Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering embrace atop the Col du Tourmalet after the Queen stage of the Tour de France Femmes, 2023.

Wheel Talk Newsletter: Who’s really the “rider of the year?”

Your weekly dose of women's cycling content (plus some extras).

Another one-two finish for Vollering and Kopecky for Rider of the Year, but in which order?

Hello and thank you for reading this week’s instalment of the Wheel Talk Newsletter! After a few great podcast discussions over on the Wheel Talk Podcast, I thought we could do a deeper dive into who really earned the title of “rider of the year”, but before we get to that, did you know you can receive this newsletter straight to your inbox? It’s true! Here’s the link:

The cycling world was all abuzz last week after the ASO announced the 2024 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift would start with three stages in the Netherlands, one in Belgium, and not enter France until the fifth stage. The first few stages are pretty sprinter-friendly, with a short snappy ITT thrown in on the evening of the second day for good measure.

You would think by looking at the course that Lotte Kopecky has already written the Tour into her 2024 calendar in permanent marker, but that is not the case for the current World Champion.

One of the major reasons for starting outside of France is the Olympic Games, and while the women’s road race is one of the first events and will take place on Saturday, August 3rd – leaving plenty of time to recover before the August 12 TdF Femmes start – the track events are some of the last and will have a bigger impact on whether or not Kopecky will get to race the Tour de France in the rainbow jersey on home soil.

It’s no secret a top goal for Kopecky in 2024 is the Omnium in Paris. The Belgian expertly navigated this summer’s “Super World”s in Glasgow to win not only the road race but also the Elimination and Points events on the track. She finished third in the Omnium behind Jennifer Valente (USA) and Amalie Dideriksen (Denmark). Unfortunately, the Omnium takes place on the final day of the Games, just one day before the start of the Tour in Rotterdam.

To say it’s a shame we might not see Kopecky line up at the Tour next year in the rainbow stripes – a Tour that will see two stages start in her home country – is the understatement of the week. Kopecky was one of the most impressive riders to watch at this year’s Tour, not only winning a stage but assisting her teammates to victories while wearing yellow for six days and eventually riding to second overall. Her whole week was astonishing, and to follow that up with three World Championship titles is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Lotte Kopecky in the yellow leaders jersey leads teammate Lorena Wiebes to win the third stage of the Tour de France Femmes.
Kopecky leads teammate Lorena Wiebes to victory on the third stage of the 2023 Tour de France Femmes.

Kopecky’s rise to the top of the sport, especially this year, has fueled what is being called in Belgium the “Kopecky Effect.” Four times more young women have registered for racing licenses with Cycling Vlaanderen, the governing body of Belgian cycling, than in 2020. You can see it in the way the Belgian national team raced at Worlds and how well Belgian women performed at the Tour (ex: Julie de Wilde and Julie van de Velde).

Imagine the crowds that would show up to see their World Champion line up at the Tour?!

But, sacrifices must be made in an Olympic year. Remember in 2021 when Annemiek van Vleuten skipped the Giro Donne to prepare for the Tokyo Games and SD Worx made the whole race look like a joke? Anna van der Breggen, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Demi Vollering wiped the floor with everyone all week, sweeping the podium on multiple stages and the final overall classification. Kopecky’s potential absence from the biggest stage race on the women’s calendar could have a similar effect, but this time against SD Worx’s dominance.

That may not be the only disappointing turn in 2024. Other riders are in for a tough choice also, but some will see the Olympics happening pre-Tour as an advantage. Others may make the opposite choice. Kasia Niewiadoma, who is not a favourite for the sprinter-y Olympic road course, is rumoured to be considering forgoing the Olympics to have a better run at the Tour. The Polish rider has twice finished third at the Tour but was one of the most talked-about riders of the 2023 race after her gutsy move on the Col du Tourmalet.

Olympic years are always weird, but they also spur some of the best racing we see all season long. The Classics are always on fire, with riders wanting to prove their worth to their nations for selection to the Games, and it’s not only the top riders testing their competition, it’s the entire peloton that is on another level.

Something to look forward to in 2024, but until then, all this talk of Lotte Kopecky leads perfectly into what I wanted to discuss this week …

? Let’s discuss ?

The best rider of the year.

