Since the launch of their Zwift Academy initiative in 2015, Canyon//SRAM have pioneered new and innovative ways to identify raw talent to bring into the women’s peloton. Now, the team are opening up the search and hoping to offer opportunities to riders from all over the world as they launch a new Continental development team starting in 2022.
The formation of the squad comes as part of the team’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Last year Christine Kalkschmid was appointed the role of ‘Team Development and Diversity and Inclusion expert’ to build and implement the team’s programme. “Cycling in general and professional women‘s cycling, in particular, is not accessible for many women around the world,” says Kalkschmid. “Our goal is to make the sport diverse and inclusive by developing and fostering promising talents that currently have no or only limited access to cycling.”
The initiative makes Canyon//SRAM the first European-based Women’s WorldTeam to create a formal, two-tier development structure in order to nurture talent. For most women looking to enter the sport, the Continental tier offers little in the way of support and — as the results of a recent survey conducted by women’s cycling union The Cyclist’s Alliance revealed— very few are remunerated for their work, with some even expected to pay their own way to race.
The Canyon//SRAM development team will, says Team Manager Ronny Lauke, benefit from the same support network as the WorldTeam: “the idea is to have some training camps and every occasion where the team meets, and we have it together so that the development team riders can learn from the educated and experienced WorldTour riders,” he says. “And the same applies for mechanics and physiotherapists so that there's full support and possibly also exchange between the team so everyone can learn from one another... we will make sure that riders are properly looked after.”
For the identification process, the team says: ”Focus will be on, but not limited to, Africa, Asia, and South America.” Riders coming from around the world, however, would need support to relocate to the European epicentre of racing, something that Lauke says the team will assist with. “Our aim is that when the rider leaves her home she does not have to cover any costs,” he says. “And also, of course, we want to have the riders here. Therefore, we will support them on getting visa approval and all that.”
As well as visa assistance, the team will create a base for the riders, “somewhere in the south of Europe as they have stable weather conditions so they can train outside on the road”, in the form of a team house which, Lauke says, will be equipped with a Zwift station.
The team will be opening up the process for riders to apply themselves but they will also be working with national federations in a range of countries to encourage them to put forward their riders. “We will have clear-cut criteria [of] what we expect from potential athletes that we recruit for this team, and we will outline them and publish them,” says Lauke.
As is often the case with projects such as this, bureaucracy plays a role in limiting the scope: UCI rules for Continental teams stipulate that riders from a single nationality must make up the majority of the roster. With an eight rider minimum also in place the team are looking at hiring six riders from one nation and two from elsewhere. Where the team will be registered, then, “basically depends on the riders that we find,” says Lauke.
With just five months until the UCI’s deadline for registering new teams for 2022, the process will need to be quick, too. All riders will need to be chosen and ready to be contracted “hopefully by December by the end of the year, because that's the latest time when we need to supply the information on the rider roster and provide all documents to the to the national federations and the UCI for approval to get the team registered.”
While the Zwift Academy winners will continue to slot into the Women’s WorldTeam and race at the top level, the successful development team candidates will be given more manageable objectives.
“The aim is not to give them race opportunities on the very highest level, we want to make sure that they also have the little successes along the way, which keeps the motivation alive. And that they can see personal progress as a team," says Lauke. "So our aim is to identify races on the national calendars in Spain, the Netherlands, but also to [UCI] .2 races, .1 races with them, depending on invitations that we receive as a team. So they can grow step by step and learn in that environment without pressure.”
Development teams are typically formed around young talent, however the nature of women’s cycling means that riders often enter the sport at a later stage in life. Lauke says that the team will be primarily aimed at U23 or U25 riders, however: “if we get an application from a promising rider who is above that age, and we have a more detailed look into it, [we] are probably open to it.”
Current rider Alexis Ryan, who hails from the USA and has been on Canyon//SRAM since 2015, knows the difficulty that non-European riders face when trying to break into professional cycling. She is pragmatic about the “road blocks” that the squad may face along the way. However, she says: “It’s inspiring to me, and hopefully others, to see the team take this next step. I believe the whole cycling world will be watching and supporting this journey. This will have a massive impact on the future of women’s cycling. We will see the diversity and depth in competition reach new heights. This is the start of making cycling a truly global sport."
Lauke is equally hopeful about the project: “I think it's nice to try something new that nobody else has done before and then let's see how it turns out,” he says. “But not only see but work on it. But usually things will become good. I prefer the optimistic side.”
Details of Canyon//SRAM’s development team and the application process can be found on the team's social media.