SD Worx’s Lotte Kopecky has certainly grown into her role as the yellow jersey wearer and race leader of the 2023 Tour de France Femmes. The Belgian rider has had the maillot jaune on her shoulders since the opening stage of the race when she won solo, crossing the finish line 41 seconds ahead of the rest of the peloton in Clermont-Ferrand. Since that day, Kopecky has finished second, third, fourteenth, fourth and third again in the following stages – it’s hard to argue that there is a more well-rounded and consistent rider in the peloton.
It seems that her string of outstanding performances and time in yellow has given Kopecky a refreshed lease of confidence. While the 27-year-old has, in the past, seemed reserved and shy in her interviews after big victories, she has been more vocal than ever during this year’s Tour. Perhaps it is that she feels a weight of responsibility and, to an extent, power, by having yellow on her shoulders, or perhaps it is simply a character development for Kopecky after being at the top of the women’s peloton for two seasons now, but there has been a visible shift in demeanour over the last week.
Like all of SD Worx, Kopecky has not been afraid to speak out regarding the choices of the commissaires in this race, especially relating to the 20-second time penalty that was given to her teammate Demi Vollering when she was caught drafting behind her team car after she had to stop due to a puncture in during stage five. In her post-race press conference, Kopecky commented: “Demi getting 20 seconds for this reason is bullsh*t. I mean, if you get dropped then I think it’s normal that no one should bring you back. But if you have a mechanical then, I mean, this happens all the time. And then it’s stupid that now she gets 20 seconds while it happens all the time.”
At the start of stage six in Albi, it was announced that SD Worx sports director, Danny Stam, would face further punishment for the drafting incident the day before after the UCI had reviewed the footage more extensively, and due to the sports director’s reactions when he was informed of Vollering’s 20-second penalty. The Dutchman was excluded from the race by the jury and would not be allowed in the convoy for the remainder of the Tour de France Femmes. Kopecky, who eventually finished third on stage six, spoke to Stam directly after the finish as he waited by the line in Blagnac, seemingly undeterred from attending the race even if he was banned from actually being in the SD Worx car.
The yellow jersey holder made her thoughts on Stam’s exclusion from the race clear when she spoke to the press at the end of the stage. “I heard this morning and I was a bit surprised actually. I think yesterday we already got 20 seconds and for us it feels a bit like everyone is really looking at us and if they can try to punish us then they are doing it,” Kopecky said.
“I think it’s sad not to have Danny in the car anymore because he is a really valuable member of the team but not I, nor any of the riders, can change anything about it so this morning we were actually trying to make as many jokes as possible and try to laugh about it. We cannot do anything about it so we try not to waste energy and we try to laugh about it.”
Team SD Worx will go into the crucial Tourmalet stage with Kopecky still in yellow, but with the main focus, so they say, being on Vollering fighting for the overall general classification win. Things have not always gone to plan in this Tour de France for the number one Dutch squad, but Kopecky still appeared optimistic about the team winning the yellow jersey and standing on the top step of the podium in Pau this Sunday.
“It was not the plan to go into the Tourmalet stage with the yellow jersey, that’s for sure. We had one goal and that was to try and win the Tour with Demi [Vollering] so having two stage wins and the whole Tour in yellow, for the whole team it is a very nice Tour de France already,” she explained. “Hopefully we can help Demi tomorrow and hopefully she has the legs to finish it off on the Tourmalet. I hope she gains a lot of time and that the stupid 20 seconds of yesterday will not decide this Tour de France.”
Despite Kopecky’s defiant confidence in the face of all the adversity that her team has dealt with in this Tour de France so far, it’s hard not to consider the impact that the last few days might have had on the riders of SD Worx. By teams such as Movistar quietly avoiding controversy and flying under the radar, Vollering’s key rival, Annemiek van Vleuten, has been able to steer clear from stress completely. Vollering, on the other hand, has been under scrutiny from the media and the cycling world as a result of her team’s actions and words, and she will need to show plenty of resilience to not let this impact her performance over the final two stages.