Speaking of Lotte Kopecky, this week on the Wheel Talk Podcast we talked through some end-of-the-year ‘awards’. As is normally the case we agreed on a lot of things, but when it came to Rider of the Year a clear divide formed. For the sake of argument, I’ll say Matt de Neef sided with me (tbf, he didn’t not side with me) that Demi Vollering was the top rider of 2023, however, Loren Rowney and Gracie Elvin both argued that Kopecky deserved the title.

Off the back of the men’s Velo d’Or award given to Jonas Vingegaard, a rider who focused solely on two races all year long while other riders consistently impressed all year round on multiple terrains, perhaps it’s worth having a wider discussion about what exactly constitutes a “Rider of the Year.”

On the women’s side, it is a little more cut and dry. The best rider of 2023 was always going to come from SD Worx, for one. The team won almost every race on the calendar and was the driving force for the whole season, but much like the finale of Strade Bianche, two riders finished the season neck-in-neck for the title. Your candidates:

Lotte Kopecky smirks during the Tour de France Femmes stage 1 post-stage interview.
Kopecky after winning the first stage of the Tour de France Femmes.

Lotte Kopecky

Scrolling through Kopecky’s FirstCycling stats, the number of little highlighted 1’s is almost ridiculous. From her first road race of the season (Omloop Het Nieuwsblad) to her final WT road race of the season (Simac Ladies Tour), Kopecky was winning. She won Ronde van Vlaanderen for the second year in a row, both Belgian national titles, a stage of the Tour (which resulted in her wearing yellow until the penultimate stage where she headed the lead to Vollering but remained second overall by the end), and the World Championships road title.

All in all, Kopecky won 16 races including individual stages and overall classifications, with 24 podiums. She amassed 4,379 UCI points to finish the season second overall in the ranking. She raced 3,942 km over the course of 34 race days, not including her time spent on the track (where she won a couple of World Cups and European Championship titles to go with her two rainbow jerseys).

Numbers aside, the most impressive aspect of Kopecky’s season was her versatility and sustained success. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Flanders are right up her alley, but her overall performance at the Tour de France Femmes should lend some weight to the argument that she is the top rider of the year. From the first stage, where she attacked on a short, poppy climb to solo to victory and yellow, to the fourth stage where she decided to attack randomly and for reasons no one could quite figure out, to the seventh Col du Tourmalet stage where she climbed to sixth on the day and held onto an overall podium finish. To follow up that week with the Road Worlds title was just unreal. And Kopecky won literally from her first race to almost her last: at least one victory a month from February through September.

Demi Vollering, eyes closed, tilts her head to the sky after winning the seventh stage of the 2023 Tour de France Femmes
Vollering after winning the Queen stage of the Tour de France Femmes, 2023.

Demi Vollering

Vollering’s season by the numbers isn’t all that different from Kopecky’s. She perhaps didn’t win her first race of the year but she won her second (Strade Bianche), although that came with its own drama (Kopecky was second, but did they both know they were racing? It’s up for debate). She won all three Ardennes Classics, a feat only accomplished by one other rider (her coach, Van der Breggen). But that’s where the argument starts to get more complex.

Vollering did not win La Vuelta Fememina even though she won two stages. She was second overall after an ill-timed pee stop. She handed over Itzulia Women to her teammate Marlen Reusser (but finished second) before finally winning the Vuelta a Burgos. Then she finished second at the Tour de Suisse, again behind Reusser, before winning the Dutch national road title.

Her most notable result of the year was her overall victory at the Tour de France Femmes, where she also won the queen stage atop the Col du Tourmalet, a stage she made look easy with her climbing ability. From there she finished second behind Kopecky at the Worlds and ended the year by winning the Tour de Romandie, almost on accident (she had said she wanted Reusser to win the overall).

She ended the season with 17 wins, and 28 top threes after 5,281 km of racing over 47 race days. Her results easily landed her top of the UCI rankings with a whopping 6,053 points.

So who is the best?

It’s hard to compare different styles of rider; the key is to look at who has done better for the type of rider they are. Vollering is very good at climbing, but she can also excel in one-day classics that have short punchy climbs (like the Ardennes). Her best results came from stage races, but of the three major stage races of the year, she only won one of them (Van Vleuten won the other two so you could argue she remains the best week-long stage racer for the women).

“Yes, but she could have won the Vuelta if …” but she didn’t, results speak for themselves.

