Drama, duels and dominance: Why the 2023 women’s cycling season was one to remember

This year saw rivalries, emotional finishes, historic moments and there was one woman who stood out amongst it all

Those following the 2023 women's cycling season have been on one wild ride. From a shocking SD Worx sprint at Strade Bianche, to TikTok dances at Paris-Roubaix, to controversial toilet stops at the Vuelta Femenina and much more, this is a year that has really had it all. There have been certain riders who have dominated the headlines, namely the likes of Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering, and there have also been some historical moments that have signified a real step forward for the women’s side of the sport.

With this in mind, we’ve picked out some of our favourite memories from this year’s women’s cycling season that will live on far beyond 2023.

The Strade Bianche showdown

“We are killers,” was the quote from Demi Vollering in her press conference just a few hours after she crossed the finish line of Strade Bianche Donne this year, narrowly beating her teammate, Lotte Kopecky, to victory. That brutal, adrenaline-filled sprint between the two riders as the blazing Tuscan sun beat down on the roads of the Piazza del Campo is a memory that is etched in the minds of all watching Strade Bianche that day. It was not the hand-holding, picture-perfect PR image of two teammates crossing the line together, but instead a shocking, surprising and unforgettable battle that furiously split opinions in the cycling world.

Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

Once the road kicked up to the iconic Strade finish line, should Vollering and Kopecky have been given word from their sports directors regarding which of them should take victory if they came to the line as a pair? Should Kopecky, who had won the race before, have given the win to Vollering, as a gift to say thank you for the work the Dutch rider had done on the white roads? Or was it the right decision altogether to let the road decide who would take victory, leaving it up to the raw power of each rider’s sprint?

Either way, the 2023 edition of Strade Bianche Donne turned out to be one of the most controversial and exciting in recent memory. The tension between Vollering and Kopecky at the end of the race (before the results were given and smiles were plastered on faces) summed up everything the two SD Worx riders are as racers. They are programmed to win, fierce and driven competitors who rank standing on the top step of the podium above all else. It also was an example of the reasons why professional bike racing is one of the most complicated, nuanced and intriguing sports in the world – Vollering and Kopecky had come to Strade Bianche as part of the same team, yet how can we really expect them to race as a team if only one rider gets to stand on the top step of the podium? Strade Bianche Donne was a complex web of emotions, tactics and tension.

A Paris-Roubaix party

Each year, we can always rely on the rumble in Roubaix to provide such entertainment that fans are glued to their TV screens for hours on end. The chaos and crashes on slippery cobbles make Roubaix both feared and revered by riders, and each year a worthy victor emerges from the Hell of the North. While everyone earns their cobblestone trophy, it’s fair to say that there’s never been a Roubaix winner quite like the Canadian TikTok Queen, Alison Jackson.

It was undoubtedly Jackson’s victory celebrations that made the most headlines from Roubaix this year, from her wild dancing as she crossed the finish line, to her belting out to the 'Oh Canada' anthem on the podium and cradling the cobblestone trophy like a baby. “This little rock here, hopefully I can teach him some dance moves,” Jackson joked in her post-race press conference. “I've got to do a few more push ups to include him in some dances, but I think we're just going to fully enjoy the win and then we'll see what comes after that.”Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

Jackson’s victory might have been made famous by her viral dance routines, but Paris-Roubaix Femmes this year should be remembered for other reasons, too. It signified a change in the way the women’s peloton approaches the race, following a much more similar pattern to the one we often see in the men’s race. Jackson won from a breakaway which established itself early on in the race and didn’t include any of the pre-race favourites. The Canadian rider explained afterwards that she had been encouraging her breakaway companions to keep pulling turns right up to the gates of the iconic Roubaix velodrome before the group sprinted it out for glory. In the two previous editions of Paris-Roubaix Femmes, the race has ended up being a sort of war of attrition – tactics have been secondary and it has been each rider’s physical strength (and luck) that has given them victory. Jackson’s Roubaix win showed a development in how the women’s peloton approaches the hellish cobbles, leading to a much more complex and engaging race. Mark April 6 2024 in your calendars, sports fans, and we can do it all over again.

The kids are alright

The first ever women’s edition of the prestigious under-23 race, the Tour l’Avenir took place in 2024, something that has been a long time coming. We can talk about why it’s taken 59 years for it to be added to the calendar, but we can also be grateful for the fact it exists now, and consider what an important step forward it is for the development of women’s cycling as a whole.

While there are a few teams, such as AG Insurance-NXTG, and a few races, such as the Watersley Ladies Challenge, trying to create opportunities for under-23 female riders, there’s still plenty of work to be done. At present, the option for most as they leave the junior ranks is to step straight into elite racing, leaving just one winter to train from race distances to go from 70km to 170km. This can lead to many female riders dropping out of the sport, unable to immediately secure results in the elite ranks and hence becoming demoralised and unable to make a living from being a cyclist. The introduction of the Tour l’Avenir Femmes is a positive step towards creating a proper development structure for the women’s side of the sport, offering a stage for under-23 women to test themselves against riders with the same age and experience as them.Image: Tour l'Avenir Femmes

The first edition of the Tour l’Avenir Femmes this year attracted a star-studded field of young riders, proving the appetite and necessity for the event. Shirin van Anrooij took the eventual race win, beating Anna Shackley (who rides for SD Worx and is usually racing in service of bigger stars on her team). While these riders are already contracted to WorldTour teams, Van Anrooij explained that having high profile riders like herself turn up to race L’Avenir gave the race “the attention it needed being the first edition.” It’s true that the event garnered plenty of media coverage and fan interest, and hopefully it will grow as the years continue. Women’s cycling is in dire need of a development structure, and this was a positive step.

