Rivals take note: After breakout year, Lepistö enters Spring Classics with confidence

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When the women’s Classics get underway this weekend, Lotta Lepistö will be one of the riders to watch. The Finnish national champion had her best-ever season in 2016 and, as one of the fastest sprinters in the peloton, should be there or thereabouts if she’s in a front group approaching the line. But, as she tells Ella CyclingTips, she’s got a far bigger aim in 2017.

Lotta Lepistö eases into her chair at the Cervélo-Bigla training camp near Girona, Spain, resting her legs before knuckling down again for a second training session.

The Finnish national champion has spent the morning training with her team near its temporary base at Hotel Mas Pelegri in the province of Catalunya. The squad has been working hard to make up for several days of unusual weather.

Known for its sun, the region had been obscured by clouds and occasional rain. Both finally dissipated a couple of days before the end of the camp, thus allowing the team to try to get the most out of their sessions.

After a morning road ride the schedule would see them do team time trial training for an hour or so in the afternoon.

Lepistö has just eaten and has time to relax prior to taking to her TTT machine. During that window, she agrees to talk about last season, consider the key moments and the lessons learned, and to discuss what is yet to come.

Now 27 years of age, Lepistö enjoyed her best season to date in 2016. In addition to defending her national road race and time trial title, she won stages in The Women’s Tour and the Grand Prix Elsy Jacobs, took the prologue of the Emakumeen Bira and was first to the line in the SwissEver GP Cham – Hagendorn.

And the races she didn’t win were still impressive. Runner-up in La Course in Paris and a bronze medal in the world championships underline her quality. They also mark her out as one of the fastest sprinters in the sport.

While she’d have loved to have won either race, she also recognises that her high placings were a very encouraging sign for the seasons to come.

“I think I was progressing all year,” Lepistö says. “The shape was building towards Qatar, going up all the time. I just had a little bad crash just before the Olympics in London. I think that was the only little drop in the year. Otherwise it was all encouraging.”

Lotta Lepisto
Finland’s Lotta Lepisto is jubilant on the podium. She earned the bronze medal.

Prompted for her highlights, she thinks of the time trial and road race in Rio. Her performances there were more modest than in some of the other big events; 17th against the clock and 51st in the road race don’t compare to how she did on flatter courses, but that’s fine.

Her memories are not based on how she did, but rather on where she was.

“The Olympics was a really nice experience,” she says. “I knew that is the course was too hard for me, but it was just a lifetime experience to go there and see how the Olympics are.

“My main goal, though, was the world championships in Qatar.”

Lepistö worked hard all season to be ready for the October event. She got her training and tactics right on the day and was part of the select group at the finish.

That put her in the frame for victory, and paved the way for third.

Bronze isn’t the same as gold, of course, and so she has mixed feelings now.

“Of course I was there for a win,” she says, reflecting on the race four months later. “So third place…

“It was the first medal ever for Finland in world championships. Actually, third in the team time trial was already the first one. It was a super-amazing feeling to be there on the podium, but of course I had the little [regret] that I didn’t win.”

As the finale played out, most eyes were on Kirsten Wild. As a four-time Ladies Tour of Qatar winner she is one of the quickest in the peloton, and she had a strong Dutch team to back her up.

The Dutch squad led towards the finish in a train formation, bidding to usher her to victory, but Amalie Dideriksen was lying in wait. The 20 year old Dane chose her moment perfectly to blast home first: Wild was close behind, with Lepistö also very near to gold.

Close, but no cigar. Hence those mixed feelings.

“I knew that I was in good shape beforehand,” she says, weighing things up. “I did the time trial before and I was 11th. I had a nice ride there. And I knew that the shape was there.

“But of course I know that Kirsten would have a proper lead out. All the Dutchies were there with their full train, and I was there in the end alone.

“Earlier I had some team-mates from Finland and they were helping me as much as they could. So I did not have to worry about drinks or ice or anything like that. But in the end I was there alone. So I was trying to be smart and fight my position.”

If she could replay things again, what would she change?

