Women’s Tour of Flanders preview: Can anyone beat Lotte Kopecky?

With her current form the World Champion is the one to beat on Sunday, but Lidl-Trek is breathing down her back.

Abby Mickey
by Abby Mickey 30.03.2024 Photography by
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Before there was a Paris-Roubaix Femmes for women the Tour of Flanders was the final big race of the spring. The last chance to secure a career-changing result, the last time the chips could fall in your favour. Riding into the final 10 km of the Tour of Flanders often comes with feelings of sadness; it would be almost a year before the Classics rear their head again.

Once the Hell of the North was introduced to the women’s calendar the Tour of Flanders was no longer the final cobbled race of the spring, but the inclusion of Paris-Roubaix Femmes hasn’t changed what the Tour of Flanders means to the riders. Women dream of lining up for this iconic cobbled race; on hard training days they imagine winning it, surrounded by (slightly intoxicated) fans and Vlaamse Leeuw flags.

It’s a race targeted by the best of the best and the back of the pack alike; every rider on that start line will bring their A-game. Because of this, the race is always full gas. Every team that is nervous for the finale wants a rider up the road, and everyone wants to be at the front for the bergs. It’s a constant state of stress and anticipation in the peloton, and the racing is top.

The Basics

When: Sunday 31 March

Distance: 163 km

Live coverage: 🇬🇧 Discovery+, 🇺🇸 and 🇨🇦 FloBikes, 🇦🇺 SBS (with Gracie Elvin commentary!!) starting at 15:00 CET, finishing roughly around 18:30 (finish after the men’s race ends).

Weather: As of writing there is a 55% chance of rain during the race, with 54% cloud cover so the cobbles will probably be wet. Wind is unlikely to be a significant factor, but there might be gusts to around 30 km/h, especially earlier in the day.

The Course

The course for this year’s Tour of Flanders is slightly different. Although the women cover one less climb than last year, they will have to pass over three more cobbled sectors. There is also an additional 5 km from the 2023 edition.

The women roll out of Oudenaarde and race only 9 km before they first encounter some pavé. Lange Munte, the first sector, isn’t crazy. It’s roughly 2.5 km in length and the next set doesn’t come until almost 40 km later so there’s plenty of time for any splits to come back together, but if the roads are wet the peloton will already be scrambling at this point to organize. Top teams will keep the pace high to make sure their top riders are safe going into this early sector.

From there there is a break from obstacles until kilometre 48.7 when the race crosses Lippenhovestraat, a 1.3 km cobble sector that goes into a sharp righthand turn. It is followed almost immediately by the Paddestraat cobbles.

Twenty-ish km after the 1.5 km Paddestraat, the race will hit its first berg. The Wolvenberg marks the beginning of the climbing. It’s a 650-metre ascent averaging 7.9%: nothing too big just yet, but it will string out the peloton. From there the climbs and cobbles come thick and fast. Two more cobbled sectors – Kerkgate (1.4 km) and Jagerij (800 metres) – come before they race up the Molenberg (465 m at 7%), the Marlboroughstraat (2 km at 3%, 7% max), the Berendries (940 m at 7% with 12% max), the Valkenberg (540 m, 8% with max of 12.8%) and the Kapelleberg (1.1 km at 5.9%, 10% max).

After the Kapelleberg the race is in its crunch point with 53 km to go. From here the peloton will be gearing up for the really critical climbs to come. The race will take a brief trip into Oudenaarde, avoiding the start-finish, before it heads out to the famous Koppenberg (600 m, 11.6% average with 22% max).

Last year the Koppenberg was covered in mud and provided a bit of insanity for the women; only Marlen Reusser and Silvia Persico stayed on their bikes, and the rest of the peloton was forced to dismount and walk. The climb was only included in the women’s race starting in 2022, and you can read a bit more about that in this week’s Wheel Talk Newsletter.

The Koppenberg is where the race truly goes to pieces. It is followed by a series of cobbled climbs and pavé – the Steenbeekdries (1.1 km, 3% average, 7.6% max), Stationsberg (700 m), Taaienberg (530 m, 6.6% average, 15.8% max), and the Oude Kruisberg/Hotond (2.7 km, 4.1% average, 9.4% max).

With 25 km to go there is a brief reprieve from the bergs but not from the racing, as things come back together or fracture further before the final two ascents of the race, the Oude Kwaremont (2.2 km, 4% average, 11.6% max) with 16.7 km to go and the final climb, the Paterberg (360 m, 12.9% average, 20% max) with 13 km to go.

After that final ascent, it’s a flat run to the finish back in Oudenaarde. It’s a tricky point in the race; in the past we have seen groups regain contact before the line, but it’s touch and go and normally if a rider or group of riders can distance themselves on the final two climbs, they will make it to the finish without any other riders joining them.

Top contenders: Lotte Kopecky…

At Gent-Wevelgem when the race hit the Kemmelberg it was always Kopecky on the front. The World Champion was riding like it was a summer morning coffee spin with mates while the peloton crumbled around her. After the race, she said she had been bored and just wanted to test the legs a bit. Maybe it’s all a bluff; more likely the Belgian woman is looking forward to her third Tour of Flanders victory in a row, this time while wearing the rainbow jersey.

At Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday Kopecky easily bridged to a strong move made by Lidl-Trek, but then seemed to be playing it safe and letting other riders in the move work as Marianne Vos and Shirin van Anrooij rode away. There was a sense during the race that she wanted to be in the front of it, but wasn’t willing to exert too much extra effort for the win. Saving it up for Sunday?

Other riders to watch

Kopecky’s teammate Demi Vollering returned to racing at Dwars door Vlaanderen after a stint at altitude. Vollering suffered a mechanical on Wednesday that pretty much took her out of contention when the moves started firing.

The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift winner was runner-up to Kopecky at Flanders in 2023 but has never won this race. She could absolutely win it; we’ve seen her win Dwars door Vlaanderen before as well as all three Ardennes Classics. But with the importance of this race to Kopecky it might be another year before Vollering gets to have a go. If something should go wrong for the World Champion, Vollering is one step behind ready to take on leadership.

A cyclist raises their arms in the air at the finish like of a race. She is surrounded by other riders who look like they are in pain.
In 2023 Vollering won the “sprint” to take second behind a solo Kopecky.

SD Worx-Protime also has Marlen Reusser, who hasn’t been at her best since contracting COVID-19 earlier in the spring but will be coming back into form any day now. The Dutch team’s sprinter Lorena Wiebes was following Kopecky easily at Gent-Wevelgem, and it’s entirely possible she is able to follow again at the Tour of Flanders. Even if she does make it to the line with a reduced bunch, she was clear after Sunday’s race that it’s Kopecky’s turn to shine.

The second-strongest team on the start line is Lidl-Trek, with three possible options with Elisa Longo Borghini, Elisa Balsamo, and Shirin van Anrooij. Longo Borghini is their most likely leader. The Italian national champion won solo in 2015 and finished third behind Vollering last year. But Balsamo is currently displaying the best form of her life. She won Classic Brugge-De Panne and Trofeo Alfredo Binda before finishing second to Lorena Wiebes in a photo finish on Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem. She may struggle over those final climbs, but her displays to this point have been impressive.

Two cyclists ride up a cobbled road with hundreds of fans lining the side

Van Anrooij has been strong all season riding in support of Balsamo, and as we come into races that aren’t as tailored to the former World Champion, Van Anrooij will get a chance to step up. On Wednesday she made the winning move but ultimately finished a close second to Vos.

Last year she won Trofeo Alfredo Binda and has only improved since then. A podium finish is not out of the question for the young Dutchwoman.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Marianne Vos is finally back in the peloton after a long block of training. She wasn’t quiet about her return to racing; she just dove right in there and walked away with a win on Wednesday at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Her early season form was impressive, and going into Flanders she should have levelled up. The G.O.A.T. has only won the Tour of Flanders once in her career, back in 2013. Since then the peloton has changed immensely, but Vos has always risen to the level.

A woman in cycling clothing raises her arms over her head on a podium

The only rider able to follow Kopecky and Wiebes at Gent-Wevelgem was DSM Firmenich-PostNL’s Pfeiffer Georgi. The British National Champion continues to improve and impress with a kick and her current form; if she can stick to Kopecky’s wheel she might be able to take the Belgian woman in the finale. It would be a tall task, but with Charlotte Kool sitting out of Flanders, the Dutch team only has Georgi to ride for.

Another rider returning to the peloton after some time away is Kasia Niewiadoma. The Canyon-SRAM rider has never podiumed at Flanders but remains a favourite because of her attacking style. Eventually, it’s going to come together for the fan favourite, and this year she is on a mission.

Niewiadoma’s chances are only strengthened by the presence of Chloe Dygert. The American National Champion has continued her rise in women’s road cycling, placing sixth at Classic Brugge-De Panne last week. She was strong at Gent-Wevelgem as well and finished in the reduced peloton. The more selective the race on Sunday, the better she will do.

Two cyclists race up a cobbled climb lined by fans

Movistar has some interesting options with Emma Norsgaard and Arlenis Sierra. The two are underdogs in the race, but both are strong and capable of being up there.

Then there are a few other riders worth mentioning: UAE Team ADQ’s Karlijn Swinkels, Lily Williams of Human Powered Health, and Amber Kraak of FDJ-Suez. Kraak’s team will be aggressive, and Kraak could benefit. The Dutchwoman won the final stage of the UAE Tour with a successful day-long move, and her team has been really active in the one-day races up to this point. Swinkels and Williams both have been impressive lately, a podium would be a hard get but a notable performance is well within reach.

Finally, Puck Pieterse was a late addition to the startlist. While she’s never done this race, the cyclocross star has been all over the front of the Classics since Ronde van Drenthe. With the selective nature of the Tour of Flanders, there’s no doubt she will be up there.

Star Ratings

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Lotte Kopecky
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Demi Vollering, Marianne Vos
⭐️⭐️⭐️: Elisa Longo Borghini, Pfeiffer Georgi, Puck Pieterse
⭐️⭐️: Kasia Niewiadoma, Elisa Balsamo, Emma Norsgaard
⭐️: Marlen Reusser, Lorena Wiebes, Chloe Dygert, Shirin van Anrooij, Arlenis Sierra, Karlijn Swinkels

Bear 🐻 watching, but no idea how they’ll do: Amber Kraak, Lily Williams, Emma Norsgaard,

Wheel Talk Podcast picks:

Gracie Elvin: Kopecky!
Loren Rowney: Kopecky!
Matt de Neef: Kopecky
Abby Mickey: Sheesh … Pfeiffer Georgi.

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