Shock to the system: why cycling needs a proper under-23 women's category

The development of women’s cycling is being held back by the lack of an under-23 category. Rachel Jary speaks to the riders who’ve struggled to make that move up and to those who are trying to fix things. One small step for a man, one giant leap for junior women…

“I got dropped on the first climb and it was honestly the worst experience I’ve ever had in my life. You go from being on top of the world to just being absolutely hammered by the best riders.” Nine years on from competing in her first ever professional race, Lucy van der Haar (née Garner), now retired from cycling, still remembers the occasion with striking clarity.

It was Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2013, the first race of the season’s ‘Opening Weekend’ and one of the most prestigious on the calendar. Won by Tiffany Cromwell – then in her fifth year as a professional – in a two-up sprint against Megan Guarnier, it was an attacking race, dominated by Cromwell’s Orica-AIS team.

Of course, it was the Australian rider who made headlines, as the winner always does. The adrenaline-fuelled post-race interviews, the emotional victory salute, the champagne splattered on the front of TV cameras... These are the stories we read – ones of euphoria, of success, about the best of the best. But for many riders who began the race that day, the reality was a much harsher, bleaker picture.

Much to her surprise, Van der Haar was one of them. A two-time junior world road race champion, in 2011 and 2012, she went into Omloop that year with the expectation of carrying the talent she’d displayed in the junior ranks across to the elite category. Instead, she found herself struggling to finish the race, stuck at the back, watching the peloton disappear into the distance on the grey Flemish roads.

“It was a wake-up call for me. I realised, it’s not going to be easy,” she says.

Van der Haar was riding for Argos-Shimano at the time, a team that had picked her up straight after her performances in the junior category. At 18 years old, Van der Haar became a professional cyclist. She packed her bags and moved from England to Holland, armed with some fast legs and a whole lot of naivety. “I left my family home, where my mum did everything for me. She spoiled us. I was like, how do I cook pasta? What do I have to do?”

It wasn’t just the shift in lifestyle that presented a challenge to Van der Haar. The huge increase in training load that was required to compete in races nearing 130km, as opposed to the 70km races common in the junior category, also put strain on the British rider. “It was mentally hard,” she explains. “As a junior, I was still at school. I was just doing turbo sessions and then on the weekend, I’d go out on a club run and we’d have a coffee stop”

“You go from that to four hours every day. We did training where you don’t eat before you go out, fasted rides. So it was really a bit of a shock to the system, going from not really training actually, to, this is it. This is the job.”

But Van der Haar had no other choice than to sign with a professional team. Shiny bikes, fresh kit, training camps and a liveable wage were huge draws for the then 18-year-old. At the time, U23 development teams that have long been common on the men’s side of the sport were – and largely still are – non-existent in the women’s peloton. With hindsight, it’s an option that Van der Haar wishes she’d had.

“It would have given me the opportunity to really find myself,” she explains. “As a junior, you straight away are thrown into a category of what type of rider you are. I was naturally more of a sprinter. I think if I’d have had the chance to have developed a little bit more in the first couple of years, I really think I would have loved the Classics, but I was just straight away put into that bracket of: you can only do flat races.”

Van der Haar notes that there are very few riders who she raced as a junior, still competing today. “You just get to the point where it’s like, is it worth it any more to continue? It’s such a big jump, whereas I think if you had the under 23-category or teams, you kind of just move up naturally with the same riders. It would be a totally different feeling.”

Luckily, albeit nine years after Lucy van der Haar found herself drowning in her first races as an elite rider, the first women’s UCI registered U23 team has come into existence. Team NXTG was founded in 2020 by Servais Knaven [an ex-pro-rider who is now a sports director for Ineos Grenadiers] and Natascha Knaven. The Dutch couple saw first-hand the struggles that their own daughters would have making the sharp transition straight into the elites from the junior ranks.

“We also saw a lot of talent quit cycling and go on to study. You lose them from the sport and that’s a bit of a pity.” explains Natascha Knaven, now Team NTXG manager. The project began as a junior team with a focus on maintaining a high level of professionalism, as well as providing riders with bikes, kit and training camps. The junior squad then inspired the initiation of an U23 equivalent, in the hope that other teams may follow suit.

NXTG stands for ‘Next Generation’, and the team now offers a platform for U23 riders to develop at a steady rate, without pressure and with realistic expectations. “We ask them to make achievable goals before the race,” says Knaven. “Riding for 60th place is also an achievement when you’re 19 years old and there is Annemiek van Vleuten and Chantal Blaak on the start line.”

The team also encourages riders to continue to study alongside their training, with the aim of preventing the quick and sudden transition into the life of a professional rider that Van der Haar found so difficult. “I think that you have to keep your mind fresh,” explains Knaven. “For us, school is a priority and then cycling. When they turn really pro, when they go to the WorldTour, then it’s different.”

The team’s approach is working: last year alone, two riders left Team NXTG to join WorldTour teams – 22-year-old Charlotte Kool to Team DSM and Shari Bossuyt, a year younger, to Canyon//SRAM. “Those riders were doing well and then the WorldTour teams called and they were gone. A transfer system would be good like in football,” says Knaven. When riders like Kool and Bossuyt move to WorldTeams, there is no reward for the outfits that have developed their talent, leaving little incentive for the creation of more development teams similar to NXTG.

