Strade Bianche Donne: Lotte Kopecky, SD Worx deliver tactical masterclass in WorldTour opener
The Belgian champion delivered a hugely impressive finale into Siena, helped by some strong support from her SD Worx teammates.
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After her blistering start to the season, few expected anyone but Annemiek van Vleuten to win Strade Bianche Donne on Saturday.
As the race hit the bottom of the brutally steep climb to the Piazza del Campo in Siena, it still looked like van Vleuten’s to lose.
The Dutch rider gave everything on the final climb, getting out of the saddle to push every last watt she could into the pedals. It’s a situation we’ve seen time and time again and, very often, van Vleuten’s rivals know what’s coming but are powerless to do anything about it.
However, Lotte Kopecky was not going to be dispatched so easily. The Belgian champion, who made her debut for SD Worx just a week ago, stayed firmly in her saddle as she ground away in the wheel of van Vleuten. She already knew she could do it after holding onto a stinging attack from the Movistar rider on a gravel climb with just 12k to go.
Also read: Strade Bianche Donne: Lotte Kopecky storms to thrilling win over Annemiek van Vleuten
“When Annemiek couldn’t lose me, it was very good for my confidence,” she said. “[At the end] I could hear the screaming in my ear saying to keep the wheel of Annemiek. I came back into the wheel and then we turned to the right and then I passed Annemiek, but then the other corner she passed me again. It was one big sprint into the final corner.
“Last week on the Muur [at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad — which was won by van Vleuten], I was a bit hesitating because Demi went with Annemiek, and I didn’t know if I should let van Vleuten go or not. On the top then I was just not. I knew I had good legs, but I just could not follow it. A rider like Annemiek is really strong, and so in this finish, it means a lot to beat her.”
It was a hugely impressive ride from Kopecky, who has been growing in confidence in recent years, and she was in the driving seat once the pair had crested the tough climb.
She used all of her multi-discipline skills — Kopecky also races on the track and in cyclocross — in the tit for tat battle on the tight and winding streets into the piazza. Kopecky’s last move before charging to the sprint was to overrun the final corner to prevent van Vleuten from getting the run on her in the small dip towards the line.
Kopecky maintains that she wasn’t intentionally trying to block off van Vleuten, but the Dutchwoman did bring it up when they spoke behind the podium.
“She said that I was really strong today, but she also said that the last corner was a bit tricky,” she said. “I will have to see it again, but in my opinion, I didn’t do something wrong. It is just a really hard corner to take, and you have to take so much speed into the corner. I was not going to break, and she was also not going to break.”
Playing the numbers game
Kopecky’s win was more than just the effort she put in on that final ascent, it was truly a team effort from SD Worx. Buoyed by a strong performance at Omloop Het Niewsblad last week, Kopecky put herself forward to be a protected leader.
With several riders who could win the race, including defending champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, leadership is always an ongoing discussion for the Dutch squad. It showed the confidence that her teammates already have in Kopecky that they were willing to lay it on the line for her.
Van den Broek-Blaak and Omloop runner-up Demi Vollering set about drawing out their rivals in the final 30 kilometers, taking it in turns to launch attacks. The efforts forced van Vleuten’s Movistar to work while Kopecky had an easier ride behind.
It left van Vleuten isolated at the finish while Kopecky still had teammates and the power she needed to hold onto the Dutch rider. Of course, tactics can only do so much if you don’t have a rider to finish it off, but SD Worx didn’t have to worry.
“I said before the race that I had the confidence that I could do this on the final climb. It’s an explosive climb and punchy finishes really suit me. Last year, I had a really good feeling in this race and I was really confident I could do this,” Kopecky said.
“When there are attacks, there was always cover for them. I could stay calm and not do too much work. I could relax and not waste energy. If you can do that then it gives you the confidence to stay easy.”
Kopecky’s energy saving was not just limited to letting her teammates do the heavy lifting at the front. It might sound like an oxymoron, but she also went on the attack with 21 kilometers to go in an effort to conserve her energy.
“It was planned to go there, because if I go there then I don’t need to go so high on the lactate on the next climb because I could go my own pace. When we got to the steeper part then they were with me and I could take it easy and I didn’t have to push too hard,” she said.
Kopecky has been a growing talent in the peloton but riding for smaller teams in recent years has meant she’s been left largely isolated in some of the biggest races. With this biggest win of her career so far, the decision to swap teams over the winter has been vindicated and she hopes it can have a larger impact.
“I joined this team SD Worx to be able to be in the mix for the win in some really big races like this. I think for Belgian cycling, I already see now that there is so much more support from people, and I really want to be able to get more little girls on bikes.”