For much of the 2023 season, a major theme of women’s road racing was the battle between Annemiek van Vleuten and her younger compatriot, Demi Vollering. Who was the best stage racer in the women’s peloton? It was a thrilling storyline, to be sure, but there was another one growing in the background that maybe we haven’t given enough attention.
Maybe the best drop-bar racer on the planet right now isn’t either of them. It’s also not Mathieu van der Poel or Tadej Pogačar or any of the men’s field. Nope. Right now, the elite racer no one can touch is Lotte Kopecky.
Kopecky has always been a strong rider, particularly in Classics-style races. But her performance over the last month has been nothing short of revelatory in both its depth and breadth. Kopecky has simply excelled at every single race she’s done, balancing a remarkable peak of form across everything from stage races to track events to a grueling World Championships road course that reduced the field to the strongest riders in the race, and which she won with clinical excellence despite being the odds-on favorite and most-marked rider in the race.
Let’s tally it up: since mid-July, Kopecky has won a stage of the Tour de France Femmes, wore the yellow jersey six days, finished second overall, and finished outside the top five on just two of eight stages, one of them a sixth-place finish on the queen stage Tourmalet summit. She won rainbow jerseys on the track in the Elimination and Points Races, and a bronze medal in the Omnium. And now a third world title, on the road. Even more impressive: it’s the continuation of a season where she’s been nothing short of superlative since the start.
Her season began on February 25 with a win in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, followed by wins in Nokere Koerse and the Tour of Flanders, with a close second to Vollering at Amstel Gold Race and in the fantastic “OK, we’re not teammates anymore” sprint at Strade Bianche. A strong ride at Paris-Roubaix was foiled for the win by a crash, a big early break, and an acute bout of what my colleague Abby Mickey aptly calls ‘Group Two Syndrome’.
In between the Classics and Tours/Worlds season, she also won two stages (one a TTT) and the overall at Thüringen Rundfahrt (albeit with a peloton divided between that race and RideLondon Classique).
Basically: nobody in drop-bar racing has the kind of success and versatility across disciplines and styles of events as Kopecky this year. To win that many races across six months of competition, and to hold a peak of form for three weeks while juggling event demands as diverse as 177 km road stages, HC summit finishes, and tactical, stressful, 20-minute track races like the Elimination is simply a remarkable feat of physical and mental strength.
And again, that’s not strictly through a lens of women’s racing. Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock are unquestionably multi-discipline stars in road, cyclocross, and mountain bike. And Tadej Pogačar’s versatility on almost any kind of road course is amazing to watch.
On the women’s side, new U23 world road champion Blanka Vas races at an elite level in road, cyclocross, and mountain bike, and of course there’s Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, the only rider to ever hold rainbow jerseys in three disciplines at once. But Kopecky’s mastery in drop-bar racing is something special to behold (she’s also dabbled in elite ‘cross, although not last season).
To prepare for the Glasgow road course, a kind of “criterium world championships,” she spent late June and early July riding a series of junior men’s kermis races in Belgium, banging elbows in sprints en route to four top-five finishes. On the track in Glasgow, Kopecky went bar-to-bar in the Elimination Race and Omnium event with American track specialist Jennifer Valente, the reigning World and Olympic champion in Omnium, and came away with a tie, with each taking a world title and a bronze medal.
Much as I’d love to see her rainbow jerseys in action again soon, I hope Kopecky takes some much-deserved personal time, as long as she wants or needs. As her trade teammate Marlen Reusser’s World Championships show, racers aren’t machines, and there is a mental and emotional cost to digging so deep for so long. Kopecky unexpectedly lost her brother Seppe just five months ago (her Nokere Koerse win came only days later), and at the finish of the women’s road race admitted that her amazing year had also been a hard one. “I don’t know what keeps me pushing,” she said.
But when that break comes to an end and Kopecky returns to action, perhaps next season, I’ll be delighted to watch what she does next. Ferrand-Prévot, the 2014 world road champion, said after her win in the XCO World Championship race that she wants to devote more time to road racing again, and hinted that her sponsor, Ineos, might field a women’s road team soon.
Blanka Vas is a worthy heir apparent. Ferrand-Prévot doesn’t match up exactly with Kopecky for talents and racing styles and Vas, of course, rides for the same team as Kopecky. But as the Vollering vs Van Vleuten matchup comes to an end after this season, a matchup – wherever it comes – of two of the most diverse talents in cycling with a third on the rise would make for one hell of a storyline to replace it.
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