When Ally Wollaston crossed the finish line first in the opening stage of the 2024 Tour Down Under, she punched the air with joy, a smile spread widely across her face. As she rolled to the side of the road and shouted “yes!” into her race radio, however, it wasn’t just Wollaston who was celebrating today. To her team, this win summed up something far greater than a single rider.
Since its inception, AG Insurance-Soudal has been an outfit that isn’t afraid to do things differently. The team’s approach to women’s cycling has been regarded as radical by some, but has garnered plenty of support from others (namely Soudal–Quick-Step boss, Patrick Lefevere, who is one of the squad’s key backers). Rather than just having a WorldTour team, the Dutch organisation believe that their three-tier team set-up is the way forward, arguing that women’s cycling needs a proper development structure to help retain talent and grow the strength in depth of the peloton. Rather than buying up the biggest names, this is a team who believes that investment in young riders allows them to develop at their own pace.
It’s not a method that gets results immediately – at least not in the most basic sense of UCI points or impressive numbers on ProCyclingStats – but instead it’s a long term project that requires patience and nurturing of young athletes. The team was originally founded in 2020 by husband and wife, Servais and Natascha Knaven, who saw a need for a development structure when their own daughters became old enough to move into the elite ranks.
Speaking to Rouleur in 2022, Natascha commented: “I think it's a very sustainable project for women's cycling. We want to be an inspiration to other projects to say, hey, we have to do something about the foundations of women's cycling to create in the future a wider top level of riders. We need to help women’s cycling from the ground up. There is enough talent when you create the platform and offer places to develop.”
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
Now four years on from the day that the pair set up AG Insurance-Soudal, Wollaston’s Tour Down Under victory is momentous in the team’s history. While they’ve had plenty of success over the past few years with the likes of former rider Charlotte Kool and Wollaston herself taking victories at UCI level races, this is the first time that the AG Insurance jersey has crossed the finish line first at a WorldTour event. For those who have backed the team from the very beginning, this feels like a significant milestone that validates what they have been working for so long for.
“The whole project is about women’s cycling and our development. Ally came to us three years ago begging for a contract and we gave her a chance, that’s what we stand for,” Servais Knaven commented after watching Wollaston on the podium after her Tour Down Under win.
“It’s easy to always sign the names that everyone knows, but our goal, and what we like, is to give chances to give more good riders from different countries. That is what we need for women’s cycling to be sustainable and to invest in the future.”
Knaven has a background in men’s racing as a former Team Sky rider, then as a sports director for the British WorldTour team, and he has brought many of the principles he learnt in his previous roles into AG Insurance-Soudal. His guidance has been crucial for many of the riders on the team, including Wollaston.
“With men’s and women’s cycling, there’s a lot of things that are the same and a lot are different. The same thing is that you work with cyclists and athletes and you want to get the best out of them. They want to learn and I can teach them things that I learnt both as a sports director and a rider. It took a bit of time to get to the point where we are now with the team but with some good signings we are now ready to be at the top level, it’s really exciting.”
Knaven and the rest of the AG Insurance-Soudal sports directors’ influence is clear when watching how the team races. The organisation of the riders is impressive during crucial, technical moments, especially considering how young many of them still are. Wollaston herself commented after the stage that her teammates were crucial in positioning her to take a sprint win against the home favourite team, Liv AlUla Jayco, in today’s stage.
“The team did a great job of looking after me today. It was a really long and technical run-in so I had to be really patient. I’m really proud of backing myself and going at the right time and having the confidence to do that,” Wollaston said. “It’s nice to have all my European teammates over here a bit closer to my end of the world. I’m really proud to take my first WorldTour win.”Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
While AG Insurance-Soudal is now reaping plentiful rewards after years of hard work, the struggle, Knaven admits, is now to retain the talent that they took so long to develop. The former Paris-Roubaix winner reflects on how, in the past, riders who have found success with his squad have quickly moved on to bigger teams who have budgets to offer improved contracts to star riders. Is that what’s next for a rider like Wollaston?
“It’s difficult, we’ve seen in the past that we lost Charlotte Kool, for example. We picked her up from a club team and then she joined us and started to win. We were still a Continental team then and didn’t have the budget to give her the same salary as she was offered,” Knaven says.
“We had Shari Bossuyt before and we also had Mischa Bredewold as a junior but they ended up taking different paths. You can’t always keep everyone and that’s not the main goal of our project. We know we can’t keep everyone and the most important thing is to give them a platform to develop, otherwise maybe a rider like Charlotte Kool wouldn’t be the rider she is now. Maybe she wouldn’t be riding at all. That’s what we look at.”
Regardless of what comes next for Wollaston, her victory today certainly will last as a turning point for AG Insurance-Soudal, the team that gave her a chance all those years ago. It’s not just Wollaston’s own talent, strength and determination that has seen her achieve the team’s first WorldTour win, but also the forward-thinking, trailblazing attitude from the likes of Knaven since the very beginning. They may not be the world’s number one team yet, but if they keep churning talent like Wollaston through their ranks, AG Insurance-Soudal's future is undeniably bright. It’s sustainable too, which, for the team themselves, is at the forefront of their priorities.
Cover image: Tour Down Under