Lotte Kopecky surprised the odds to take the biggest win of her season at Strade Bianche on Saturday.
The SD Worx rider held onto the coat tails of 2020 winner Annemiek van Vleuten up the climb of Via Santa Caterina into the picturesque city of Siena, before winning a battle of both wits and legs in the final few metres.
The pair had been part of a group of 12 riders which entered the final kilometre, but as the road kicked up onto the steepest sections of Via Santa Caterina Van Vleuten split the group, with only Kopecky and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio able to hang on.
While the South African was gapped, Kopecky held on, she and Van Vleuten riding shoulder to shoulder through the thronged streets, until at the final corner the Belgian barged up the inside, opened up and won the race.
As we have become to expect from Strade Bianche, the whole day was brilliantly entertaining. From the moment the day’s breakaway was caught the race never settled, with a number of teams riding particularly aggressively. SDWorx though were most intelligent with thei energies, Kopecky herself was even on the attack around 20km from the line.
This year marks the first time the women first to the top of the Via Santa Caterina has failed to won the race, and the first time we have seen a two up sprint.
How it happened
With no Australian races for the second year running, the eighth edition of Strade Bianche returned to its place as the opening race of the Women’s WorldTour.
Organisers have clearly followed the good old ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ maxim, leaving the route alone, the peloton covering 136km, starting and finishing in Siena, with eight stretches and 31.6km of the white sterrato gravel roads the race is known for.
The first of those came after 17km, but was relatively benign, the gravel sectors becoming increasingly challenging as the race went on.
At 9.5km with some quite serious climbing, the fifth sector is the longest and historically an action point, but the last three stretches of strade bianche is where the touch paper is always well and truly lit.
The first attack came early on, after just six kilometres, Rebecca Koerner (Uno-X) quickly building a lead of 20 seconds. And when she was joined by Emily Newson (EF Education-Tibco-SVB) the day’s break was formed, the pair taking a lead of 1:23 onto the day’s first gravel sector 17km in.
On the long climb which closed the second sector Newson, an experienced gravel racer, dropped the young Danish rider, and forged on alone, and with Koerner eventually succumbing to the bunch, the American took a lead of three minutes onto sector five.
But, as expected it was the sector at San Martino in Grania that made the difference and Newsom’s lead tumbled, the American caught as she reached tarmac once more, a peloton of around 40 women forming at the front.
After a few jabs and parries from some, a large peloton reformed on the front of the race. It was far from settled though, with riders repeatedly trying to get away. One of those Spanish champion Mavi García (UAE Team ADQ) who finished a close second in the summer edition of 2020, and Liv Racing Xstra were particularly aggressive in search of a first win of the year.
However, the group of around 40-50 riders stayed resolutely together as they approached a triumvirate of especially tough closing sterrato sections.
A big split managed to gain some ground ahead of the sixth sector, but when they were caught just ahead of the penultimate sector Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) went, quickly building a lead of 35 seconds.
When she was caught her team mate, last year’s winner, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak went off the front, plummeting downhill onto the final gravel sector. But there, as the road levelled out Van Vleuten moved up, predictably launching her move as road tipped up onto its 18% slopes.
However, she was unable to gap her rivals, Kopecky sticking to her and the two emerged with a narrow lead. They even led into town, but a determined chase saw a group of six, including to of Kopecky’s team mates, catch them as the route circumnavigated Siena’s city centre.
With three in the group the Dutch squad were able to continue raining blows on the opposition, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Demi Vollering taking turns, while Kopecky sat in. Despite this constant aggression a number of other riders joined them and a group of 13 breathlessly headed onto the final climb.
Strade Bianche Women Elite 2022: Siena - Siena (136km)
1. Lotte Kopecky (Bel) SD Worx, in 3-59-14
2. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned), at same time
3. Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (RSA), SD Worx at 10s
4. Kasia Niewiadoma (Pol) Canyon-SRAM, at 19s
5. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Den) FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope, at 24s
6. Elise Chabbey (Sui) Canyon-SRAM, at 28s
7. Marianne Vos (Ned) Jumbo-Visma, at 29s
8. Elisa Longo Borghini (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, at same time
9. Shirin van Anrooij (Ned) Trek-Segafredo, at 34s
10. Silvia Persico (Ita) Valcar Travel and Service, at same time
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