A whole Lotte love

It all started with a victory at Omloop het Nieuwsblad to begin a year which will, no doubt, be one of the most memorable in Lotte Kopecky’s career. The SD Worx rider’s season has been impeccable – after Nieuwsblad, she defended her Tour of Flanders title, then went on to finish second in the Amstel Gold Race, then she won the Internationale LOTTO Thüringen Ladies Tour and, once again, did the double at the Belgian National Championships, winning the road race and time trial. It was at the Tour de France Femmes where Kopecky’s breathtaking strength and versatility as a rider really shone through; the woman who once was regarded as a Classics specialist wore the yellow jersey for six days straight after winning the opening stage. On the Col du Tourmalet, Kopecky managed to cling on to the group of GC favourites so she didn’t concede too much time, eventually finishing in second place overall.Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

Without even heading back to Belgium to see the impact she was having on growing women’s cycling in her home nation, Kopecky then flew straight to Glasgow to pick up a plethora of rainbow jerseys. The biggest one of them all was won in the World Championship Road Race, where Kopecky took victory dominant fashion, dropping her rivals on the tough city centre circuit with an exhibition of skill and strength. She did so despite being the pre-race favourite and carrying a weight of pressure and expectation on her shoulders – a testament to the 28-year-old’s mental fortitude.

This stunning year on the bike for Kopecky is made even more impressive when considering the personal struggles she went through after the sudden loss of her brother, Seppe Kopecky, in March. Just four days after he passed away, Kopecky raced and won the Belgian semi-Classic, Nokere Koerse, with a solo victory, one that seemed fuelled by the grief she was battling through. While Kopecky is a spectacular bike racer, her emotions after that race showed who she is as a human and was an example of why so many fans root for her each time she takes to the start line.

Tears atop the Tourmalet

There are only a few mountains in the world with the same aura and legend that comes with the Col du Tourmalet. It is a climb that is steeped in Tour de France history, dating back to the 10th stage of the 1910 Tour de France when winner, Octave Lapize, shouted "Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!" at race organisers as he crossed the line, accusing them of being murderers for the severity of the stage. Since then, the likes of Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Thibaut Pinot have conquered the Tourmalet in famous stage victories. When ASO announced that the Tourmalet would be part of the 2023 edition of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, it was a big step forward for the race, giving the current crop of riders in the women’s peloton to create their own history on such an iconic mountain.

Image: A.S.O./Thomas Maheux

The stage itself did not disappoint, made exciting by Kasia Niewiadoma’s attack in the valley before the Tourmalet, where it looked like the Canyon//SRAM rider might have pulled a fast one on favourites Demi Vollering and Annemiek van Vleuten. Niewiadoma’s descent of the Col d’Aspin was a thing of beauty: the Polish rider took each hairpin with skill and elegance, opening a gap on her rivals purely through her exceptional technical abilities. In the end, it was Vollering who would take victory in the mist at the very top of the Tourmalet, with Niewiadoma in second and defending champion Van Vleuten in third place, over two minutes behind Vollering.

The stage was a pivotal moment of the season, showing a changing of the guard as Van Vleuten was beaten on her favoured terrain by her younger rival, Vollering, after years of being the very best climber in the women’s peloton. The thick fog and rain showers only made the scene even more dramatic, with Niewidaoma collapsing on the tarmac as she crossed the finish line, exclaiming “F*ck! What the f*ck!” at what she’d just done. Vollering matched her colleague’s emotional response, tearful, reflective and grateful in all of her post-race interviews. It felt like an important moment in the history of the sport which will be remembered even as the Tour de France Femmes continues.

What to do about Demi?

And amongst all the chaos, drama, intrigue and rivalry, there was one rider who emerged from it all unscathed: Demi Vollering. The Dutch rider’s consistency and strength in 2024 has been a marvel for all fans watching and a headache for all her competitors – Vollering has calmly and confidently stepped into the role of women’s cycling’s latest superstar. As leader of the world-beating SD Worx squad, Vollering’s results from this season are jaw-dropping, she’s won Strade Bianche, all three Ardennes Classics, the Dutch National Road Championships, Vuelta Burgos, the Tour de Romandie, and, of course, the Tour de France Femmes (not to mention her plethora of podium finishes.)Image: Zac Williams/SWpix

When it comes to the climbs, there seems to be no beating the Dutch rider, she’s proved herself to be stronger than even Van Vleuten, the rider who, for so long, was unbeatable in the high mountains. Vollering’s ability to shoulder pressure and perform should be applauded – she dealt with controversy at races like the Tour de France Femmes with admirable grace and dignity. While there have been rumours swirling about inter-team rivalry or unsportsmanlike toilet stops in races, Vollering appears to have answered it all with her performances on the bike, showing unflappable strength throughout the season.

With Van Vleuten retiring at the end of 2023, the question remains: is there anyone who will be able to beat Vollering in 2024, or are we in for another season of SD Worx obliterating their competition? There are certainly other teams, such as Movistar, Canyon//SRAM and Lidl-Trek, who are up for the challenge of dethroning Demi, but will they succeed? There’s never been a better time to be watching women’s bike racing – here’s to plenty more next year.

Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix

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