Lotte Kopecky, Queen of the North

After the frustration of Flanders, Kopecky bounced back in sublime fashion.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 06.04.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Six days ago, at the Tour of Flanders, there wasn’t a whole lot for SD Worx-Protime to celebrate. They’d come in with the near-unbackable favourite, Lotte Kopecky, but when the race wrapped up in Oudenaarde, in the driving rain, the Dutch powerhouse team would have to settle for fifth (Kopecky), eighth (Demi Vollering), and 11th (Lorena Wiebes). Some sub-optimal positioning on the Koppenberg, and a brilliant team ride from Lidl-Trek, had left SD Worx-Protime ruing a missed opportunity.

Today though, after nearly four hours of racing across the narrow farm roads of northern France – including 17 cobbled sectors – Kopecky and her SD Worx-Protime colleagues had every reason to be delighted.

In a six-rider sprint on the famous Roubaix Velodrome, Kopecky outkicked fast-finishers Elisa Balsamo (Lidl-Trek) and Marianne Vos (Visma-Lease a Bike) to win the fourth edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift in the rainbow bands of world champion.

Watching Kopecky on the podium and in her post-race press conference, it seemed as if the joy of victory was laced with another emotion: relief. Missing out on a third-straight Flanders win last week had clearly stung, and bouncing back from that wasn’t easy.

“After Sunday, the feeling was just not what I wanted it to be,” Kopecky said in her winner’s press conference this evening. “But then, luckily, I’ve got really good friends and a really good team behind me, who really tried to keep me calm, give me confidence.

“The last two days we’ve laughed about so many things that, actually this morning, of course I was nervous, but I also was relaxed. I just could feel how much confidence they had in me. And yeah, I really tried to take that good [feeling] with me today.”

On a day of strong tailwinds and crosswinds, Kopecky was a constant fixture at the front of the peloton, her white-and-rainbows skinsuit making her near-impossible to miss. She was aggressive on the third cobbled sector of the day, with 70 km still to race, shredding the field. She was similarly proactive another few sectors later, 54 km from the finish, forcing another selection. Likewise with 45 km to go, and again with 32 km.

Ultimately, it was a group of five that emerged at the front, a touch inside 20 km to go: Kopecky, Vos, Balsamo, Balsamo’s teammate Ellen van Dijk, and Amber Kraak (FDJ-Suez). While Balsamo would be dropped a short time later, she eventually found her way back to the front, 12 km from the line, with Pfeiffer Georgi (DSM-Firmenich-PostNL) for company. That elite group of six would go on to contest the win, not that Kopecky was thrilled with who she’d found herself with.

“Going with Marianne was not ideal,” Kopecky said. “And for me, when I was with Marianne, then I would always play the card Lorena [Wiebes].”

Behind the leaders, Wiebes was trying to ride her way back to the front; trying to give SD Worx-Protime additional firepower in the looming sprint.

“Today I really wanted to win myself but I was also very motivated if there was a situation where we needed to go for the sprint with Lorena, then I was also 110% committed to that,” Kopecky said.

Wiebes never made it back to the front though, ultimately leading the chase group in for seventh place. Ahead, Kopecky would have to back herself in the sprint, even though she knew victory would be far from easy.

“Of course going with Vos and Balsamo, for me it’s not ideal,” she said. “[But] once you come on this velodrome you just need to be confident and believe in yourself that you’re capable of winning it.”

If Kopecky had any hesitation about her ability to win, you wouldn’t have known it from her sprint. 

“Before we came on the track it was already a big fight to try and get in position,” she said. “But of course, I knew that Marianne and Elisa would fight against each other. The other side of the track was a headwind, and they had to start the sprint pretty early. So I just tried to stay calm, see what I had to do, and start sprinting on the right moment. And it was a pretty long sprint, but yeah, that’s also in my advantage I think.”

Balsamo and Vos led into the final bend but, in a perfectly timed sprint, Kopecky surged around the outside, hit the front inside the final 200 metres, and ended up winning by almost a bike length. 

Today’s win is just the latest in a string of impressive victories for Kopecky this season. A stage win and GC victory at the UAE Tour kicked off the Belgian’s year in imperious fashion, before victories at Strade Bianche, Nokere Koerse and now, the Hell of the North. In total, she now has 39 career victories to her name; few of them bigger than today’s.

“I think the World Championships last year is still for me … the biggest thing I’ve achieved, but winning this Paris-Roubaix in this special jersey comes pretty close,” she said with a smile.

Beyond Kopecky’s individual success, today’s win is a significant one for her team. Despite its vast success in recent years, a victory at Paris-Roubaix had proven elusive for SD Worx-Protime. And after the frustration of Flanders last week – beaten decisively by Lidl-Trek – the weight of expectation would have been felt keenly ahead of Roubaix.

In the end, SD Worx-Protime delivered in spades, thanks to Kopecky. Lidl-Trek might have outnumbered them in the winning move, and on paper, Kopecky was perhaps the third-best sprinter in the group, but a sprint at the end of a race as hard as Roubaix is no regular bunch kick. Or as Balsamo put it in her post-race press conference, at Roubaix, sometimes it’s not about the rider with the strongest sprint, but rather the rider whom comes in freshest.

This afternoon, on the Roubaix Velodrome, in spite of all the aggressive racing that got her there, that freshest rider was Lotte Kopecky, Queen of the North.

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