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Mixed relay world championship drawing wait-and-see attitude

Some are giving the UCI's novel mixed relay race the benefit of a doubt, but Belgian manager Patrick Lefevere isn't one of them

The 2019 world road cycling championships opens Sunday in Yorkshire with a novel event: a team time trial relay featuring squads comprised of men and women.

Teams of six riders — three women and three men — race against the clock. First, the three men complete a 14km circuit, with the women’s trio taking over when the second man crosses the line.

The final time is taken when the second woman crosses the line after completing another 14km lap, and the fastest combined time determines the winner.

The event was tested for the first time during the European championships in Alkmaar in August. As expected, the heavily favored Dutch riders won among eight teams contesting.

The new event replaces the trade team time trial, which the UCI eliminated after the 2018 worlds. The decision to replace the old trade team time trial—which ran from 2012 until 2018—angered some. Deceuninck-Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere suggested WorldTour teams should not allow their riders to participate. Speaking to Belgian media, Lefevere blasted the brand-new event.

“It if was up to me, I would boycott the event. I don’t like it at all,” Lefevere told Het Nieuwsblad. “The [trade] team time trial was a wonderful event, and I am not just saying it because we won it four times. The best teams lined up with the best riders, and the bike manufacturers loved it. And now the UCI takes it away from us.”

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach to how the novel event will play out. In a sport that’s long held separate, stand-alone events for men’s and women’s racing, the event tries to open new ground. The UCI introduced the mixed relay in part as a bid to bring more equality to cycling, and to offer men and women the unique opportunity to compete in the same event.

The trade team TTT ran from 2012-2018. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Officials from the UCI told Reuters that the race could become an Olympic event by 2024 if it proves popular.

“The UCI would be interested to see how this format evolves over the next Olympic period and are open to working with the IOC to introduce a new and innovative format into the existing road cycling program at the Olympic Games,” a UCI spokesman told Reuters on Wednesday.

“Looking ahead, this would fit perfectly with our objective of complete gender parity at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games with the aim that male and female cyclists will enjoy equal number of quotas, events and medals.”

Indeed, squads from 12 nations have confirmed their intention to contest the event. The United States will not field a team, however squads from Belgium, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, among others, are set to compete.

The list of star riders listed on the ‘long team’ of participants includes Primoz Roglic, Lisa Brennauer, Tony Martin, Filippo Ganna, Lucinda Brand, Bauke Mollema, Amalie Dideriksen, and Marc Soler, among others.

Team time trials have long been part of world championships history, with events held from 1962 to 1994. Four-rider teams lined up for their respective federations in a 100km race, and often saw a clash between Eastern Bloc and western European riders. Interest waned when the event was eliminated from the Olympic Games. The UCI brought back the concept as a trade team event in 2012, only to pull the plug on it abruptly last fall.

The pro team TT about face came last fall as newly elected UCI president David Lappartient saw the opportunity to create an event to include both women and men as part of his agenda to promote gender equality in sport. The project came at the expense of the trade team time trial.

“The mixed relay team time trial reserved for national teams is the latest step towards greater gender equality in cycling,” Lappartient said in 2018. “The mixed relay will also have a positive effect on the budgets of the teams and the organizers. This is a significant step towards achieving the UCI’s major objectives of increasing the attractiveness of our World Championships, developing women’s cycling and promoting National Federations.”

Though attendance was not required, some complained the event was too costly and created logistical headaches for WorldTour teams to travel to an event organized for international cycling federations. The six-rider trade team time trial, however, was popular among a core group of pro riders and, as Lefevere pointed out, especially among the bike manufacturers that liked to showcase its technology. When BMC Racing won the event in 2014, Tejay van Garderen characterized it as one of his career highlights.

While some are taking a wait-and-see attitude with the new mixed relay, Lefevere — whose teams won four of the seven pro TTT races that were contested — has already made up his mind.

“I don’t believe in the concept at all,” he said. “What are we going to see? The Netherlands will win by five minutes. The best riders are not interested, and federations are having difficulty putting together good teams. The UCI seems to think the idea will grow, but I don’t think so.”