What's it like being the Belgian Champion and the home favourite racing at a World Championships held in one of the world's most historical and cycling enthusiastic regions, Flanders?
Lotte Kopecky is about to find out.
Kopecky has not competed at the marquee event in five years, but she is now ready to attempt to win the rainbow jersey on home soil at the 2021 UCI Road World Championships set to take place from September 18 to 26 in Flanders, Belgium.
In an interview with Cyclingnews, the Belgian Champion said that she'd 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 over the last years, I've learned how to deal with it. I am aware that there will be pressure on me at these World Championships, but it will be on me to control it, more or less," Kopecky told Cyclingnews.
"I want to do good in these World Championships. The pressure coming from people who want the best for me – it's really nice that they want the best for me – but it doesn't always help. I try to ignore pressure and race to the best of my ability. I will try to go for it and not feel the extra pressure too much."
Born in Rumsts in the province of Antwerp, Kopecky will be one of two of the nation's favourites lining up at the elite women's road race, together with Jolien D'hoore. The two riders have learnt to read each other well as they are also partners when representing Belgium during world-class competition in the Madison.
Kopecky believes the route caters to her strengths as an opportunist and a punchy sprinter. She and D'hoore can rely on Shari Bossuyt, Kim de Baat, Valerie Demey and Jessie Vandenbulcke for support as she takes part in her first Worlds road race since Doha 2016.
"The two of us will be the lead riders," Kopecky said.
"Everyone is breathing cycling in Belgium, and so it's cool to represent my country in a race on home soil and on a course that, I think, suits me. I'm looking forward to it."
A punchy parcour
The elite women will race 157km, including 20 short climbs and a total elevation gain of 1,047 metres. The race starts at the Grote Markt in Antwerp and travels south for 55km to the two distinct finishing circuits; the Leuven circuit includes four climbs, and the Flandrien circuit consists of six climbs.
The field will first complete one and a half loops of a local circuit Leuven, followed by one loop of the Flandrien circuit, and then two and a half final loops of the local circuit in Leuven.
"I did the course a few months ago," Kopecky said. "I think it will be a very hard race. A lot of roads are the same as Brabantse Pijl. The route is much longer, though, and more climbs. The local laps are small with lots of corners, and so it will be a very hard race."
Kopecky is a multi-discipline athlete – also racing on the track and in cyclo-cross – and she has also experienced a steep trajectory in road racing over the last two seasons. However, because of her track training each autumn, she had only competed at the World Championships on one other occasion, in Qatar in 2016.
During the truncated revised late-season calendar last fall, 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.
This year the Liv Racing rider 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 over 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 disappointed to leave Tokyo without a medal.
After a lengthy recovery period, Kopecky returned to racing at the Challenge by la Vuelta where she won the final stage in Santiago de Compostela and the point classification.
It shows that she is fully recovered and on target to perform at her best at the World Championships later this month.
SD Worx and the rainbow jersey
Kopecky picked out several other potential contenders for the world title, including Emma Norsgaard (Denmark) and Lucinda Brand (Netherlands), but perhaps surprisingly, none of the current riders racing for the powerful SD Worx team.
"I think there are several potential competitors. Those two are the biggest competitors. I think Emma Norsgaard, in my eyes, is a really big possibility. If I can be in my best shape, then I think I can say that there is a chance for me to win," Kopecky said.
In June, Kopecky announced that she would depart her current trade team Liv Racing after signing a three-year contract with SD Worx. The team is the home of current double world champion Anna van der Breggen, and has had other former world champions in Lizzie Deignan, Amalie Dideriksen and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak.
"I would love to be the next SD Worx rider wearing the rainbow jersey," Kopecky said. "There are a few strong countries, like the Netherlands, and so it will be a tough job to win. If there is a chance for me, then I will take it for sure."
For the spectators, Kopecky said to expect the best of cycling's culture and fanfare at the Road World Championships in Flanders.
"I'm expecting a lot of crowds, frites, beer, and a really nice atmosphere. If you are a cycling fan, it is worth it to come to Belgium to watch live at the World Championships."
Asked if winning a world title in the elite women's road race would make up for the disappointment of not securing a medal at the Olympic Games, Kopecky said: "I think so, yes. If I can win the World Championships, then I think I could quickly forget about what happened at the Olympic Games."
Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the 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 cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.
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