Vollering had an excellent season. She performed exactly to the standard we all expected her to, winning the Tour and a handful of other races along the way.

Kopecky, on the other hand, far exceeded everyone’s expectations both on terrain that suited her and where in years past she would have been a non-factor. Her photo-finish second at Strade Bianche was the first sign, even if she beat Van Vleuten to the line in the same race last year. From there she continued to impress in one-day races, culminating in a string of performances at the Tour and Worlds that will be talked about for years to come. Along the way she amassed countless fans for her racing style and her subtle humour (she’s actually hilarious) where Vollering lost fans by complaining about things like being docked time at the Tour and making poor tactical decisions in critical moments.

So who was the better rider? As Gracie pointed out on the podcast, it depends on what you think makes for a good bike racer. Do you lean more towards climbers and stage races or is it one-day efforts you prefer?

Either way, Kopecky’s season overall and her ability to go above and beyond what she has done in previous seasons are the markings of a true champion. And my mind has officially been changed.

? The joys of social media ?

Good luck sleeping after you see Lonneke Uneken’s Halloween costume last year…

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Team SD Worx (@teamsdworx)

A throwback for you on this, the 31st of October. Marlen Reusser shared a snap of the whole team dressed up, with some far less terrifying options represented.

?️ A picture worth a couple words ?️

A constant theme of Gracie’s choices for end-of-year awards was Alison Jackson’s Paris-Roubaix Femmes victory. From “Tactical Genius” to “Wholesome Moment” to “Best Finish,” Jackson’s name was always mentioned.

It was without question one of the best races of the year, with a worthy winner who not only has worked her way to victory through years of sacrifice but also brings fun into the sport that is desperately needed.

So this week I thought I would share this photo from a few years ago when Jackson raced for Liv Racing and was the Canadian national champion.

Canadian national champion Alison Jackson does jazz hands on the start podium of Paris Roubaix Femmes.

This snap, taken by the Grubers, was at the start of the 2022 edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Little did she know she would win the race a year later, but this was the morning it would all change. It was the second edition when Jackson truly fell in love with the event, and when she started to think about how she could win it.

? Your weekly dose of Taylor Swift ?

It’s been a great week for fans of Taylor Swift. The singer finally released the re-record of 1989, the album that truly changed the trajectory of her career back in 2014. Prior to its original release, Swift was a country artist. Sure, she dabbled in pop on her previous record Red, but it wasn’t until 1989 that she fully leaned into being a pop icon.

The first track Welcome to New York also welcomed the listener to a whole new version of Swift, one that would eventually lead to her fall from public grace a few years later, after her star rose a little too high for some people (I will probably dive into this in a later newsletter).

For me, 1989 was the soundtrack to some of the best years of my life. In a way, I was living the cycling version of Swift’s girl squad (it was my first year on a team), I was navigating heartbreak and changes in how I saw myself and my future. It was a crazy time, and I leaned on Swift’s music for dance parties around the kitchen with my mom, during training intervals, and as I cried alone in my car in the Target parking lot.

It is without question the re-record I have been looking forward to the most, and boy did it deliver. The original songs are somehow better (I will not comment on Style), but as with the other re-records it’s the Vault Tracks that have blown me away. In particular Is It Over Now? which is a certified banger:

This song has Jack Antonoff all over it. It could just be a Swift featuring Bleachers track, and I, for one, can’t get enough of this duo.

? Until next time! ?

Thanks so much, again, for reading this edition of the Wheel Talk Newsletter! This content, along with Jonny Long’s Spin Cycle and Matt de Neef’s Down Under Digest, is only made possible by the members of the Escape Collective. If you’re not a member, perhaps consider signing up. You will be supporting us here at EC and getting tons of fantastic content, with no paywall to get in your way. Plus, we have an awesome community over on the EC Discord.

Another perk of being a member? Well, the Wheel Talk Podcast is done for the season, Gracie, Loren, and I will be back in January to chat about Tour Down Under and more, but the episodes won’t stop for good. You can find exclusive interviews, deep dives and more on our Members Only Podcast feed. We might even throw in a Q&A episode or two.

And speaking of Wheel Talk … thank you to everyone who has made the first season of the new and improved podcast a success. I never dreamed I would still be doing the podcast in 2023, and somehow this year was the best we’ve ever had, all thanks to the listeners. I couldn’t do it without you.

Until next time ?

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