Broken hearts and bad tactics - How other teams should have raced differently to beat SD Worx at Strade Bianche

Lotte Kopecky took an emphatic win in Siena despite saying she didn’t feel her best – and her rivals could have done more to stop her

Lotte Kopecky raising her arms in the Piazza del Campo, resplendent in her rainbow stripes and winning Strade Bianche Donne for the second time in her career, is an image that few would have been surprised to see at the end of today’s race. Looking at that snapshot in isolation, it seems as if the whole thing went to script; like SD Worx dominated and Kopecky was simply too strong for anyone to do anything to stop her. The reality, however, is a very different picture. Throughout the 137 kilometres of racing up and over the white, muddy gravel roads of Tuscany, there were missed opportunities and lost chances for those who wanted to challenge SD Worx. The number one team are clinging on to their dominance by a thinning thread – others have a chance to beat them, they just need to think a little differently.

At the start of the race, it seemed as if the likes of Lidl-Trek and Canyon//SRAM had learnt their lessons about the best way to ruffle the feathers of SD Worx. When the breakaway of the day eventually established itself, the Dutch squad placed European champion Mischa Bredewold in a move which involved all of the biggest teams in the race. When the gap from the breakaway to the group of favourites grew, it seemed as if other teams were holding their nerve, mostly holding back on taking the responsibility of the chase from SD Worx. That was, however, until the race hit the Le Tolfe gravel climb for the first time. It was then when mistakes started to be made. 

Kopecky herself was the first to move, launching an attack with speed before the gravel sector even began, still with 43 kilometres remaining in the race. The result of the world champion’s acceleration was a much more slimmed down peloton behind the breakaway who remained up ahead, and the onus should have been on SD Worx to continue to set the pace when the climb concluded. However, Canyon//SRAM started to help SD Worx’s Niamh Fisher-Black chase on the front of the group, putting their noses in the wind instead of taking shelter in the wheels like pre-race favourites Demi Vollering and Kopecky were doing. 

This was not to be the only time that Canyon//SRAM played a questionable hand in today’s race. Their leader, Kasia Niewiadoma, looked to be one of the strongest riders on the steep gravel gradients, proving with her stinging attack on the second ascent of Le Tolfe that she was putting pressure on the likes of Vollering and Kopecky who clung to her wheel with gritted teeth behind. The Polish rider’s strength and tenacity here was undeniably impressive, but there should be question marks over whether this was really the best use of Niewiadoma’s superb form in today’s race. Instead of aiming to drop her rivals and go to the finish line alone – which is unlikely considering the firepower she was racing against today – she could have saved energy for later in the race, trusting in her ability to punch away on the final climb to Piazza del Campo. When Kopecky’s winning move was launched in the final throes of the race, Niewiadoma was left unable to follow the SD Worx rider, exhausted from her earlier efforts.

It wasn’t only Canyon//SRAM who made errors of judgement today against SD Worx. There were moments when Lidl-Trek took up the responsibility of the race at a time when they could have left it to the favourites. For example, with just under 30 kilometres remaining Lizzie Deignan of Lidl-Trek helped chase the remnants of the breakaway down with Vollering and Kopecky sitting calmly behind her. As the leading group came into sight, none of Deignan’s Lidl-Trek teammates took the perfect opportunity to try and launch a counter-attack. While the American team had strung things out and made the race hard, they failed to capitalise on the efforts they’d made. In fact, Lidl-Trek were arguably the strongest team collectively in the 2024 edition of Strade Bianche Donne, but they didn’t use their numbers wisely.

In addition, when Elisa Longo Borghini eventually followed Kopecky’s winning attack and the duo rode to the line, the Italian champion still took the lion’s share of the work in the closing kilometres of the race, despite Kopecky being the favourite and defending champion. There were moments where it looked like the Lidl-Trek rider could have forced Kopecky into doing more turns on the front, but instead Longo-Borghini left herself open to the inevitable finishing speed of Kopecky on the final climb.

In the end, SD Worx came out on top as they usually do, despite Kopecky saying afterwards that she didn’t feel good during the race and “suffered the whole day.” It’s fair to say that, despite winning, Kopecky didn’t look as strong as she has done in previous races by her own incredibly high standards. In fact, SD Worx as a whole rode a much safer, more passive and less dominant race at this year’s Strade Bianche Donne. It showed us that the level at the very top of women’s cycling is closer than ever, something that bodes well for the rest of the Classics season.

As a heartbroken Niewiadoma lay sobbing on the tarmac after finishing in fourth place, and Lidl-Trek had to settle with Longo-Borghini’s second, these teams should still take confidence from today’s race. There might have been two SD Worx riders on the podium in Siena, but they’d had to work very hard to get there, and there were numerous moments in today’s race where it looked like the victory could be anyone’s. SD Worx aren’t unbeatable, and other teams are slowly seeing that. For those of us watching at home, this means that racing is going to get better than ever.

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