Stage 9 of the 2022 Giro Donne was a tough one, with three categorized climbs and an uphill finish coming after eight days of racing. The day ended with a breakaway solo victory for Kristen Faulkner, but for much of the stage a young Italian rider from a small Continental team was glued to the American’s wheel. Gaia Realini, a burgeoning superstar in Italian cycling but relatively unknown outside of her home country, eventually finished fifth when she was caught by a group of GC favourites in the final kilometres.
By the end of the season Realini had signed for one of the best teams in the WorldTour; Trek-Segafredo, through 2025.
If she was unknown before her move to the American team, that changed at the UAE Tour, where she led her countrywoman Elisa Longo Borghini to both stage and overall victory on Jebel Hafeet. She can seem a little shy at first – she even refers to herself as “quiet” – but according to some teammates she can be quite a firecracker, and not just on the bike.
Her profile in the sport is also rising fast. When Realini topped the mountain at the UAE’s queen stage hand-in-hand with her star teammate, Google searches for Realini’s name skyrocketed.
Trek-Segafredo has high hopes for the 21-year-old Italian. She is one of three new signings in the climbing department for the team alongside Brodie Chapman and Amanda Spratt.
With the Ardennes approaching, what better time to get to know a rider who will be one to watch not only in the upcoming one-day races but also the stage races this summer?
First the basic question: how did you get into cycling?
I came to cycling after trying many sports. As a child, my parents supported me with my choices. I liked to change, to try different ones. But then when bikes arrived, it was love at first sight. My father is a passionate cyclist, but he never really pushed me. I was the one who asked him. At the age of six, I got into the saddle and basically never stopped.
Over the years, my passion for biking has become a love of cycling. Going out and training is a constant challenge for me. Especially when I have to do my workout on climbs.
It may sound strange to say, but I like the satisfaction you get from suffering, that feeling of having put it all out there. If I come home and I’m not tired, I feel like I’m missing something.
You said after the Queen stage in the UAE Tour that Elisa is a rider you have looked up to prior to joining Trek-Segafredo. Is there anyone else who inspires you in the peloton or in another sport?
I have always admired Elisa. As an athlete, as a person, as a champion, as a professional; she has always been a reference point for me. When I signed with Trek-Segafredo and realized that we would race together, it was a great satisfaction.
Going out of the confines of the women’s peloton, my source of inspiration was Marco Pantani. If you are a rider who likes to attack in the mountains, and you are Italian, Pantani and his exploits are the references.
What races do you dream of winning?
The Giro d’Italia has always been my dream race. However, now that I know of how many good races I could test myself in in the WorldTour, I wouldn’t mind a Tour de France or a Vuelta either! (laughing). Joking aside, GTs have a special appeal, but I would also like to try classics like Flèche Wallonne or Liège-Bastogne-Liège as soon as possible. [Ed. – Realini is on Trek’s Flèche start list and will likely race LBL as well.)
The victory for me is what repays all the sacrifices. It is not the only source of satisfaction a rider can find, though. It’s a feeling I developed as soon as I started with Trek-Segafredo, and the one-two we achieved in UAE sums it up best. Contributing to the achievement of a team goal, to the realization of a strategy that leads a teammate to win, is equally fulfilling. When Elisa won, in UAE, it was a huge joy, as if [it] had been mine. These are not generic words, but real feelings. My selection on the mountain on that occasion was decisive. That paid off for me as a victory.
When the team signed me, so many people told me that it would be a big stress, that expectations would be raised, that I would have to be as competitive as possible to stand out on a super team like Trek-Segafredo. But it was the exact opposite. From the very first training camp in Wisconsin in late October, I discovered a welcoming and stimulating environment. In training camp I worked with absolute serenity, the performance anxieties I had before disappeared. In competition, in the moments when I had the responsibility to go into action, I was always able to express myself at my best, without pressure. The first factor is definitely the group, teammates and staff. Right from the start I understood why Trek-Segafredo, right from the start, won so much and became a reference point.
Before I came to UAE Tour I knew I was doing well, but I never thought I would be going so strong. True, in the Jabel Hafeet stage I found my ideal terrain. But before that, I had to survive the wind, the echelons, the long flat roads. In short, it was a kind of masterclass and a pleasant surprise. About Jabel Hafeet climb, I still have in mind the moment when I was pulling, I turned my head back and there were only two riders behind … I said to myself, “wow, I made such big selection!” It was a great satisfaction.
Coffee stop before, after or during a ride?
Honestly, I don’t drink coffee, either at home or in competition. It’s a matter of taste. And to be honest, I don’t even like coffee stops. In fact, I really hate them. For me, training is maximum concentration on my work, on my feelings. I don’t like to stop. Even if I have to do a short training, I prefer to come back and relax at home.
In Abruzzo, where I live, I like to train in group, especially when I have to do the long ride. But when I have to do the specific work, I prefer to go alone and focus on my efforts.
Music or podcasts while riding? What songs amp you up before the hardest intervals or races?
In training, no music or podcasts. I like to hear and follow my breathing. In race context, I like it when my teammates put on their playlists; it’s a nice group ritual to approach the race.
Do you have any pre-race superstitions?
I am well aware that in the world Italians are known for their superstition…but this is not my case. My pre-race is focused on the words of the DS, the tactics and the route I will face. The key points, the competitors, etc. I mentalize myself. Also because I am not someone who likes to study the race in the days before. In fact, I try to look at it as little as possible. It gives me a feeling of anxiety.
Go-to dance move?
No, no dance move 😉
What do you do in your free time off the bike?
I consider myself a very quiet girl, very simple. I love the warmth of home, of family. I like to stay home, relax with movies, and maybe enjoy an ice cream at my favorite ice cream shop near home. The life of a rider, especially a young one, is different from that of the others. It is made up of sacrifices, even in free time. But it doesn’t bother me, because I love what I do too much.
What did you think of this story?