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Belgian youngster Lotte Kopecky breaks through at Giro Rosa

With a stage win in Italy and successes on the track, the young Belgian rider has her sights set on Tokyo 2020 - and beyond.

MADDALONI, ITALY (VN) — In Maddaloni’s Piazza della Pace, below the faded airplane on the roof of the Museo della Cere, Lotto-Soudal are celebrating. Just back from post-race anti-doping checks, Lotte Kopecky is being sprayed with Prosecco by her team staff after winning stage seven of the Giro Rosa.

There are smiles and laughs all around. It’s the team’s first top-tier success since the Women’s WorldTour was created in 2016, and for Kopecky personally it feels like it’s been a while coming.

It’s not like she has never won. Kopecky’s first senior road race win came in 2016 when the Belgian rider was only 20, and this summer she successfully defended her Belgian time trial title.

And of course there’s the Madison world championship she won with Jolien D’Hoore in 2017, and she even represented Belgium on the track at the Rio Olympics. No one would argue she has no good results, just not on the road at the top level.

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Kopecky shows off her track form during stage eight of the 2020 Giro Rosa. Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

In Italy this week Tuesday and Wednesday saw her finish second, then third behind Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv). The first day she opened her sprint too early, the second too late.

On Thursday she got it just right, putting the power down straight out of the final corner with around 300m to go. Clattering across the lastricato paving she crossed the line two seconds ahead of Trek-Segafredo’s Lizzie Deignan.

“It was a big relief to finally get the big win,” Kopecky said. “I’ve been close a lot of times but it gets really frustrating if you can’t finish it off. Yesterday was the last chance at this Giro, and it was like, ‘finally!’

“I’m used to riding decent results but I’m not used to winning. So, OK Marianne Vos crashed and some people say you win because Marianne Vos crashed, but it was Lizzie Deignan who beat Marianne in La Course and they are all very good riders.”

Vos was on the ground when Kopecky crossed the line, and we will never know what would have happened had she been there, but her position, line, and power were spot on and she’s run the CCC-Liv rider close already this week.

After trying other sports Kopecky turned to cycling in her early teens. Though her father was not too happy, he would sit and read the newspaper while she was training at the track. Then, later, she told him she wanted to be world champion.

“I don’t know what age I was, but I had two dreams, becoming a world champion and going to the Olympics,” Kopecky said. “I’m 24 years old and I’ve achieved both. I could never think of being able to be win a medal in the Olympics [in Rio], so that’s really the goal for next year together with Jolien win a medal at the Olympics.”

With such ambition, surely the pandemic upset her plans?

“It was actually a gift,” Kopecky said. “In the beginning it was a disappointment, it was hard to deal with. But I could switch, this was the winter break I’ve never had before, my body could rest, my head could have some rest and I think that’s just what I needed. I’m 24, next year I’m 25 and I think I am only going to be stronger and stronger.”

Kopecky seems to be able to do anything. On the road she has shown increasing versatility; in Italy she has been competitive on days when pure sprinters had been dropped. Able to deal with punchy climbs, with an excellent sprint and great race craft, she is a classics rider through and through. The kind of woman who could become only the second Belgian to win the Tour of Flanders behind Grace Verbeke in 2010.

The kind of woman who might win the road world championships in Flanders next year?

“The Olympics have been for the last three or four years the main goal, but I think we can make a plan that after the Olympics that I can adapt to road racing again and go to the world championships,” she said.

Kopecky and her Madison partner D’Hoore may be a dying breed. The UCI’s decision to move the track World Cup calendar to summer is likely to force many to chose one discipline or other.

This week Kopecky revealed she is leaving Lotto-Soudal, with rumor suggesting she will replace Vos at CCC-Liv. Though she remains coy about her destination, the move, and the UCI’s intervention, could mean she may have to choose between the boards of the velodrome or the open tarmac.

“I cannot say, a lot will depend on how the Olympics will go. I think they [the new team] want me for the road, but especially next year they will give me the full opportunity to chase my dream at the Olympics.”