How Lotte Kopecky and Mathieu van der Poel can be beaten at the Tour of Flanders

Is there any way that the men's and women's pelotons can deny Lotte Kopecky and Mathieu van der Poel at the Tour of Flanders?

Not since 2016, when Lizzie Armitstead – as she was then called – triumphed first and then Peter Sagan an hour later, has it been so likely that two world champions will win their respective editions of the Tour of Flanders: this Sunday, under expected rain showers, Lotte Kopecky and Mathieu van der Poel are the outstanding favourites to take their third De Ronde titles; in the former’s case, she’s chasing a historic third consecutive victory.

Very few wearers of rainbow jerseys disappoint, but the consistent class and form of Kopecky and Van der Poel, especially in the Classics, sets them apart as iconic figures within the sport’s history – and never has denying them victory been such a difficult challenge. Even more so in the men’s race, where in the wake of the injuries sustained to Wout Van Aert and Lidl-Trek’s Jasper Stuyven in Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, a daunting task has only become even more forbidding, and a growing number of riders have resorted to admitting that bettering Van der Poel will be “almost impossible.”

The parallels between Kopecky and Van der Poel, both 1995 babies, run deep: they are both multi-disciplinarians and world champions across codes; a potent menace on a variety of terrains and also willing to turn into devastating leadout riders for their superstar teammates (for Kopecky see Lorena Wiebes; for Van der Poel see Jasper Philipsen) if their own card fails; the standout leaders in their respective teams – Kopecky definitely so now that Demi Vollering is to depart SD Worx; and riders who want to dictate proceedings on their terms.

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It’s the latter point that provides the biggest clue in how to prevent them from running away with further glory. For all of the select group fast finishes that they have triumphed in down the years, there are just as many, if not more, occasions when their weakness has been exposed in a cat-and-mouse ending to a race. 

Just this spring, Kopecky was outfoxed by the enduring class of Marianne Vos at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and then again at Trofeo Alfredo Binda by Elisa Balsamo. Similarly, it was only one week ago that Mads Pedersen edged out Van der Poel in Gent-Wevelgem, and there are other high-stake examples in which the Dutchman has been foiled in a finish line shootout – to Kasper Asgreen in the 2021 edition of Flanders; to Biniam Girmay in the 2022 Giro d’Italia; and to Van Aert at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic in 2023.

This is not to suggest that the pair are easily beaten when taken to the line. Kopecky won her first Flanders title in 2022 in a three-way sprint, and Van der Poel prevailed against his arch rival Van Aert in 2020 and in a four-man sprint in 2022. But the odds of ensuring that they don’t chalk up another Monument on their palmarès are significantly increased when they are dragged kicking and screaming within 500m of the finish line.

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The pair want to attack solo, ideally within the final 30km of racing, and then time trial to the finish. Give them a 10 metre gap, and their closest rivals will next get close to them while they’re spraying champagne with a medal around their necks. But wear them out with regular attacks and countermoves throughout the race, especially when the kilometre to go marker ticks past 70km, and you force Kopecky and Van der Poel into being reactive rather than proactive.

Contrary to the bookmakers’ odds and the expectations of most, it is not a guarantee that we’ll see a repeat photo of 2016, of two world champions smiling on the same podium having conquered Flanders’ mythical bergs. It just requires brave, full-blooded racing, a commitment to jump on the wheels of the rainbow jersey as soon as they up the ante, and a willingness to gamble, if it comes to it, with a mano-a-mano sprint in Oudenaarde. It won’t be easy, but the world champions can be beaten.

Cover image: Zac Williams/SWPix

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