When Lotte Kopecky won stage 1 of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift and took the overall lead, an interesting possibility presented itself. If Kopecky could survive a couple of tough climbing stages in the days that followed, there was a chance she could wear yellow all the way to the Col du Tourmalet.
At the time it felt like an optimistic prediction. But in the end, holding yellow to the Tourmalet was only a small part of what Kopecky managed to achieve this week.
In a result that defied all prediction, the Belgian road and time trial champion finished the Tour de France Femmes in second place overall, behind only her own superlative teammate, after a remarkable final two stages of the race.
On stage 7, still wearing yellow, Kopecky held firm in a chase group on the Col d’Aspin as her teammate Demi Vollering, defending champ Annemiek van Vleuten, and Kasia Niewiadoma went up the road. Kopecky was still there when the group caught Vollering and Van Vleuten, and in a surprise to just about everyone – including Kopecky herself – the 27-year-old was still there most of the way up the Tourmalet.
The Belgian was only dropped with 5.5 km to go, as Vollering blew the race apart – an incredible effort from a rider not known for her prowess in the high mountains. In fact, Kopecky believes it was the first time she’s ever done a maximum effort on a climb like the Tourmalet.
“Two days ago, the day before the Tourmalet stage, [SD Worx sports director] Anna van der Breggen asked me, ‘Did you ever [try] it on such a long climb?’” Kopecky said post-stage. “I was like, ‘No.’ And then I already had the feeling like, ‘What are they trying to do with me?'”
“They gave me the chance to try and hang on as long as possible. I also knew as long as I was in the group yesterday, then the others maybe would get nervous. So yeah, I gave everything and those last two km really were the worst of my life I think,” she added with a laugh. “But yeah, I just kept on going. I’m very happy I gave it a try actually.”
Kopecky rolled across the line in sixth place on the stage, only dropping to fourth overall, seven seconds off the podium. She’d relinquished the overall lead, as expected, but it could have been a lot worse – her teammate Vollering had moved into yellow, and Kopecky would wear green for the first time, despite leading the points classification all week.
And then, on Sunday’s final-stage time trial around Pau, Kopecky put in another remarkable ride. As Van Vleuten faltered for the second day running, finishing 14th and dropping off the overall podium, Kopecky rode to third on the stage behind two teammates: stage favourite and eventual winner, Marlen Reusser, and Vollering, who further increased her overall lead.
“When I woke up this morning, I had the feeling that it was like a truck ran over my legs after yesterday,” Kopecky said with a laugh. “But yeah, I did a very good recon, [spun] the legs a lot this afternoon, and actually, when I started the TT, they felt pretty OK.”
It was a dream result for Kopecky. She knew moving onto the overall podium on the final stage was “not impossible”, and was hoping that’s where she would land, but she didn’t feel any pressure. After all, she’d already exceeded all expectations.
“Before this Tour de France I would not ever thought that I would be able to be on the podium,” she said. “I was more like ‘Whatever happens today is fine.’ It doesn’t mean that I didn’t want it; I wanted to fight for it very hard. But it’s not that it made me nervous. And [I] just stayed calm; I tried to do my preparation for the TT and gave everything I had.”
Everything Kopecky had saw her leap two stages on GC, to finish second overall. But it was close – a quick glance at the results sheet shows Kopecky and Niewiadoma locked on the same time. In the end, it was less than a quarter of a second that separated the pair.
In fact, it wasn’t until she was standing behind the podium that Kopecky found out that she’d managed second overall. It was a result made possible, in part, by the significant gap she created by winning the opening stage solo.
Kopecky’s achievements this week make for pretty impressive reading. A stage win with a late solo move, second in a reduced-bunch sprint, third in a time trial (her worst stage finish was 14th), six days in yellow, sixth on a legendary mountain-top finish, victory in the points classification, and, to cap it all off, second on GC. They’re achievements that speak of an incredibly versatile rider.
“Being one of the better sprinters and in the end one of the better climbers, and also a good time-trialist – this Tour was just amazing for me,” Kopecky said.
Of course it’s also been a remarkable week for Kopecky’s SD Worx team. In a week where the team’s sometimes-inscrutable tactics were often a talking point, the results spoke for themselves. Four stage wins from a possible eight (with four different riders), a podium sweep on the final stage, first and second overall (their 18th 1-2 this season), and the points classification for good measure.
While it was Vollering that goes out the winner of the 2023 Tour de France Femmes, Kopecky’s performance arguably shone brighter. Where Vollering took the overall victory that everyone knew she was capable of, Kopecky outperformed all expectations. Given her high overall placing, could she be convinced to turn her attention to the GC in years to come?
“It’s not something that is on my mind at this moment,” she said. “I’m very happy with the kind of rider that I am at the moment. I really love the Classics and that’s still my main goal. That’s still what I love the most so I’m not going to change into trying to be another kind of rider.
“Not for the coming years, but maybe after I will give it a try, I don’t know. But so far I’m happy with what I am at the moment.”
Pretty hard to argue with that.
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