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What exactly happened between Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering at Strade Bianche?

Kopecky-Vollering-Strade-Bianche-Finish-2023

The finish of this year’s Strade Bianche saw Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering, both of SD Worx, work together to catch Kristen Faulkner and then cross the line within inches of each other. Having dropped Faulkner on the final climb, both riders felt they had a shot at glory. Lotte Kopecky had won Strade Bianche in 2022 and was fresh off a victory at Omloop het Nieuwsblad last week. For Demi Vollering, it might be a first victory since the Vuelta a Burgos in May 2022 (or her QoM win at the Tour de France Femmes in July if we’re counting jersey wins). Often the team car decides who wins from the team or the riders decide between them to just race for it.

Everything looked pretty much alright initially in real time. In contrast, to say Gaia Realini having to let Elisa Longo Borghini win in the UAE Tour Women, the SD Worx riders had sprinted it out between them to decide the winner. It was only after that when they pulled up that viewers began to sense that maybe not everything was ok between the pair. Pulling up separately and barely making eye contact, it’s around this point where Vollering is linked to having said ‘f*cking k*twijf’ to her soigneur and then ‘I know you’re a killer but couldn’t we have celebrated this together?’ in the direction of teammate Kopecky. The body language between the pair isn’t great with Demi clearly annoyed and Kopecky looking more than a little bit worried.

Clearly, this finish had a different vibe to the one experienced by AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step when Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio found out she had lost the GC to teammate Justine Ghekiere (photo below).

Seconds after Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (orange) finds out she’s lost the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana GC to teammate Justine Ghekiere (#203), they’re embracing
In contrast, in the immediate aftermath of Strade Bianche, Kopecky and Vollering are separate

So what happened next?

After the ‘k*twijf’ moment, there was a reconciliation where the pair did hug it out and then split off to do media work with TV from Belgium and Netherlands separately. Later on, the mention of ‘k*twijf’, would be downplayed as a joke between the pair or even about Kristen Faulkner for putting Vollering into the barriers on the climb. At this point though, Vollering doesn’t know the result and has a reasonably candid interview capturing her feelings at that moment with NOS, the Dutch state broadcaster. After the initial outburst, it became clear that Vollering thought she had just lost to Kopecky and put the blame firmly in her direction for attacking up to the finish line.

It seems clear from her comments that Demi Vollering believed that because she had crested the Via Santa Caterina first that the win should be hers. That misunderstanding seemed to spark all of the subsequent frostiness between the pair.

NOS interview

Vollering to Soigneur: F*cking kutwijf (not very nice word for women in Dutch)

Vollering to Kopecky: I know you’re a killer but couldn’t we have celebrated this together?

NOS to Vollering: What happened during the race?

Vollering: Pfoe, I don’t know just yet. It was really eh…

NOS: Let’s start with the finish

Vollering: Yeah I really don’t know about that. It caught me a bit off guard. I thought to myself I’ve always been a good domestique for her so figured we would celebrate it together. But she’s a killer.

NOS: So you thought you would win, that you were allowed to win?

Vollering: Well I was first at the top so I figured it was clear, but she thought otherwise. But it doesn’t matter.

NOS: So then when you reached the top there was that last push, that last sprint

Vollering: Yes. That surprised me a bit because I was looking back because we had it, and then she suddenly passed me

NOS: Are you mad?

Vollering: I don’t really know. I don’t even know who won so. I think Lotte, but it was by a millimetre so that’s a shame.

NOS: So you haven’t heard officially who won?

Vollering: No. No. (fighting against tears here)

NOS: But you think Lotte? Lotte Kopecky? Yeah she’s now being guided to the podium. Yeah so it’s weird this happens between teammates?

Vollering: Yes that’s a shame. But you’re teammates through thick and thin, so… I wouldn’t do it this way.

NOS: Or is the line where the line is and not on top of the hill?

