Oudenaarde erupted when Lotte Kopecky crossed the finish line in the 2022 Tour of Flanders. Huge crowds bounced and bellowed with chants of glory that felt as if they would be heard across the nation. Jupiler beer was hurled across swathes of fans, the Belgians were dancing in their very own type of rain. Reporters and photographers rushed to the woman in the black, yellow and red, cramming together to get a glimpse of their star.
Lotte Kopecky had saved the hopes of many home fans in the country's most important weekend of cycling. She embraced her teammates, grinning, celebrating and basking in well-deserved accolades.
The delight of the home nation was understandable: Kopecky’s win captured everything that is so special about Flanders. After years curtailed by the pandemic, the crowds that have always brought life to the grey cobbled streets were back. With them, they added colour to the landscape, piercing the sky with proud yellow flags. They brought the sound of laughter and passion to the usually hushed countryside. They shouted and clapped for Kopecky with gusto, their chants laced with a hint of delirium, only a thin metal barrier separating them from the Belgian champion as she stormed over the cobbled roads she grew up on.
Also characteristic of Flanders was the inclement weather faced by the women’s peloton. As unpredictable as the racing itself, the skies shifted from clear blue to a cold, smokey black as the riders came closer to Oudenaarde. As the race reached its climax, the clouds began to spit hail on the riders below. For our protagonist, though, who grew up under these moody, erratic skies, this was of no concern. “When it started raining I was smiling inside,” Kopecky said menacingly in the post-race press conference.
Although it will be Kopecky who will make the headlines of Belgian press on Monday morning, she was the first to admit that her win in De Ronde was a result of the collective strength of her team, SD Worx. The Dutch outfit’s perfect performance was a key factor in Kopecky’s fairytale ending – they were on-hand from the start of the race to ensure the team was represented in any dangerous moves. Marlen Reusser and Christine Majerus proved themselves reliable and loyal domestiques, present in every key attack throughout the day.
Alert to the risk of Annemiek van Vleuten launching a blistering attack on the Paterberg, as she did last year, Kopecky was glued to the wheel of her rival on the final climb of the day. As Van Vleuten admitted after the race, “the climbs here are too short, and I need a super hard race to be able to drop riders like Lotte.”
At crunch time, when the riders had crested the final climb, SD Worx made up half the number in the race’s lead group of six.
Lotte Kopecky marks Annemiek van Vleuten as the Belgian's SD Worx teammate Chantal van den Broek-Blaak drives the group to the finish (Credit: Tornanti.cc)
The experience of their previous winner of the race, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, shone through in the final run to the line. With 11km remaining, the 32-year-old launched an impeccably timed stealth attack to open a big gap on her rivals, forcing Van Vleuten to chase. “I saw Chantal Blaak and I felt like I could not let her go, so my only mission was to go and get her,” explained the Movistar rider in her post-race interview.
With Kopecky locked to Van Vleuten's wheel as she clawed her way back to van den Broek-Blaak, SD Worx had forced a perfect situation. It was two against one. The combination of riders was ideal for the Dutch team too: Chantal van den Broek-Blaak is a specialist in long-range attacks, with a supreme ability to ride at a high tempo in a style that looks effortless to those watching from home. Behind her, Lotte Kopecky is one of the fastest sprinters in the peloton. In a situation so perfectly manipulated by SD Worx, there was little that Van Vleuten could do to save her race.
Instructions from the team car confirmed the plan: van den Broek-Blaak would ride on the front and they’d rely on Kopecky to win the final sprint. “We had 25 seconds so I thought, it's not a moment to gamble,” said the Belgian champion afterwards. “At this moment we are with two on the podium and I think I'm the faster one compared to Annemiek so I had to have the confidence and see that I could finish it.”
It was a lot of pressure to bear for the 26-year old. With the men’s Belgian champion, Wout van Aert, not starting his race, Kopecky had the weight of a nation on her shoulders. It was logical thinking and a true racing instinct that helped her to the line first.
“There was a slight headwind coming from the left side, so if Chantal stayed on the right, then Annemiek was in the wind already,” Kopecky explained. “I thought she was going to make a long sprint of it, like she did in Omloop [Het Nieuwsblad] with Demi Vollering. When she started sprinting, I knew I had to go myself immediately and just sprint until the finish line.”
The immediate implications of Kopecky’s win are clear: it’s a reward for the hard work and sacrifice of her teammates and the perfect ending to an important day for Belgian fans. But could a female rider winning in the tricolore have a bigger impact on the country and its attitudes towards cycling?
There’s a notable difference in reporting on the men’s race compared to the women’s in the country. Though the fans were still impressive, there were fewer lining the sides of the road awaiting the female peloton. A Belgian rider hasn’t won the women's Tour of Flanders for 12 years. It could be that Kopecky’s win has the potential to cause a wave of change across Belgian attitudes to women’s racing.
The winner herself hopes that her victory will reach further, too. “I hope young girls can start dreaming of winning this race,” Kopecky said after the race. “I hope this will get a lot of young women on their bikes.”
Cover image: Tornanti.cc/@tornanti_cc