Competition is the very essence of professional cycling. There’s the basic level of competition, which is being the one rider to beat everyone else and cross the finish line first. Below that, competition weaves through every single level of the sport. Riders face competition to be picked for teams when they are still teenagers, and then they face competition to be selected for particular races, all before they’ve even competed to win the race itself. In the professional ranks, there’s competition to gain a licence to become a Continental or Pro Continental team, and once you’ve won that competition, there’s more competition to be selected for particular events so that eventually, one day, you might be in the run-in to try and win a prize in cycling’s biggest race: the Tour de France.
In fact, outside of winning the race itself, team selection for events such as the Tour is one of the most hotly-contested competitions in the entire sport. Each year, all WorldTour teams are invited to the Tour de France as a formality. On the men’s side of the sport, four spaces then can be filled by ProTeams – two of these are automatically invited as the highest ranked ProTeams based on their UCI points, and the two are awarded wildcards at the discretion of the race organisers (in the Tour de France’s case, this is ASO).
On the women’s side of the sport, the spots are, at the moment, not quite as hotly contested. The race still includes 22 teams and ASO abides by the same selection process as on the men’s side, meaning that the two best UCI Continental teams are automatically invited. There are only 15 Women’s WorldTour teams though, meaning that this still leaves five wildcard places for ASO to fill with teams of their choosing.
Last year, three of the teams that ASO picked to compete in the Tour de France Femmes were, naturally, French Continental teams. Aside from them, there were two non-French wildcard teams in Belgian team AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step and Norwegian team Coop-Hitec Products. The two teams with automatic entry to the race thanks to their standing in the UCI Continental team rankings were Lifeplus-Wahoo and Ceratizit-WNT.
The women's peloton at the Tour de France Femmes (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
Just a few weeks ago, the UCI announced the two women’s Continental teams that had secured enough points to gain themselves automatic entry into WorldTour events for the 2024 season. The first of these was Cofidis, the French squad who regularly compete in races at the highest level and even have the current French national champion in their ranks, so this was to be expected. The second team, however, was named Tashkent City Women Professional Cycling Team. Does it ring a bell? No, us neither. That’s likely because the Uzbekistan team rarely raced outside of Asia last season, keeping a relatively low-profile for those who only follow the European racing scene – we were unable to even source any images of the team racing to go alongside this feature, for example.
Tashkent acquired the majority of their UCI points at the Uzbekistan National Championships, racing both the elite and under-23 races where they had riders fill up the top-10 positions in almost every race. This means that they were able to gain 709 points at those National Championships (almost half of their total for the year). It’s worth noting that these National Championships also caused plenty of controversy due to claims of the entire race allegedly being fabricated by the national federation in order to help the country gain points (as reported here by the Global Peloton). These points weren't deducted by the UCI, however.
Tashkent's other points were acquired in UCI races such as the Poreč Trophy in Croatia, the Princess Anna Vasa Tour in Poland and the Aphrodite Cycling Race in Cyprus, as well as a number of races in Asia. Many victories came from 43-year-old Olga Zabelinskaya, a rider with three Olympic medals to her name after she took silver in the individual time trial in 2016 and two bronzes in 2012, all when she was previously representing Russia. The UCI did deduct points from various 1.2 races after these were found to not meet a minimum of 40 participants to which is required for the UCI points to be valid. Even with these deductions, however, Tashkent still had enough points to finish 17th on the UCI rankings, allowing them the spot as second best Continental team behind Cofidis.
Chasing UCI points in 2023 was done with the intention of getting Uzbekistan a spot in the Olympic Road Race next year – something they have also achieved. That Tashkent City Women Professional Cycling Team will now also be invited to every Women’s WorldTour event next year is an added bonus for the squad.
At the time of writing, Tashkent has not yet released its lineup for the 2024 season, but it had a team of just 10 riders this year, a number that will need to be significantly increased if they are to field teams for all of key WWT events. The news that Tashkent has successfully won the automatic invites to WorldTour races will have left plenty of other established Continental teams disappointed. The likes of the French squad, St Michel-Mavic-Auber93 and Dutch team Parkhotel Valkenburg will be among the women’s teams who were hoping to secure the spot that Tashkent has taken for next season.
Should Tashkent accept the invitation to compete in the Tour de France Femmes next year, they will make history as the first team from Uzbekistan to ever compete in the event. In a sport hugely lacking in diversity, seeing a wider spread of talent in the WorldTour peloton can only be seen as a positive. However, with such a small team of riders and support staff, there are also questions surrounding whether the team has bitten off more than it can chew so early in its development as an organisation.
Given that the team’s main funding comes from the Uzbekistan government, more money and sponsors will be needed to help them secure enough equipment and staff to race a WorldTour calendar next year. With virtually no social media presence or team website, Tashkent’s plans for 2024 remain a bit of a mystery. They may have an invite to the race, but whether they will be standing on the start line in Rotterdam for the Grand Départ in a few months’ time is yet to be seen.
Cover image: Getty Images