one of the best lead-outs in the world.

“In the race I don’t even have to say anything anymore. Previously, at 10 km from the finish she would scream at me and told me to go to the front. I said ‘of course’ and went to the front. We now have such a great basis in friendship that she only says: ‘I trust in you’. We don’t need words.

“Elisa wants to be safe in the race,” Sanguineti continues. “In the sprint you can’t ever be safe but my job is to make it as safe as possible. I direct her to the middle of the bunch and get her in a good position. She doesn’t ask many questions in the race. I ask her: ‘do you feel good?’ She says yes and we go. Sometimes she says no and wants me to sprint. Of course, I tell her no, and she does the sprint. Every time she says I should sprint she wins the race. I guess I am also a bit the mental coach. 

“I know that I can’t do what she does. In my mind my timing is for the lead-out. I just start too soon. I am also not super powerful in the final meters. My sprint is longer. For the real sprinters it’s easier to be on my wheel and go.”

Balsamo confirms the connection that she and Sanguineti have.

“Following Ilaria, I have the feeling that we’re finding the best hole in the peloton to be in the best position,” Balsamo says. “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.

“Previously 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. 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.”

Sanguineti in action at the 2023 Tour Down Under. (Image: Cor Vos)

Sanguineti’s favorite race is the Tour of Flanders.

“We did a really strong race with Elisa Longo Borghini in third place but winning that race with the team would also be a dream come true,” she says. “It’s such a special race in a special place. When you arrive at the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg you have already done 120 km but you honestly don’t feel the legs anymore because of all the people cheering you on. The vibe is just great.

“Elisa [Balsamo] and I experienced the same on the final stage of the Tour de France when we climbed Planche des Belles Filles. I hope to return this year and win the first stage and the yellow jersey together.”

Sanguineti is more and more aware how she and her teammates serve as inspiration to younger riders with a dream. That inspiration doesn’t always come with a win though. The battles at the back on a climb like Planche des Belles Filles or in a hard race like Paris-Roubaix are just as inspirational. For those young girls and for slightly older ones like myself.

“In previous years I almost always finished the races,” she says. “That was important to me but now it’s easier to abandon when I did my job. In Paris-Roubaix I really cared though. I really wanted to finish that race because in the last two years I was outside the time limit. This year we were on time by 11 seconds. In this race that matters to me.

“We were a small group and we were really dedicated to make it. I was with riders of other teams but we did it as one team. I didn’t know it was so close but I knew we would be one of the last but not with only 11 seconds.”

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Sanguineti’s social media feed shows a person who loves life. She spends time with her two French bulldogs Stitch and Bibi and her three cats Mia, Saila, and Lea. One of the cats constantly walks in front of the computer screen during our interview. Sometimes having a pet present can break the ice in an interview but with Sanguineti that’s not necessary. She is open and likeable straight away. It’s also a characteristic her teammates really appreciate in her. 

“I think I am a fun person,” she says slightly reluctantly. “On the team they say I make them laugh. When we are on the bus and we are a bit stressed, or better, we are focused, I will always play stupid music and everyone relaxes.”

Joining a WorldTour team like Trek-Segafredo was a dream come true for Sanguineti. 

“It is really a professional team, in everything,” she explains. “I was with Valcar a long time. It was a big but small team, if you know what I mean. We had big results but were a small team. Trek-Segafredo is another category. It’s maybe the little things but when we go to the races in the bus, that is already so cool. It’s just one of the strongest teams in the world and for me it’s a fantastic opportunity.”

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Cycling is the ultimate freedom for the Italian rider. It’s a good thing her team is sponsored by a coffee producer because it’s early mornings she finds hardest about the job.

“Sometimes my friends tell me how they wake up early and then have to go work,” she says. “I can wake up when I want and go to work. They sometimes laugh and say ‘it’s not work’ but it’s work. I am not a morning person and need coffee before I can go. When I am with the team, I drink even more coffee than I would at home. All for the sponsors,” she adds with a wink.

This job all started when her older brother Davide came home in a colorful jersey. She asked her father how she could get that jersey and the answer was to join the Ciclistica Bordighera team.

“It was really an Italian jersey with all the sponsors in all possible colors,” she explains. “I didn’t want the bike but I wanted the jersey. The competitive streak was always in me though because in my first race the people at the race would say there was a little girl who was really good. I was only nine but thought to myself ‘we will see about that.’ I won that race and knew this was my sport. I just wanted to win all the bike races.”

In the end Ilaria Sanguineti didn’t win all the races but she has taken four in her career so far, with the Omloop van het Hageland last year being her biggest.

Sanguineti winning the 2022 Ronde van het Hageland. (Image: Cor Vos)

As many lead-out riders do Sanguineti takes great pride in helping others win races. In fact, she says, seeing others win gives her greater joy than winning a race herself.

And she’s been a crucial part of so many wins, with riders like Chiara Consonni and of course Balsamo. Although she wasn’t there for the biggest of them all: Balsamo’s world title in 2021.

“When Elisa became world champion, I was at home watching the race,” Sanguineti says. “It felt like I was there with her. Two days before I messaged her that I thought it could be a really good race for her. When she was winning, I was in front of the TV crying full gas.

“One of my biggest dreams for this year is to be by her side at the World Championships and do it again, but then together.”

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