The 19-year-old is seeking road and track medals at World Championships and Olympic Games.
At 19, Letizia Paternoster already has her sights set on conquering the world.
The Italian cyclist showed great promise as a junior, winning two golds at the 2016 UCI Junior Track Cycling World Championships before taking three golds and a silver a year later.
Paternoster then claimed her first senior European title as Italy secured team pursuit gold in Berlin, and took junior road race bronze at the 2017 UCI Road World Championships.
She has continued her upward trajectory since turning professional at the start of 2018.
The Trentino-born rider took bronze in the madison and team pursuit at the 2018 World Championships, and a year later won silver in the omnium.
She could not have made a better start in a Trek-Segafredo jersey, winning the opening stage of the Tour Down Under.
Paternoster finished third in March’s prestigious Gent-Wevelgem race, one year after clinching her first road win as an elite rider at the Gran Premio della Liberazione.
Olympic Channel met one of cycling’s rising stars at the Athletes’ Village in Minsk, where she is competing in the European Games.
After finishing 10th in the road race and 12th in the time trial, Paternoster heads to the track where she will hope to add at least one medal to her growing collection.
Olympic Channel: How does it feel to be in a mini-Olympics?
Letizia Paternoster: The first time was during the European Youth Olympic Festival in Tbilisi (in 2015). It was very similar to here in Minsk. There was a village with many other athletes from other sports and other nations. That was one of my best experiences and here I’ve found the same beautiful atmosphere.
OC: What has changed since you turned pro two years ago?
LP: I’ve changed the way I approach racing. I gained a bit more of experience and I can control my emotions better ahead of the most important races. I tell myself to take it easy.
OC: When did you become aware of your potential?
LP: When I won my first junior world title, I realised that I could become what I was always dreaming about as a kid. Every time I reached one of my targets, I gained more and more confidence and started to really believe in myself.
OC: What are your dreams now?
LP: I now dream of winning important medals. My biggest dream is the Olympics, but I’m also chasing world titles.
OC: How did you start with cycling?
LP: My parents never practised this sport. They say that when I was little I always wanted to ride a tricycle or a small bicycle and that, without it, I cried and refused to walk.
At two and a half, I had already taken off the stabilisers… I could ride a bike better than I could walk!
It’s always been my passion. Then when I was six and my parents wanted me to choose a sport, I insisted I wanted to be a cyclist like (1988 road world champion) Maurizio Fondriest, who was a friend of my dad. I wanted to be like him and my parents signed me up. My mum wanted me to do ballet, my dad wasn’t convinced, but then I insisted and they said, ‘OK’. Then I did my first race and I haven’t stopped since then.
OC: Is it common for girls to take up cycling where you come from?
LP: Cycling is very popular in Trentino. When we started in our club, there were 40 children which is a lot considering how small Val di Non is. Perhaps women’s cycling was less popular compared to now, but the movement is growing and girls nowadays are more keen on practising this sport.
OC: How were your first years?
LP: I started on the road, then I tried some MTB downhill, some BMX, I liked any kind of cycling. I was winning many races and, when we were racing together, I often beat the guys. I was very successful at youth level. Cycling has always been very rewarding for me.
OC: Who inspired you at that time?
LP: I remember I used to watch many women’s races and (two-time road world champ and top sprinter) Giorgia Bronzini was my idol. Now she’s become my sporting director!
Sometimes she’s riding with us and once when we were together I asked her to teach me to sprint well!
OC: For some years now you’ve been competing in both track and road cycling. What do you like about both disciplines?
LP: I like both in the same way. On the road I enjoy the landscapes and now I feel proud to be among many strong and experienced riders. Compared to the track, races are longer but it’s fantastic when the adrenaline rises in the last kilometres.
On the track I like the speed, the feeling of going fast, and the emotion of starting a race in a quartet, sharing the tension with my teammates.
I also love the individual races, they give you an adrenaline rush. If you make a mistake, you don’t have time to think and you may lose a race by just thousandths of a second.
OC: Once you told Gazzetta dello Sport: “I’m not a model, I’m a woman who can ride her bike fast.” Do you face much prejudice as a female cyclist?
LP: Unfortunately many people still think that if you are a female cyclist or a footballer you have to be ugly or have big legs… Of course we have bigger legs and everyone has a different body.
I think I’m a ‘feminine’ girl and I’ll take it with me on the bike. I don’t change how I am. I think the mentality is changing and I hope Italian women’s cycling continues in this direction.
OC: On the world stage you have already won a few medals. When do you expect the first gold?
LP: When we won the European title in the team pursuit, it was one of the best emotions I’ve experienced so far. Now I’m doing my best to chase other ‘big’ medals.
I’m still very young compared to my rivals and teammates and I have a lot of room for improvement, so I keep working hard and I hope to achieve my goals one day.
OC: Will you be competitive in Tokyo or will we need to wait for Paris to see you winning a medal?
LP: The Olympics are a dream and I’m working every day for this. In 2024, our team and myself will be at our peak. In Tokyo I think we can do well and I wouldn’t be working like I am if I didn’t believe in it. If I qualify I believe I can achieve some results. We will see.
OC: You like travelling. If you win gold in Tokyo, where would you like to celebrate?
LP: In Polynesia because I love warm weather and beaches. An island would be the top for me!