To many in Belgium, cycling is a religion. The cobbled streets of Flanders are hallowed ground: haunted with ghosts of the Classics past. Throughout history, cycling fans have crammed the sides of narrow streets to watch bike races pass, pushing against metal barriers, shoulder to shoulder, all to catch a glimpse of the country’s sporting heroes. From Merckx, to Boonen to Wout van Aert, Belgium has a proven track record of churning out cycling talent. But, while there are more famous male cyclists from the country than you could count on both hands, Belgian presence pales in the female peloton.
Currently, there are over 70 Belgians in the men’s WorldTour, there are still only two Belgian riders in the women’s equivalent. They are Shari Bossuyt, a 21-year-old neo-pro with Canyon//SRAM, and Lotte Kopecky, Strade Bianche winner and Team SD Worx’s Classics superstar. With the younger rider still finding her feet in the professional ranks, Kopecky serves as her country’s leading female cyclist of the moment. She wears the Belgian National Champions jersey, relishes tough cobbled terrain, hops on the cyclo-cross bike in the winter and loves to race in gritty weather. Everything you’d expect from a true Flandrian rider, Kopecky is a fan favourite.
With such admiration comes a big responsibility, however, and this is something that the 26-year-old has had to learn how to shoulder throughout her rise to the top of the WorldTour. The Ronde van Vlaanderen this weekend is the pinnacle of the Belgian cycling season, and it would be understandable if Kopecky was jangling with nerves. Three days before the race, however, she speaks with an admirable calmness.
Lotte Kopecky (Image: David Powell)
“In the beginning of my career, every time I heard my name I knew so many fans on the side of the road were going to expect me to win the race and it gave me pressure,” she explains.
It’s taken a conscious shift in mentality for Kopecky to cope with the demands of an adoring Belgian public. “At this moment, I'm really trying to see it in another way. My teammates like it when people cheer me on, they say it gives them energy,” she says. “I had to do something about it so it didn’t make me feel pressured anymore. At this moment, I'm really trying to enjoy it.”
With the fans returning to the Flandrian roads for this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen after two years curtailed by the pandemic, Kopecky expects the atmosphere at the race to be heightened even further. “I really look forward to the Oude Kwaremont. That's really the coolest place on the whole course. We went there in the World Championships and that was already crazy.”
She speaks with a bright-eyed excitement, with a clear, fresh motivation. Even in her recon of the course earlier in the day, the Belgian champion explains that she’s noticed an increase in fans and media interest, still days before the main event. It’s something that she puts down to the development of women’s cycling as a whole. “I have the feeling that it is really getting more popular,” she says.
Team SD Worx on the Koppenberg (Image: Richard Abraham)
Watching Kopecky storm over the Koppenberg cobbles during her recon, her hands on the tops of the handlebars, her body expertly still as her bike juddered over the stones beneath her, it’s clear that she’s approaching the race on Sunday in excellent form. She tells me that she relishes the introduction of the Koppenberg to the women’s event for the first time and is hoping for a hard day on Sunday. “I think having the Koppenberg in this race is a really good thing, before we went to the Muur and then we had to come back. It was just too long in between which meant the power was out of the race,” she explains.
Though she would delight a home crowd if she was able to raise her arms in the air over the finish line in Oudenaarde, Kopecky is quick to note that SD Worx have a plethora of options for the win, something that also relieves her of pressure. “There's a super strong Team SD Worx next to me,” she says. “If I have a shit day on Sunday, I still have five teammates who can win every day.” The trust and rapport between the riders is clear when watching how they interact with each other. The atmosphere is jovial and light, but their collective focus is clear when discussing the race.
With the Strade Bianche win already under her belt this season, Kopecky says this takes part of the stress of winning in Flanders away. “I feel really relaxed in a way because I won Strade which is a really big classic race,” she says. There is a glint in her eye as she continues the sentence, however. “It gives my mind some rest, but also confidence that on a good day, yeah, I'm able to win a big race.”
Kopecky speaks modestly and plays down her chances, something that’s understandable given previous struggles of dealing with pressure, but the Belgian champion has a clear fire in her belly. Her laser focus and attack on the Koppenberg during the team’s recon proved that enough. If that’s how hard she rides in training, how fast will she storm up the climbs on race day? Pressure from a home crowd or not, Kopecky’s drive is impressive. SD Worx look to be a force to be reckoned with on Sunday.
Cover image: Flanders Classics