UCI President David Lappartient’s response to a question about the lack of a U23 women’s race at the road world championships sounded quite a bit like he was working through the concept in real-time. “That’s clearly something that’s possible,” he said last week. “That could be our first step.”
The first step he proposed was to run a U23 women’s race in-line with the elite women’s race at the World Championships in Wollongong, Australia in 2022. Rather than give the women their own race, the governing body would like the U23s to line up with the elites, two races in one event.
“The Road Worlds programme is already quite busy,” was what the UCI’s director of sport Peter van den Abeele said recently, according to Cyclingnews.
It smells like a cop-out. It looks like a cop-out. It sounds like a cop-out. It is most definitely a cop-out. To go halfway, in this case, is worse than doing nothing at all. It ignores the dynamics of both races, skews the incentives of nations as they pick worlds squads, and would inevitably lead to confusion and missed opportunities for both elite and U23 riders.
Elisa Balsamo, for example, is just 23, out of the U23 ranks by just two months based on her February birthday. Let’s pretend she was just a few months younger and still U23-eligible: would she be elite or U23 world champion right now? There are bound to be more young superstars like her.
With women’s cycling on the rise, the addition of a women’s Tour de France in 2022, and more WorldTour teams clamouring to get to that top step, now more than ever the peloton needs clear development pathways. There is no middle ground between juniors and elites, and some women get picked up for WorldTour teams straight out of the juniors, which may not necessarily be the best method for developing young riders. It’s not uncommon to perform well in the juniors and then sink when thrown into the deep end of the professional peloton.
Right now the sport is being built from the top, without enough thought given to how the girls of the future will actually get there. Brand new teams are jumping straight to WorldTour status but it’s imperative to the sport that lesser teams not only receive starts at big races but are held accountable to similar standards as WorldTour teams. And that the small races remain on the calendar.
Understandably the women’s peloton was not keen on the idea of a combined U23/elite worlds road race.
“No thank you!” Canadian Alison Jackson said on Twitter. “That means every nation will be put under pressure to create two teams: three elite riders and three U23 riders? This takes away from Elite racing spots but also doesn’t give the U23 a fair chance either. Make it an entirely separate race.”
2019 Junior World Champion Megan Jastrab has a similar thought, wondering if the U23 women would qualify for their own spots or if their spots would get pulled from the elite team. “What stops teams from having the U23 riders working for the elite team?” Jastrab said. “A team that has maximum start spots for the elite and U23 women seem like it might be a problem.”
There are scarcely any U23 teams, and with the sport accelerating so fast there are more teams looking to join the WorldTour than develop younger riders.
Overall, the plan to just lump the U23 women in with the elites is just lazy. As the sport develops the UCI needs to be paying more attention to the bigger picture. A dedicated U23 race would help close the gap between the juniors and elites, while a combined race would just upend the race dynamics of both the U23 and elite categories.
It is hard not to be critical of the UCI, and mostly how they have handled women’s cycling in the past. To the news of a joint elite/U23 women’s race at the World Championships in 2022 Alison Jackson said it best: No thank you.