When the podium announcer read out Gaia Realini’s name as the best young rider at the UAE Tour Women, Elisa Longo Borghini punched the air.
Her diminutive Trek-Segafredo team-mate, who she has known since she was a teenager, had given everything for her on stage three’s climb to Jebel Hafeet. So strong were the duo, that from 5km to go, they rode solo up the craggy limestone monolith. They laughed together as they approached the line, where Realini eased off and let Longo Borghini roll her wheel over first.
The Paris-Roubaix winner didn’t want to speak about herself in her press interviews after the race. Immediately, she launched into a eulogy of her 21-year-old compatriot. “Gaia is such a young talent,” she said, “and I really want to have her on my side in the next years, to see her grow as a rider and a person.
“She’s a very strong climber and I’m looking forward to see her climbing up the world rankings.”
For most of the steeply pitched 10km ascent, Realini rode with Longo Borghini in tow, leaving their rivals in tatters. First they dropped UAE Team ADQ’s Silvia Persico – who eventually fought back to finish third – before young Brit Anna Shackley (SD Worx) lost the wheel. Team DSM’s Esmée Peperkamp held on the longest, but at the halfway point, she couldn’t hold the pace, and watched on as the Trek duo floated away up the road.
With victory guaranteed, Longo Borghini and Realini needed to decide who would take it. “First I said ‘Gaia takes the win, and I take the jersey’,” Longo Borghini said. But with just three seconds separating them in the GC, and bonus seconds on the line, the team bosses intervened.
“The sports director of course did some calculations and said ‘It’s better that Elisa takes the jersey and the victory and we give Gaia an opportunity the next time.’
“Gaia was like ‘I really want you to win this race.’ She was really really into it, and then all of a sudden, when I was in the front, she said in a South Italian dialect ‘Oh gosh, I want to cry’. And it was just funny, I had to laugh. She’s always making everybody laugh.”
When Realini came to the media tent, it was Longo Borghini’s turn to protect her team-mate. “Her English is good,” the stage winner told the press, “but only ask simple questions.”
How had the 21-year-old found the day? “Incredible,” she replied. “For me this is the first race in the big team, this team, and for me to arrive in second position… Whoa. It’s a good day, it’s impossible for me.”
Asked what her own career ambitions are, Realini spoke like a true domestique. “For me, my goal in the future is to help Elisa in other races, on the climbs,” she said, “and Elisa will help me on the climbs as well.”
Longo Borghini now leads the UAE Tour ahead of Sunday’s finale in Abu Dhabi. Barring any incidents, Realini should finish in second. The question now is who will join them on the podium, with the final spot currently held by Persico.