Despite the team’s best efforts, not all riders find success in their set-up. Rozemarijn Ammerlaan, the 2018 junior individual time trial world champion, who rode for Team NXTG in 2020 and 2021, ended her racing career at the end of last season. While she was a beneficiary of NXTG’s support, the step up to the elites was too challenging – even as one of the best juniors in the world. 

“Being on the start line and looking next to you and seeing, for example, Annemiek van Vleuten, you’re like: okay, normally I watch you on TV but now we’re racing against each other; how am I supposed to get through it? Because I’m nowhere near your level. That’s a mindfuck in the race,” says Ammerlaan.

Ammerlaan describes it as two races within one: there are those fighting for the win, and those like her, who are in a race to simply make it to the finish line. “You're not racing like you do in juniors, you’re just riding for your best result.”

Her decision to stop racing came after she was consistently unable to finish races. She explains that a general discomfort in the big, hectic pelotons that are so common in Belgium, for her, took the fun out of the sport. Though Ammerlaan could produce impressive power numbers in training, she was unable to transfer these into race results. It’s impossible to know if having races in a standalone U23 category would have changed her decision to retire last year, but she asserts that it would have certainly given her something realistic to aim for.

“I know it’s not possible to have an U23 race every weekend, but we could have five or six races in the year, you can really look forward to that and be able to race again, not just follow,” she says.

The 22-year-old also notes that, although there are huge benefits that come from riding for a U23-only team, she missed the guidance from older, more experienced riders. “There was no one you could look up to. In a race, it would be good to have someone to ask: what do I do if I need to pee? Or, what do I do with food? We were just trying out everything ourselves,” she says.

Team manager Knaven has since noticed this gap in the team’s structure, and has begun to remedy it. For this season, Jolien d’Hoore, ex-professional, Olympic medallist and winner of Gent-Wevelgem, is working with the team as a sports director. “I heard that she was going to quit cycling and I contacted her because I thought she was a really good fit for our team to educate young girls on how to be a bike rider,” explains Knaven.

“She knows the parcours, the girls can listen to her on the radio and also before the race. When there is disappointment she can talk and encourage them really to break it down. She gives them the trust and hope that they can do the same thing that she did.”

Longer term, Knaven and her team aim to join the Women’s WorldTour in 2023. If their application is successful, Team NXTG, with the support of AG Insurance, will become the first ever three-tiered structure in women’s cycling. They will have a junior team, a UCI-registered U23 squad and the WorldTour outfit, offering riders a clear pathway to the top of the sport. 

“I think it’s a very sustainable project for women’s cycling. I hope we are the first now, but I hope we aren’t the last,” explains Knaven. “We want to be an inspiration to other projects to say, we have to do something about the foundations of women’s cycling to create a wider top level of riders in the future.”

The move has been made possible largely thanks to a collaboration with current men’s WorldTour team Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl, in a turn of events that few expected following Patrick Lefevere’s past comments about women’s cycling. When questioned in 2021 if he would support the creation of a women’s team, the Belgian replied that he was “not a welfare centre”. Knaven is quick to silence any doubts about Lefevere’s commitment to the project, however.

“What he said is not always placed in the right context. What he was saying is that the speed of professionalisation of women’s cycling is too artificial, things like equal prize money, it only helps those at the top. It’s not about sustainability for women’s cycling, that’s where our paths crossed, because his vision was the same as ours,” she says.

“He really believes in the project and really wants to help women’s cycling from the ground up.”

With her team’s future secured until 2025, Knaven now looks to the UCI to help continue developing women’s cycling, starting with at least a standalone women’s U23 World Championships. The current lack of recognition for the category highlights glaring inequality between the men’s and women’s racing, but also makes very little sense. The women’s U23 European Road Championships have been running since 1995 and always provide enthralling battles, leaving any arguments against a World Championship level equivalent unfounded.

Aware of the growing demands for a women’s U23 event at the World Championships, the UCI has committed to presenting a U23 women’s jersey at the Wollongong World Championships in 2022. However, U23 women will not have a standalone race and the jersey will be awarded to the first place U23 rider within the elite race. For many reasons, many see this as an unfair and undesirable solution.

Movistar’s Sarah Gigante, twice Australian National Champion and in her last year as an U23, is concerned about the dynamic of the race in her home world championships. “It’s almost bittersweet,” she says. “I’m glad there is the opportunity to hope to be selected and hope to race for the rainbow bands. At least they are recognising the category.

“But it still might not give U23 riders a chance to show themselves because it’s going to be incredibly difficult to get selected. Imagine being a Dutch U23 rider, you could be the best rider in the world in the U23 category, but I don't know how you’re going to get picked when you’re going against riders like Annemiek van Vleuten and Ellen van Dijk.”

Van der Haar shares that sentiment: “I don’t think that’s the way forward at all,” she says. “I don’t think it’s fair on U23 riders, and I don’t think it’s fair on the elite riders, either. There’ll be attacks going with U23 riders which normally would be left, but now they’d have to be brought back. I think if they want to introduce an under-23 category, then they deserve to have their own race.”

“We need to help women’s cycling from the ground up,” says Knaven. “There is enough talent when you create the platform. If we offer places to develop, there will be riders.”

The NXTG team is paving the way to a future in which young riders have a far better developmental path, but the UCI has been slow in taking action. The inaugural World Championships in 2025, while a step in the right direction, will be too late for some. Why wait?

This article originally was published in Rouleur Issue 111. Support our journalism by subscribing here.

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