Vollering: I think that’s the way she thinks. And maybe the team as well. But we’ll talk about it

Post-race interview with NOS, video can be found at: https://nos.nl/video/2466143-volop-emotie-na-zege-vollering-in-strade-bianche-eerst-boos-op-kopecky-daarna-knuffels
Thanks to @SarahGiganteFan for the translation!
Kopecky and Vollering hug before the NOS interview, despite the gesture, the Dutch rider’s answers shortly afterwards tell a different story

Whilst the NOS interview is taking place, Kopecky is speaking to Sporza from Belgium, she tells them that ‘No, no agreements were made. As soon as we knew we would be reckoning with [another rider], it was Demi against me. Demi and I just made the best of it and sprinted for the win. It was exciting. Immediately after the finish, we didn’t know who had won.’

Once NOS finish their interview, a few seconds later Eurosport began theirs with Sander Kleikers asking the questions. Kleikers often does the SD Worx beginning of the season team presentations, so has a strong working relationship with the team’s riders already. It’s he who tells Demi Vollering that she has won Strade Bianche, the first time she has been told this.

Her reaction to this news was somewhat off to many viewers. The ‘oh, that’s nice’ delivered as it was, was the first time that some Eurosport/GCN viewers had more than body language to go on that something wasn’t right. They’d not seen the NOS interview at all and also not the hug at this point, just the separation of the riders and this reaction.

Mixed reactions just after the finish line
Photo Credit: Getty Imagse

Eurosport Interview

Kleikers: We’ve just heard that you’ve won this race

Vollering: Oh okay, that’s nice. I mean, then, yeah…I am very happy of course.

Kleikers: The emotions are really high right now, can you tell us a little bit why, how come?

Vollering: Yeah it was a crazy final, i mean, I think we did very good as a team, and the other girls also were super strong today and they did everything, I mean Mischa killed herself multiple times, Niamh too, Anna Shackley, Elena, they all did super good job. And then the final playing with Lotte was really cool, and I attacked and I felt like this is the moment and I just went. Like how we discussed actually, because this was the plan to. Yeah, then suddenly Lotte was with me and it was very nice, I mean then it’s just teammates together and you can also go a bit deeper together. That’s really nice.

Post-race interview with Eurosport’s Sander Kleikers

A second or two of the hug was later spliced into the repeat of the finish sprint after the Eurosport interview and before the race finish interview. Even the first answer here notes the finish with Kopecky – ‘I mean Lotte’s a killer, and yeah I know that, but I was a bit surprised by her action’. At this point though, Demi is smiling and the rest of the interview is positive, mentioning how the team and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak in particular gave her belief that she could win Strade Bianche.

The talking heads on Eurosport/GCN had all picked up on the vibe since the finish, with Laura Kenny outlining how it would be really interesting to know the team orders and exactly what was said. Laura mentions how if the pair had been told to race it out, the reaction from Demi when she thought Lotte had won didn’t quite fit because it surely would’ve been fair. The implication is that somewhere, the team, Lotte and Demi weren’t all reading from the same script.

The Eurosport/GCN coverage clips to the pre-podium waiting area where we see Lotte and Demi seeming to avoid making eye contact. Body language isn’t great with crossed arms (although to be fair, when you’ve not got pockets, it’s often the default pose in lycra). Adam Blythe pipes up with ‘gosh, that looks awkward’. But then they come out onto the podium and engage with smiles as Demi lifts the trophy.

Lotte Kopecky & Demi Vollering on the podium
Photo Credit: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

The aftermath

Whilst the pundits and cycling Twitter mused as to what it all meant. The SD Worx team went into overdrive to downplay any hint of a rift between the riders. Both of them shared Instagram stories, making light of things that were said and publicly at least, were playing things with a straight bat. The team’s own race report gave us some new information and quotes from team manager Danny Stam, a fresh quote from Demi Vollering and also words from Lotte Kopecky.

“Beforehand, you don’t dare predict such a scenario. That’s why there were no agreements. They sprinted for the win as mature riders. One and two in Strade Bianche, this is a dream day for the team.

