Is there space for both Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering at SD Worx-Protime?

World champion's growing climbing abilities may come to clash with Vollering's ambitions, with both riders out of contract this year

Clock13:51, Monday 12th February 2024

© Tim de Waele/Velo Collection via Getty Images

Kopecky and Vollering on the final podium of the Tour de France Femmes

Last summer, Lotte Kopecky made waves when she put in an astounding ride to finish sixth on the fearsome Col du Tourmalet, and as a result second overall in the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift general classification, behind her teammate and winner Demi Vollering. Kopecky has been one of the best riders in the world for some time now, but ostensibly as a Classics and track specialist, not a climber.

That performance on the Tourmalet changed that perception, but could have been put down as a once-in-a-lifetime performance from a rider in the very peak of her form, and not something she’ll repeat often. Until this weekend, that is, when Kopecky came to the UAE Tour Women, her very first race of the season, and out-climbed the field to win on the race’s mountain-top finish and secure the overall victory.

Beating riders like Gaia Realini, Elisa Longo Borghini and Mavi García on a 10km climb, in a period where Kopecky admitted she is not in her very top shape, speaks to a climbing level that has hugely improved over the winter.

Read more: UAE Tour Women: Lotte Kopecky takes summit sprint on Jebel Hafeet to win stage 3

It may only be February, but this opens up conversations about what this means for the rest of Kopecky’s season. With the Ardennes Classics on her calendar, could she be a real contender in those hilly races? Will short stage racing be on her agenda? Maybe not this year because of the Olympics, but could the 28-year-old eventually turn her mind to the Tour de France Femmes? The opportunities are broad.

The only problem? SD Worx-Protime already have a rider that wants to target all those races, in the form of Demi Vollering. The pair have a history of going 1-2 – at the Tour, for example – but also of going up against each other, like they did at Strade Bianche in 2023, where tensions somewhat boiled over.

By all accounts, Vollering and Kopecky get on well within the team, but as Kopecky’s level steps up, the chances of her competing with Vollering more often are getting higher and higher.

This is far from a distant prospect, either; Vollering and Kopecky are racing similar programmes this Spring, starting in just two weeks with Omloop het Nieuwsblad, and if Kopecky is climbing on a similar level to Vollering, that is going to be a problem that plays out sooner rather than later. The Belgian is ostensibly building her calendar around Paris-Roubaix, a rare race that SD Worx haven't yet won.

The Kopecky vs Vollering question has yet to crop up yet this season, but no doubt it will, and when it does, how long can it go on for? How long until impressive 1-2 finishes turn into sources of conflict? In a year when both of their contracts are expiring, that question becomes very pertinent.

Might one of them leave SD Worx?

There is, of course, one quite clear solution to this problem: one of them goes to a new team. And in many ways, that’s a proposition that makes sense.

If SD Worx are struggling to afford the growing price tag attached to Demi Vollering, who has greatly increased her value since they signed her in 2021 and is likely to set the tone in terms of the ceiling for female riders’ salaries, perhaps a way to raise those funds is to let go of Lotte Kopecky, or indeed vice versa.

In the era of increased salaries - for the very top riders, at least - having multiple leaders, which has always been SD Worx’s MO, is going to become unsustainable. Even a team like SD Worx can only afford to pay in the high six-figures - or even seven, if rumours around offers for Vollering are to be believed - to one or two riders, not several. With both Vollering and Kopecky showing they are riders worth those big numbers, the prospect of keeping them both becomes difficult.

The idea of the two best riders in the peloton being on different teams, rather than the same one, is also an exciting notion for fans of the sport, and its wider commercial status. Who wouldn’t want to see the best cyclists going truly head to head in the biggest races, not bound by internal team politics or instructions from a DS? Kopecky and Vollering with the freedom to truly battle it out, in different jerseys, would be the spectacle and high-level of competition that women’s cycling really needs.

The people that might not agree, though, are Kopecky and Vollering themselves. It’s clear that both are, so far, very happy at SD Worx, and both have really found their best performances and abilities in an SD Worx jersey.

Vollering’s rise was perhaps more coincidental - she was a young rider who came into her own as she joined the WorldTour - but Kopecky is an example of a rider who was always there or there abouts, but found a new wind when she joined the team, one of the squads with the best support, infrastructure and tactical guidance in the peloton.

In this light, you can see why both riders would want to stay. Sure, the appeal of more outright leadership must be tempting, but it would be a trade-off with the resources and experience riders have the privilege of at SD Worx. In a sport where that is still not the norm everywhere, riders may well choose a slightly sticky leadership situation over a less professional set-up elsewhere. There is space for both of them, if both are willing to give up some of their own chances on occasion.

Read more: SD Worx-Protime: We want to keep Demi Vollering but not for a blank cheque

As for the team? If general manager Danny Stam’s recent comments to GCN are anything to go by, they are not averse to the idea of losing one of their leaders, if the financial demands require it. Any team would like to have both the peloton’s top riders in its ranks, but even SD Worx can’t fathom the cash out of nowhere. And with riders like Marlen Reusser, Lorena Wiebes and Mischa Bredewold still on their books, it’s not like SD Worx would be noticeably lacking in strength if they lost one of Kopecky or Vollering.

Whether any of this will happen is a complicated conversation, pulling in budgets, team ambitions, rider satisfaction and - most urgently - what transpires between the two riders this Spring.

But with both officially out of contract at the end of the season, and several months before those 2025 deals need to be signed, the possibility of one of SD Worx’s star riders going to a rival team is a very real one, and something that has the potential to shake up women’s racing in a big way.

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