There’s no denying that women’s cycling is on the up. From the creation of events like the Tour de France Femmes, to equal prize money in some of the biggest races on the calendar, this year has the potential to trigger a real step-change in the popularity of the sport. But, as Natascha Knaven, manager of AG Insurance-NXTG argues, “It just goes to the top of the pyramid.”
“We have to do something about the foundations of women's cycling to create a wider top level of riders in the future,” she continues. Since its inception in 2018, AG Insurance-NXTG has focussed on doing exactly that. The Dutch outfit is the only UCI registered women’s U23 development team in today’s peloton, and they have a plan to invest in the sport from the ground-up.
Knaven witnessed first-hand the struggles that junior riders have when trying to make the step up to elite level by watching her own daughters race, something that spurred the creation of AG Insurance-NXTG. “When my eldest daughter was a junior, we were looking at the elite races and we saw the struggle the best juniors had at that time when they made the step to the elite. There was a huge struggle for them to finish the races,” Knaven says.
With no U23 category for female riders, junior women go from racing distances between 60-70km to competing in races of over 130km when they make the step up to the elite level, all in just one winter’s training. It can lead to many riders leaving the sport before they’ve had time to fulfil their full potential, disheartened by the level of competition and the long road ahead. “It's really important to professionalise women's cycling, but also to create a platform for young riders who need more time to develop,” explains Knaven.
In creating goals and encouraging riders to live a balanced lifestyle, AG Insurance-NXTG hopes to provide a stepping stone into the elites for young riders. “They need to have realistic aims. Riding for 60th place is also an achievement when you're 19 years old. When there is Annemiek van Vleuten and Chantal Blaak on the start line,” says Knaven.
Giving their athletes the opportunity to continue with their studies while racing also forms a key pillar of AG Insurance-NXTG’s ethos. “I think that you have to keep your mind fresh”, says Knaven. “For us a school is a priority and then cycling, but when they go to the WorldTour, then it's different.”
A three-tiered system
U23 development teams still have some pitfalls, though. Riders part of U23 only setups don’t have older, more experienced athletes to learn from and look up to in races. Whether its race craft, feeding while on the move or working as a team, there’s a lot to learn in the professional peloton. In teams with mixed ages, younger riders can speak to those who have been racing for longer to learn the ins and outs of the elite ranks.
This is something that Knaven has tried to remedy for this year, bringing on Jolien D’Hoore, an Olympic medallist on the track and winner of Gent-Wevelgem, as a director sportif for the 2022 season. “I heard that she was going to quit cycling and I contacted her because I think she was a really good fit for our team to educate young girls on how to be a bike rider,” says Knaven. “She knows the parcours so they can also listen to her on the radio. If the girls are disappointed, she gives them the trust and hope that they can do the same thing that she did.
AG Insurance-NXTG has even bigger plans for the long term. In 2023, they will apply for a WorldTour licence, while also keeping their UCI registered U23 squad and junior team, making them the first three-tiered development programme in women’s cycling. If all goes to plan, AG Insurance-NXTG will provide a clear and steady pathway for riders to the very top of the sport.
“We will have three teams next year,” says Knaven. “A top level team, an U23 team and a U19 team. That's unique about the whole project. I think it's a very sustainable project for women's cycling. I hope that we are the first now. I don't hope we are the last,” she says.
The move has largely been made possible by the team’s collaboration with Patrick Lefevere, the manager of men’s WorldTour team Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, and a new title sponsor, AG Insurance. "We will join forces with the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl Wolfpack with big ambitions for the years to come,” the team announced in a statement a few weeks ago.
Lefevere’s decision to collaborate with a women’s team came as a surprise to many following his comments last year. Speaking on the HLN Sportscast with Tom Boonen and Stijn Vlaeminck he replied he was “not a welfare centre” when questioned about the likelihood of him creating a women’s team. 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,” she explains. “It's not about sustainability for women's cycling to put all the money in the top of cycling. That's where our path was crossed because his vision about that was the same as ours. He really believes in the project and really wants to help women's cycling from the ground up.”
Can’t do it alone
AG Insurance-NXTG’s three-tiered system is a unique and potentially revolutionary project in women's cycling. It could keep more talent in the sport from a young age, which will eventually lead to a wider range of top level athletes in the WorldTour. From this, we could see even more competitive and exciting racing.
However, AG Insurance-NXTG only have a roster of around 12 riders currently, and still remain the only U23 development team in the female peloton. Knaven acknowledges that there’s a need for more, but explains that there is little incentive for teams to develop riders that will then get signed by WorldTour teams. “Last year we had two riders doing well and then the WorldTour teams were calling and they were gone. A transfer system would be good like in football,” she says.
“Maybe it’s an explanation that WorldTour teams think that there are not enough riders. But you have to give them a chance.”
As well as her colleagues, Knaven looks to cycling’s governing body to help make a change. The UCI currently don’t have an U23 women’s Nations Cup series or U23 women’s World Championships, something that would give young riders a realistic target in their race season. “When we are talking about equality and equal chances between men and women, the UCI has to do it. Because there is really a platform and enough riders to compete,” explains Knaven.
In 2022, the first U23 women’s World Championship jersey will be awarded at the Wollongong World Championships. However, it won’t be for a standalone race. Instead, U23 women will race with the elites and the jersey will be awarded to the first U23 across the line in that event. “It's not a step forward. Countries like the Netherlands won't involve U23 riders because they have too many good over 23 riders,” says Knaven.
A survey run by The Cyclists' Alliance at the end of last year found that 97% of the riders who took part in the Road World Championships want a separate U23 race, yet the UCI has confirmed that there will not be one until 2025.
AG Insurance-NXTG are paving the way to a sustainable future in the sport, but they need more teams and stakeholders to follow suit. "There is enough talent when you create the platform," says Knaven. "Offer places to develop and then there will be riders."