Flanders: women react to the first inclusion of the Koppenberg

The iconic climb has been added to the women's race for the first time in it's 19-year history.

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The Koppenberg is synonymous with the Tour of Flanders. The cobbled climb has been part of the men’s race on-and-off since 1975. Narrow, and with slippery, jagged cobbles, it has dashed plenty of hopes over the years as riders have crashed or been forced to walk with their bikes thanks to poor positioning.

The legendary Bernard Hinault said of the 600m berg — which has an average gradient of 11.6% and pitches up to 22%: “It’s hard to explain what the Koppenberg means to a racing cyclist. Instead of being a race, it’s a lottery. Only the first five or six riders have any chance: the rest fall off or scramble up as best they can.”

Now, for the first time in the 19-year history of the women’s race, the Koppenberg is being included.

While the women have always raced the likes of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg, adding the Koppenberg to the parcours has included the women’s peloton in yet another element of cycling’s rich history. The move is part of race organiser, Flanders Classics’, ‘Closing the Gap’ initiative which aims to do just as it says on the tin between its men’s and women’s events.

Today, the climb was covered in snow and while the forecast for Sunday doesn’t entail anything quite so wintery the cobbles are likely to be more slippery then ever, meaning the women will face a particularly tough go up the climb for their first time. It is not uncommon for two-wheel-drive cars to get stuck on the Koppenberg when it’s wet, such is the slick surface.

The climb will come 114km into the 159km race, the sixth of eleven climbs or hellingen to be raced by the women on Sunday. With the Koppenberg coming 45km from the finish it is unlikely to launch the winning move but it will still prove decisive. Here, former winners and race hopefuls weigh in on what difference the Koppenberg might make.

Chantal van den Broek Blaak, SD Worx (former winner)

“The race has changed a lot with the addition of the Koppenberg. The reconnaissance tells me that the battle for power will be even tougher. That only plays into our hands. We have a team that can handle that sequence of hills perfectly.”

Demi Vollering, SD Worx

“I think you can definitely lose the race there. But I don’t know if you can also win it there. So I think it’s really a really important climb there. But yeah, it’s also still quite early, so I don’t know. 

You really need to be already full focus there. Because if you’re not there on the good position there, then you have already a big problem, I think.

I think it’s a climb which can suit me but yeah, of course multiple riders can really do a great job on this climb. So yeah, we never did it before in the women’s race…so you don’t know exactly but I think we will find out Sunday but of course Marlen from our team was also riding really good up there. And also Lotte she’s also really good in the shorter climbs in the shorter steep climbs. in our team we have plenty of riders who can do a great job on this climb.”

Annemiek van Vleuten, Movistar (two-time winner and defending champion)

“I think that Ronde van Vlaanderen needs to have the Koppenberg and I’m happy that it’s the first time that we can race there.”

Ellen van Dijk, Trek-Segafredo (former winner) “The Koppenberg is definitely new thing in the in the course and it’s going to be very challenging and will definitely break up the race, I’m sure of it. It’s quite early in the final so it’s hard to expect if it’s really going to make the race already, but for sure something will happen there and positioning will be key and everybody knows that and everybody wants to be in the front. So it’s gonna be a big casino, I think.”

Elisa Longo Borghini, Trek-Segafredo (former winner)

“In the end, it just makes the race harder and positioning will be the key. And I think also it’s going to be nice for the spectators to see us on the Koppenberg.

It’s a key point in the race and you need to be up front and you just have to be in good position. And if you’re out of position and you lose time, it’s going to be really hard to chase back and be back at the front of the peloton.”

Tiffany Cromwell, Canyon//SRAM:

“I think it’s exciting, obviously, they’re always trying to challenge the women, you know, make the courses harder and incorporate many of the same sectors that have become synonymous with the men’s race.

I think everybody who knows Flanders and famous cobbled climbs, the Koppenberg is definitely the one that people know. It can be the make or break point. Not necessarily the point where you win the race, but definitely a point where you can lose the race just for the sheer steepness, [and] it’s notoriously slippery and narrow. So if you get caught out of position and one person loses their grip or unclips or has to stop then just blocks the way so then everyone ends up walking and running with their bike.

It will be the point where the race starts to really heat up. And it’s a point where everybody has to be in position. Because for sure there will be splits after that. And then if you’re already wasting energy there trying to come back… because after that the climbs and the cobbles come thick and fast.

Normally it would start on the Kanarieberg, which will be in a similar kind of distance to go but I think the Koppenberg is a much more challenging sector than the Kanarieberg.”

The Koppenberg might not rip up the race, but what is a given is that it will be a decisive point where riders will be on guard. Whatever effect the Koppenberg has on Sunday, the women being able to finally race a climb with such significance in the sport marks yet another inflection point in the progress of women’s racing.

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