Tour of Flanders: Five conclusions from the women’s race
From the wider impact of Kopecky's win to discussions about prize money and the inclusion of the Koppenberg, VeloNews looks back on Sunday's race.
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BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) — Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) stole the show Sunday with her winning ride at the Tour of Flanders.
Kopecky beat Annemiek van Vleuten in from a three-rider sprint that saw SD Worx place two riders onto the podium with Chantal van den Broek-Blaak sweeping up third place after setting up the Belgian for glory.
The 158.6km race was an action-packed adventure through the Flemish Ardennes that continued the aggressive racing that has been on show since the start of the season.
Also read: Lotte Kopecky wants Tour of Flanders victory to inspire young girls to dream
With Paris-Roubaix on a week later than usual, the race marked the final cobbled race for a few weeks and there were plenty of talking points.
Here are five of them.
Lotte Kopecky’s win is good for cycling
A huge roar sounded out on the road into Oudenaarde as Lotte Kopecky kicked clear of her breakaway companions to win the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, becoming the first Belgian woman to do so in 12 years in the process. Kopecky has won WorldTour events before, namely Strade Bianche last month, but this win is far bigger.
Winning arguably Belgium’s biggest race in the colors of Belgian champion is a moment that Kopecky will remember for a lifetime. Her victory could have wider ramifications than just her own personal star, which is well and truly rising.
Unlike when Grace Verbeke won back in 2010, Kopecky’s win was broadcast live on television with nearly 100 kilometers of the race broadcast Sunday. The recent switch to put the women’s finish after the men’s means that it is primetime viewing for Belgian fans. Kopecky is already becoming a household name with scores of fans, young and old, cheering for her from the roadside.
With this win, in front of thousands on the road and even more on the television, Kopecky’s win could have the power to inspire a generation. Indeed, it was her own hope that young girls would see her victory at the weekend and realize that racing could be for them.
Unlike its near neighbor the Netherlands, the cycling-mad Belgium does not have a carousel of top talent coming through every year. That could change after Kopecky’s emphatic win.
Watch out for Annemiek van Vleuten in the Ardennes
There is often this sense of inevitability when Annemiek van Vleuten races that she will pick a point to attack and never be seen by the peloton again. Very often that does happen, as she has already shown several times this year, but she’s far from unbeatable.
After romping to victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders in 2021, the Dutchwoman faced a more challenging test over the last week. Van Vleuten’s attempts to rip up the peloton in the latter third of the race were thwarted, leaving a much larger group than she would have liked coming towards the finish line.
With a strong and united SD Worx taking the race to her, van Vleuten’s chances of taking a record third win dwindled. She was always going to struggle to beat Kopecky in a sprint, even after she managed to outsprint Demi Vollering at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
She was far from disappointed with second place and will be very confident in her form ahead of the hillier classics in the coming weeks. First up for van Vleuten will be the Amstel Gold Race this weekend, followed by a short break before Flèche Wallonne and her favorite Liège-Bastogne-Liège toward the end of the month.
Prize money isn’t the most important thing, but it’s still important
This year saw Flanders Classics up the prize money for its biggest race so that men and women had the opportunity to take home the same winnings for the first time. It was the first step for the Belgian organizer in providing equal prize money for both genders in all of its events.
With a good wage already from her SD Worx squad, the €20,000 — which would be spread out around the team — wasn’t going to make a huge difference for Kopecky. However, she had said prior to the event that it was “an appreciation” for women’s cycling.
There are other aspects such as salary and television coverage that can have a vastly bigger impact on the progression and development of women’s cycling. TV coverage helps to increase the fanbase for the sport, which then attracts more sponsors with bigger budgets.
Those increased budgets can then support better salaries, which has allowed a growing number of riders to race full-time without needing a part-time job. This then leads to a deeper peloton where more riders are potential contenders for victory.
Prize money is a much smaller piece of the puzzle, as it generally benefits far fewer riders and teams. However, if an organizer is able to tick off big things like well-supported events, which are safe and treat the riders well, and it feels like it can then provide well above the mandated minimum then it shows that the sport is in a better place.
There is also the symbolism of giving both men and women the same, from the bottom to the top of the event. Ok, it might be a symbol, but they are important, too. By providing equal prize money — in addition to a well-organized event — it shows that organizers value both genders equally.
The Koppenberg is a keeper
The mighty Koppenberg made its debut appearance in the women’s race this year to much fanfare. The short but brutal cobbled ascent was first ridden by the men in 1976, a mere 28 years before the women’s race even existed, but the women finally had their chance to ride what is arguably Flanders’ most difficult helling.
Sitting at just over 44 kilometers from the finish line, the 600-meter rise was unlikely to decide the winner, but it would expose the weaknesses of those that were struggling and give major indication as to who would be in contention by the line. Van Vleuten tried to use this climb to her advantage, as expected and forced a quick pace up the steep cobbles drawing out a small group of riders.
While that precise move didn’t work out, it laid the groundwork for a thrilling tactical battle over the remaining five climbs and the subsequent run into Oudenaarde. The impact of the Koppenberg will vary each year depending on how it is ridden, as well as the kilometers leading into it, and it will be intriguing to see how teams approach it in the coming season now that it has finally been raced by the women’s peloton.
Variation is always good to keep the race exciting and perhaps the climb doesn’t need to be included in every edition, but it should be kept as a regular feature for years to come.
“Adding the Koppenberg made the final harder, not just because of the climb itself but for everything that came after. Flanders is a relentlessly hard race but this year’s course was up there with one of the tougher ones,” @tiffanycromwell. #RVVwomen pic.twitter.com/VaFfmAd91h
— CANYON//SRAM Racing & CANYON//SRAM Generation (@WMNcycling) April 4, 2022
More teams in the mix
This season is the third year for the WorldTeam set-up after it was inaugurated in 2020. With budgets and rosters growing each year, the depth of the peloton is increasing as well. In the words of Annemiek van Vleuten, more teams are coming into races with “a plan to win” and they are fully prepared to take it on.
While Sunday’s race was ultimately decided between a rider and an opposing team that have been dominating the sport for some time, there were plenty of squads trying to make it. It showed that the talent is getting bigger within the bunch each season and the top riders are no longer solely on one team.
One of the best showings outside that of Movistar and SD Worx was the FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope team. The French squad has been gradually building up its roster over the last two years and looked at one point like it could pull out a big result.
Though it didn’t get onto the podium, the team put an astonishing three riders into the top 10.