The Tour of Flanders is an inevitable target for every Belgian racer and Lotte Kopecky - the most recent home rider to land on the podium of De Ronde - is heading into Sunday's race with more confidence than ever before.
The Liv Racing captain is an accomplished track racer and Madison world champion together with compatriot Jolien D'hoore but has made steady progress on the road, most recently taking second to Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) at Gent-Wevelgem and a victory in Le Samyn.
In an interview with WielerFlits.nl, Kopecky was unequivocal about her goals for Sunday: "I will be at the start with the intention of winning the Tour of Flanders.
"If you start, you can always win. My condition has never been better than now and I have a strong team behind me. At Lotto Soudal I was on my own in the final. That is different at Liv Racing. Soraya Paladin and Alison Jackson gave a super good impression last Sunday [in Gent-Wevelgem]. The whole team is motivated and that gives me the feeling that it is possible."
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there will, as in 2020, be no spectators along the climbs or starts and finishes, draining a little of the magic from the Tour of Flanders, but that doesn't take away the glory of a victory in Vlaanderens Mooiste.
"Two years ago, when there was still an audience, I remember the passage over the Oude Kwaremont. You cannot describe that feeling. The history of the Tour is so alive, also for women," Kopecky said.
"Every participant wants that race on her palmares. It is the most important Classic of the year, along with Paris-Roubaix. It will be on our calendar for the first time (albeit postponed until October) - but that does not matter. We like to take that tradition of the men with us."
Kopecky will be up against the best riders in the sport but said she would like to put her name amongst the favourites. "I rate Anna van der Breggen and Ellen van Dijk very highly but Elisa Longo Borghini and Katarzyna Niewiadoma are also strong. There are a number of women on my favourites list. And I would like to put myself among them as well."
Kopecky has been known more of a rider for sprint finishes, but she showed in Strade Bianche that she can race aggressively and handle the climbs with the best. She attacked numerous times and made it to the final gravel sector with the leaders until an untimely puncture put her out the back. However, she doesn't expect to attack as early in the Tour of Flanders.
"I don't think I should invest energy in that. I did in Strade, because it was my first participation there and I didn't know what to expect from it. Was that course within my capabilities or not? In retrospect, it turned out to be better than expected and I should not have invested that energy in it. Last year I was able to follow the best on the climbs in the Tour of Flanders. I expect that I can now do that too. "
Kopecky took a major step forward in her career last summer when she won a stage of the Giro Rosa and the Belgian national championships.
"It may sound strange, but the lockdown last summer treated me particularly well. I pulled the plug and only went cycling when I felt like it. Only after a full month did I start training again with focus. Taking a breather gave me a tremendous boost," she said.
"It all clicked in the Giro d'Italia, where I won the seventh stage after a second and third place. Since then I have become more and more aware of my abilities and that ensures that I start a race with more confidence. I now sincerely believe that I can win if all goes well. That was much less the case in the past."
After the spring classics - which would have included Paris-Roubaix until the race was postponed - Kopecky will switch back to a focus on the track to prepare for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. She will likely forego the Brabantse Pijl to prepare for a track race in Gent.
"After the Ronde the focus will go entirely to the Games. I will still ride two shorter stage races, but that is also in preparation for Tokyo, my biggest goal of 2021."
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