“I would do everything like I did until 250 metres to go,” she answers. “I would start the sprint earlier. If I’m just thinking about that moment, I was pretty smashed. But I should just have taken the risk and tried earlier…”

From Paris to the Alps

Looking back on what is already done is, in some ways, an exercise in frustration. With the absence of time travel there is no way to change what has occurred. However hindsight does offer a chance to learn, to do things differently for the future.

To benefit from experience and thus increase the chance of success.

It is certain that Lepistö has replayed that Qatar finish over and over again in her mind since talking bronze.

Ditto for La Course. In that race she avoided the crashes in the race and was right up there in the finale, going head to head with some of cycling’s best riders to fight for gold.

On the day, the Australian Chloe Hosking executed her finish perfectly and won: Lepistö was second, with former world and Olympic champion Marianne Vos coming in third.

“We had a little team tactic fail in the end,” she says, weighing up what she would change if she could. “So, I think I should be more harder on my team mates in the end [laughs]. Let’s say it like that.

“Then we would maybe have chance for the win. But the podium was also super nice there.”

La Course is currently just a one day event, but it is one of the most prestigious in the sport. It takes place on the final day of the men’s Tour de France and came about after Vos and others demanded that race organiser ASO do something for the women too.

One day is not the equivalent of three weeks, but it’s some sort of a start.

“It’s an amazing event,” says Lepistö, choosing to focus on what the women have rather than what they don’t. “There was such amazing support from the audience there in Paris. There were so many people…the same people who were cheering for the guys who came after us.

“I think it’s a Mecca for cyclists to do the racing on the Champs Elysees. It was really cool to race there.”

In 2017 the race location will change. ASO will bring the event outside Paris and will instead run it between Briançon and the Col d’Izoard.

The uphill format will favour the climbers and discriminate against Lepistö and similar riders. Although she believes that it will become a multi-day event in future years, she will miss the old format.

“I’m a little bit sad that it’s going to change this year,” she admits. “I hope it’s the next step towards it becoming a longer race.

“It would be much better if there would be something for climbers and something for sprinters. I think a combination of what is coming and what it was last year would be a really nice event. I think that is what they will probably do in the future.”

Honing form, setting targets

With the team time trial session underway, Lepistö and her teammates split into two groups. Dividing up the riders enables them to work as a smaller unit, closer to the regular TTT size in races.

She hammers along, as do the others, and they move quickly through the Catalan countryside.

The team time trial is an important event for the squad, and is one that manager Thomas Campana wants to see them excel at in 2017.

Third in the 2016 world TTT championships shows how close they are to being best in the world, and that distinction is something to aim for in the months to come.

Of course, Lepsito has personal goals, too. She spent time in Finland, South Africa and Girona during the off season building her condition. While she feels she has more work to do, she is happy with her condition with her first race approaching.

“In general I am in better shape at the moment than at this time last year,” she says. “Unfortunately Qatar was cancelled, I would like to have raced there.”

Her first races will be this weekend in the women’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Omloop van het Hageland events. She was third in the latter last year and will be chasing more results. However her bigger targets lie further ahead.

“I hope we can run with the team in the proper Classics,” she says, making clear they are goals. “And then, of course, the world championships are important, the team time trial and the road race in Norway.”

Two bronze medals have whetted her appetite and, at an age where she is still improving, the thoughts of gold spur her on.

She’ll chase wins between now and then but September’s big contest will be the peak she is building towards.

“The road race course has a 1.4 kilometre hill on it,” she says, thinking ahead. “I’m happy with that. It is pumpy but it’s not like it is going to be next year with a proper climbing course. This is more like a Classics-style format.”

Lepisto is still developing. At 27 and coming off her best season yet, its reasonable to think that she has more to give. She’s learning, she’s getting faster, and she’s very ambitious.

Could she be in the rainbow jersey by the end of the season?

Time will tell, but it’s certainly a possibility.

“I will try to build my form to be best there,” she says. Rivals, take note.

“The worlds will be a big target after last year.”

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