Lotte Kopecky was a teenager when she sat in front of the television enthralled at the spectacle of her two sports heroes, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, battling for victories during the cobbled classics. They represented one of the greatest rivalries in cycling, sports celebrities of that era.
Kopecky, who hails from Rumst in the province of Antwerp, has experienced her own rise to stardom as she toes the start line wearing the black, yellow and red jersey of the national champion for SD Worx in the biggest bike race in Belgium – the Tour of Flanders.
"Belgium was already crazy, but they went nuts after my victory in Strade Bianche. But it's really nice. I feel the support from all the people much more. Even today, people supported me on the recon, which was nice," Kopecky told the press members on Thursday.
Kopecky is modest, even timid, about her rise to fame in her home region of Flanders. She told Cyclingnews that she often gets stopped while on rides or at cafes by fans who request autographs and photo opportunities. She said she enjoyed the anonymity that wearing a face mask offered her during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I was happy to wear the mouth masks," she said. "Without it, [fans] start to recognise me. I'm still not sure if I like that because sometimes I want to go for a coffee or something without people saying 'hi' every time or asking for photos. Belgium is crazy about their cyclists.
"Yes, I get asked for autographs. I was on a bike path last year, and a car passed, and they wound down the window and said, 'hey, can we have a photo?' I was like, 'right now … because I'm riding', but they wanted to stop up the road for a photo."
Last week, while watching television, Kopecky heard her name mentioned during an interview with a young cyclist. "There was a young girl who also rides her bike, and when asked, 'who's your favourite female rider?' She said, 'Lotte Kopecky.' It was really, emotional is a big word, but it did something to me."
Kopecky said that her family watched the Tour of Flanders on television when she was a kid and that Cancellara and Boonen had become her heroes. She said she didn't have female sports heroes back then because there was no way to see the women's races unless you went to the venues.
"Women's races weren't on television, so it was hard to follow," she said.
"I never went to the Tour of Flanders, but this race and Paris-Roubaix, we're actually at the races that I saw on television for the first time. It was the men because the women weren't on the television. If you see how this race is while living in Belgium, it's cool."
Tour of Flanders Women is part of the Women's WorldTour that now mandates a live broadcast of 45 minutes minimum. In addition, organisers Flanders Classics offer a live broadcast or streaming of all six of its women's events on the spring classics programme as part of the Closing the Gap initiative.
"It's super important. If I saw it myself when I was younger, there was nothing on television. It was not that as a young rider I was simply inspired by one female rider and said, 'when I'm older, I want to be like her.' And I think at this moment, this could be the thing that changes that, so now younger riders are watching our races and think like, yeah, I want to be the next big rider."
The next Lotte Kopecky is what many young female cyclists will now aspire to become as she continues to amass success in the sport shown on television around the world.
Staying calm and dealing with the pressure
Kopecky's rise to stardom has happened quite quickly alongside her steep road and track racing trajectory over the last three seasons. During the truncated revised late-season calendar in 2020, she won the national road race and time trial titles at the Belgian National Championships. She also netted a stage victory at the Giro Rosa and podium finishes at Le Samyn des Dames, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and Brugge-De Panne.
At Liv Racing last year, she took victories at Le Samyn des Dames and a stage of the Lotto Thüringen Ladies Tour, second place at Gent-Wevelgem, and four fourth places at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Nokere Koerse, and Brugge-De Panne. She defended her road and time trial titles at the Belgian Championships and then won the overall classification at the Lotto Belgium Tour.
She represented Belgium at the Olympic Games where she finished fourth in the road race. However, back-to-back crashes in the Madison and the Omnium left her with an injured hip, and she was disappointed to leave Tokyo without a medal. She later secured a world title in the Points Race at the Track World Championships.
She was also the home favourite at the UCI Road World Championships in Flanders last fall, where she told Cyclingnews that she had learnt to handle the pressures of being one of her nation's top riders while racing in a country known for its cycling culture.
"Extra pressure doesn't always help me at all, but I've learned how to deal with it over the last years," she said at that time.
Kopecky acknowledged her pre-race nerves at the start of this season, too, but said she's getting better at finding ways to stay calm.
"I have [nervousness] because you know everything is going fine in training, but you have no idea how you will go in racing. I have some stress, but I think it's healthy stress. I try to keep myself relaxed. I can waste energy thinking about it, thinking about whether it could be fine or if I'm good enough, but I've been a pro rider for a long time already, and it goes easier year by year," Kopecky said.
However, ahead of the Tour of Flanders, Kopecky said that the pressure to perform on home soil is present, but she feels more confident than in previous years with the support of a powerful team like SD Worx.
"In some way, the pressure can also be there at the Tour of Flanders. The big difference is that now I have a very strong team around me, and I am not the only person who can win the race. That's a huge difference. I dream of winning the Tour of Flanders, but it's not sure that I will win it this year.
"I want to win it once in my career, and I will peak for Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix this year, and the only thing I can hope for is that everything falls into place and that I am there when I have to be."
Kopecky said her victory at Strade Bianche has helped give her a critical confidence boost as she heads into the Tour of Flanders, especially with the addition of the iconic Koppenberg ascent to the route this year. "I'm super excited, but also, I feel calm. I mean, for me, winning Strade Bianche gave me confidence. I have the mental advantage," she said.
As the reigning Belgian Champion, Kopecky will revel in the opportunity to wear her tricolour jersey in front of home fans at one of the most famous bike races in the world on Sunday.
"It's a mythical race in Belgium, and I can wear my Belgium jersey, and there will be many fans at the sides of the roads screaming my name. I love it," Kopecky said. "I look forward to the fans. It's exciting to have all the people on the side of the roads. On the Oude Kwaremont, I look forward to that with all the people because it makes cycling so much fun. I get goosebumps, and it's a really special feeling."
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.
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