You can never predict that in Strade Bianche you will turn up the last corner as number one and two, so there were no agreements about that. Lotte and Demi are old and wise enough to make up their own minds. They sprinted for it as two winners. Had they not sprinted for the win, there would have been comments too. We rode a fantastic race with the team.

This group hangs together well. In the first two spring classics, we finish number one and two twice in a row. We won Omloop van het Hageland and a stage in the UAE Tour. So the results speak for themselves.”

Danny Stam, SD Worx sports manager

“The favour factor in this team is very big. By the way, I also don’t think we should say at a kilometre from the finish that one of the two should win. I think we then both have the right to go for our own chances. Of course it’s nice to win ourselves, but in the end the most important thing is that someone from Team SD Worx wins.

I am very happy for Demi Vollering that she was able to add this race to her record. You see two happy ladies sitting here. This is the perfect season start for our team.”

Lotte Koepcky

“Lotte and I are killers, we always go to the limit and over the limit. We appreciate that about each other. Neither of us knew who had won, so there were some emotions involved. Lotte said to me almost immediately at the finish: Ooh, I’m glad you won. We made it a super nice race and there are no hard feelings between us.

After the finish, it was a bit awkward for a while. We had to let it settle a momentum. But even before we knew who won, we started laughing and hugging each other. Then when I saw her in the tent, we held each other tightly for a few minutes and Lotte also said she was super happy for me. Lotte and I are going to have a lot of fun together this spring.”

Demi Vollering

There’s a little bit of revisionism starting to kick in here and it gets harder to unpick exactly what each rider was thinking as it contrasts with their immediate reactions after the finish. What is clear is that both are happy with the result in the end and are happy to push the team message about teamwork and that everything went according to plan.

Demi Vollering holding the Strade Bianche trophy
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Thoughts after Strade Bianche

If I had to plump for an explanation of what happened, I’d go with a misunderstanding as to where the race was going to be deemed as won. Both riders seem able to say there were no agreements in place, so they were certainly racing. Demi Vollering reached the top corner of the Via Santa Caterina first and I suspect she considered the race ‘won’ at that point and would be free to just ride to the finish as the winner. Whereas, I can see how Lotte Kopecky considered the finish line as the deciding point between the teammates, especially given her attack after this point.

With Demi believing Lotte might have won, the post-finish reaction is one where the victory has been taken away from her after cresting the climb first. This at least makes sense when you triangulate everything that was said and why there was such a strong reaction when it was, in theory, a fair head-to-head sprint for the win. With the win going to Demi Vollering in the end, that kinda sorted out that initial disappointment.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Publicly, there’s no damage to the relationship between Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky but we probably won’t get a clearer picture of that until ‘the next time’, whenever that turns out to be. You only have to go back a season to see the last time Vollering struggled with an SD Worx teammate. The uneasiness between the Dutch rider and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio as they battled to asset their leadership roles led to the South African leaving the team for AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-step. She has very publicly said she is happy with the team and their teamwork already this season.

“This team is just so special. That really is all I can say. It was a tactical master class. We are such a power team. We are so united and so strong together”

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, after losing the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana GC to her teammate

The fall-out from the Moolman-Pasio saga added to a reputation, deserved or not, that Vollering isn’t the best team player. There was the infamous Dutch split at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that saw Anna Kiesenhofer take the win, with the team divided into a Vollering/Van der Breggen & Vos/Van Vleuten axis. That discontent seemed to roll around again at the Flanders Worlds when Annemiek van Vleuten publicly suggested that not everyone on the team pulled their weight. Vollering’s comments after that seemed to suggest the other riders blamed her as she couldn’t lead out Vos but still finished 7th herself. This one felt somewhat harsh as Vollering had had to come back to the group twice after mechanicals, including a long wait on the Moskestraat.

For now though, everything seems good again between the pair. Any hostility has died down and they present a united front again. It’s going to be something to keep an eye on though and see what happens the next time the pair are contesting a major race finish together.