a marriage of inconvenience
strade bianche women's, in brief [spoilers]
Another weekend, another one-day classic, another one-two for SD Worx. For all their reputation of being a team made up of talented individuals but with limited tactical nous - they certainly seemed to work against that today on the white Tuscan roads.
This race had it all: attacks, counter-attacks, a lone rider fighting against the inexorable charge of the combined might of Kopecky and Vollering; being caught with 600 meters of the race to go. There was even what could be best described as an ‘equine incident’, and I do hope the horse is alright after first being understandably distressed and startled by a bike race not only happening in its vicinity but also going on to crash out on a corner.
Talk going into the race focused on how Annemiek van Vleuten would race in her final Strade Bianche or on how Puck Pieterse would do in her first Strade Bianche, and finally whether Lotte Kopecky would be able to win two years in a row - a feat only achieved in this race’s short history by the aforementioned Annemiek.
Before this edition, the best result for eventual winner Vollering at Strade Bianche was 6th, 12th and 20th; for the 26-year-old to now get the victory is another great addition to her palmarès. Previously she has won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and La Course by Le Tour, proof that she does suit tough races, whether they are one-day or stage races. In comparison, Kopecky has achieved 17th and 1st in her two previous Strade participations outside of today. She was the chosen one who could do the unthinkable and hold on to van Vleuten’s wheel and then beat her in the sprint.
What happened in this race was something even more unthinkable to me — and I don’t mean the involvement of the horse. Two riders from SD Worx arrived at the finish ahead of everyone else and sprinted for the win. Typically teams don’t race like that outside of national championships, so it’s certainly very notable that that’s what happened here. In the past, we have seen teammate duos come to a finish and have an agreement where one cedes to the other — either as a gift for future work, or because it suits the team overall.
An example of this can be found in the UAE Women’s Tour where Gaia Realini and Elisa Longo-Borghini arrived ahead of everyone else on the Jebel Hafeet climb. In that scenario Trek seemed to decide that Elisa’s overall win was more beneficial than gifting a victory to the young, emerging Gaia.
We’ve also seen riders hold hands to cross the line together and make the race a dead-heat where both could be granted the victory: in the men’s peloton Team Jumbo-Visma famously did this last year at Paris-Nice. There’s even been a very rare scene with riders having an impromptu game of Rock-Paper-Scissors to decide the eventual winner. (Tadej Pogačar and Rafal Majka at the 2022 Tour of Slovenia.)
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However this finish took most by surprise, including (reportedly) the Directeur Sportif of SD Worx, Anna van der Breggen, who was quoted as stating that there was no arrangement between the two riders as there was no expectation that they would catch Faulkner [the rider previously ahead] and [thus] having to discuss something between them.
Notably, after the race there seemed to still be limited discussion between Lotte and Demi and certainly not the show of friendship or solidarity one would otherwise expect —whether or not that happened behind closed doors is not something I can comment on— but speculation aside, it is remarkable to me that nothing was said on camera, no shared celebration or anything similar. That being said, in her post-race interview, Demi did pay testament to Lotte and her prowess on climbs, and agreed with the interviewer about how they worked together to close the gap on Kristen Faulkner in the nick of time. She also talked about how she’s typically the team-mate in this race and it gave the impression that she felt this time was her opportunity.
Despite that nod of thanks to her teammate, the situation begs the question: does friendship even matter - demonstrative or otherwise? Does the team now have an awkward situation amongst or them or is cycling more of a business, an elite-level sport, and certainly not all friendships and rainbows?
Indeed, that’s how I see the sport of cycling being. It holds this weird space of being a sport performed by teams but won by individuals - where without a strong squad it is borderline impossible to win, and yet, without a strong individual rider, a team will also struggle to secure victory. It’s a marriage of convenience between the collective and the solo artist. That follows in many other areas —sponsors are needed, and sometimes they have questionable ethics (for example Shell sponsoring British Cycling) — but that marriage of convenience means sponsors and teams have to work together, one for publicity the other for securing the finances.
Similarly, breakaways are governed by marriages of convenience that cease once they are no longer mutually beneficial and attacks start. Likewise, teams work in the peloton to chase the breakaway back and once the need to work stops from one team, they won’t contribute to the pace-setting.
Even at the team roster level cycling is a marriage of convenience. Riders need teams to ride for, otherwise they either won’t have employment within cycling, or if they race as a privateer and can make good money that way, they won’t have access to the highest prestige races such as Giro Donne and Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. Teams in turn need riders — but riders are also replaceable and there’s very few cyclists in the world who are seen as indispensable.
In this sport, there are very few friendships at a deep level. And despite all those teams and fandoms and cliques, cycling in general doesn’t show much space for friendship and that’s something that I personally wish could change.
For all the talk of it being unusual and completely unexpected that Kopecky and Vollering sprinted — really sprinted — against one another; the more I think about it, the more it makes perfect sense in the context of the cycling industry. Regardless of what position you take, the SDWorx marriage of convenience was over in the picturesque centre of Siena. And beneath all these layers of nuance and discourse, racers are racers.
Of course they battled for the win.
"a sport performed by teams but won by individuals" exactly right. One doesn't exist with the other. I can think of no other popular sport with that dynamic.
In my experience with marathon kayak racing, it’s par for the course to cooperate with a team mate and then say “ok, when we hit 500 meters to go we’ll sprint and may the best man win”. But we are amateurs and don’t have contracts and sponsors and UCI points and DSes to worry about, we just do what we want.