Is Lotte Kopecky the next superstar of women’s cycling? Or is her team a dominant, dynastic force to be reckoned with, one to rival any we’ve seen in the modern era of the sport?
Hyperbole perhaps, and it is probably too early in the season to tell either way, but there is a frightening possibility that the answer may in fact be “both.”
To scrutinise the second question first, there was certainly something terrifyingly, professionally efficient about the way SD Worx delivered Kopecky to victory in Oudenaarde on Sunday afternoon.
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From flag drop to finale, their riders were everywhere. Well, not literally everywhere, but everywhere they could be to influence the race in their favour. They had nobody in the break, of course, but once the escapees had gone, the SD Worx clan, most of whom were wearing their own national champions’ uniforms, received no less TV time than those riders up the road.
It was almost as if Kopecky, rather than dressed in the driekleur, was in the leader’s jersey of a stage race, which they were tasked with the responsibility of honouring. In the first half of the race, for kilometre after kilometre, they controlled the pace of the peloton, protecting not just their leader, but their leader’s chances. There was no hedging here, nor hiding the fact that they were all-in for Kopecky. Seldom do we see a display of confidence like we did today. Even more rare is for it to never look under threat.
The selected squad was tailored to the course like a Savile Row suit. Christine Majerus and Marlen Rousser are both winners in their own right, but today they were willing to ride forever on the flatlands in service to the team’s singular goal. Demi Vollering, winner of last year’s La Course, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, might have fancied her own chances in a head-to-head with Annemiek van Vleuten but today, on the cobbled climbs of the Flemish Ardennes, she only had eyes for Kopecky, and laid it all on the narrow lanes for her leader. Somehow, after all they’d done earlier, both Majerus and Reusser had legs left to serve as late foils. Lastly when Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, the 2017 World Champion, took over for the finale, it was clear that she had been saved for that exact purpose: to carry Kopecky to the line, make it all but impossible for her not to finish the race off in the sprint.
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Perhaps it would have been different if the race had not gone precisely to plan, all their own way. Did they have a B? We have no idea but it seems like if they did, they would not have been able to execute their A so completely. Actualisation is defined as the act of creating something by thinking. That seems to describe what we saw today pretty well. It may not have been completely without precedent, but we can surely agree that what we saw today is rare.
As for Kopecky herself, she has without question come of age in the first fraction of the 2022 cycling season.
After a respectable but not illustrious start, since Strade Bianche Donne she hasn’t finished outside the top ten of a race.
Her sprint is explosive, which is why Annemiek Van Vleuten, unable to dispense with her on the climb, had no chance in the finish. But she has so much more to her game and both the races this season in which the Belgian has got the better of the Dutchwoman have shown us that Kopecky is every bit the match of AVV when the road rears up. The final climb at Strade Bianche, before the brief descent into Siena’s Piazza del Campo, is supposed to be one for rouleurs at a minimum, and has gotten the better of plenty of puncheurs in the past.
Likewise at De Ronde, Van Vleuten’s aggressive kick on the Paterberg, normally a KO, wasn’t close to being enough. On the longer, higher climbs still to come this season we may see something different but, let’s not forget, this is the same rider who finished 4th in the Tokyo Olympic road race, on a real grimpeur’s course.
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As well as riding like one, Kopecky carries herself like a champion. Even with the Tour of Flanders starting (and finishing) a stone’s throw from where she was born, favourite status for the Belgian national champion never looked like a burden. That’s why her team-mates rode like they did - because she gave them every reason to believe she could deliver.
And then there’s mettle, or racecraft, if you like. We cannot be completely certain, because she may have taken a turn, but it’s quite possible that Kopecky herself led the race for no more than its final fifty metres. That’s efficiency for you, because it’s the only stretch of road that matters.
Next weekend the Women’s WorldTour heads for the Ardennes with Kopecky due to take a well-earned break, before returning for the second women’s Paris-Roubaix in two weeks. Better place your bets now. Her odds aren't going to shorten.
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