Her greatest victory? Why Paris-Roubaix was Lotte Kopecky at her sublime best

With no teammates around her, the world champion was still able to outdo a formidable Lidl-Trek duo to claim her first victory in Roubaix

When we talk about the great career success of Lotte Kopecky, we normally think of great collective triumphs of her SD Worx-Protime team rather than outstanding individualist feats. Her ascent to the top of the sport coincided with her move to the team in 2022, and her biggest results have tended to come as a result of great teamwork. At both her successive Tour of Flanders victories in 2022 and 2023 she was accompanied on the podium by her teammates Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and Demi Vollering respectively, who helped work over the opposition to clear the way for Kopecky’s victory, while Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and once again Vollering did the same for both her Strade Bianche triumphs in 2022 and earlier this year. Perhaps only last year’s World Championships in Glasgow, where she overcame the might of the Dutch squad while representing Belgium, stands out as the only exception.

Until today. Kopecky spent the majority of Paris-Roubaix on the backfoot, a visible target in her prominent rainbow jersey who everybody was aware of the threat of, and nobody wanted to work together with. And yet for all the efforts of her rivals, and the unusual lack of SD Worx-Protime domestiques available to look after her, Kopecky still came out on top. It was a performance that showcased her brilliance, and will perhaps go down as the greatest victory yet of her starry career.

From early on, it was clear that Kopecky intended to rely on and back her own strength, rather than fall back on her teammates. She was lively throughout the race, putting in several accelerations and trying to split up the race, and she instigated a particularly strong selection just over 50km from the finish on the Orchies à Bersée sector, when just Marianne Vos (Visma-Lease a Bike), Pfeiffer Georgi (Team DSM-Firmenich), Christina Schweinberger (Fenix-Deceuninck) and Lorena Wiebes (SD Worx-Protime). But when Wiebes started to fall behind on the cobbles, rather than slow down and allow her teammate to rejoin, Kopecky kept going. Numerical advantage did not matter to her: she believed she could win even without a teammate to help her.

That group was dragged back by Ellen van Dijk (Lidl-Trek) at the front of the peloton, the veteran Dutchwoman looking extremely strong and fully back to her best having only recently returned to racing following the birth of her child. Both she and Kopecky continued to trade speculative attacks over the coming kilometres, usually just after the cobbled sector when others were taking a desperately needed breather, but none managed to go decisively clear. They were both deploying similar tactics, but with a key difference — whereas Van Dijk was Lidl-Trek’s second-in-command after Elisa Balsamo, Kopecky was riding as SD Worx-Protime’s outright leader. They were bold tactics from Kopecky, and relied upon her having especially strong legs today, something which was doubtful given her struggles last weekend at the Tour of Flanders.

Kopecky knew how feared she was by the other contenders, and needed therefore to race cleverly, and did precisely that when Van Dijk did at last succeed in getting a gap over the peloton, along with Amber Kraak, on the Bourghelles à Wannehain about 25km from the finish. She refused to do all the work herself despite the reluctance of the others in the chase, and they did begrudgingly oblige, not wanting to sacrifice their own chances for victory. It was a hard chase, but by the start of the next sector (the Camphin-en-Pévèle) they were close enough for Kopecky to close the gap by herself, with just Vos and Balsamo able to follow her.

Yet for all her good work, it was still advantage Lidl-Trek as the race neared the crucial third-to-last sector of Carrefour de l'Arbre, with the team boasting two riders in the lead group thanks to Balsamo and Van Dijk, up against the isolated Kopecky, Vos and Kraak. It was a position that Kopecky has been familiar with herself many times in the past during SD Worx-Protime’s dominance, but that this year Lidl-Trek has instead made their forte. But just as it seemed as though Lidl-Trek had engineered another race-winning scenario, they made a fatal error. Van Dijk once again powered on at the front of the group upon arriving on the viscous cobbles of Carrefour de l'Arbre, but the only rider of the other four she succeeded in dropping was her teammate Balsamo. Rather than ease up immediately, she kept laying the hammer down, seemingly unaware that her teammate was dropping further and further away. Van Dijk did eventually stop, and Balsamo did manage to recover later and rejoin the group 11km from the finish after teaming up with Georgi, but, depending on how you interpret the climactic sprint in the velodrome, it was an error that arguably cost her the race.

Up until now, Kopecky has lacked her usual kick in the final sprint this season. All her previous wins this season had come from solo attacks, and she lost out to Vos at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Balsamo at Trofeo Alfredo Binda. So when the three of them arrived at the Velodrome together, along with the non-specialist sprinters Kraak, Georgi and Van Djjk, both Balsamo and Vos must have fancied their chances. Lidl-Trek certainly were banking on the Italian winning the sprint, with Van Dijk mostly riding at the front for Balsamo rather than putting all her remaining energy into a final massive attack, keeping the pace high to ensure a chasing group (now within 30 seconds of them) would not return.

But come the sprint, Kopecky rediscovered her best sprinting legs, and got the better of them both. Balsamo started her sprint early, and led for most of it, only for Kopecky to charge down the finishing straight with immense power to pip her on the line. Balsamo had to settle for second (a result she surely would have taken at the start of the spring, but was clearly disappointed with at the finish), while Vos was surprisingly edged out into third by a thrilled Gerogi. Had the long distance and severe difficulty of the race played into Kopecky’s hands? And had the extra effort she had to make to rejoin the leaders after being dropped by her teammate on Carrefour de l'Arbre ultimately cost Balsamo the extra bit of energy she needed to defeat Kopecky with? We’ll never know for sure, but for all of Lidl-Trek’s strength-in-depth, they were conquered by a sublime individual performance by Lotte Kopecky.

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