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International cyclocross took a muddy step forward on Friday in its long journey toward gender equality.
Organizers of the DVV Trofee race in Loenhout, Belgium staged a standalone event for junior women between the ages of 14 and 18. The race is the first of its kind within international cyclocross’s three major racing series: the World Cup, DVV, and Telenet Superprestige. While there are separate races held for junior and U23 men at these events, the junior and U23 women are traditionally lumped together in the elite women’s field.
The junior race was the brainchild of British national cyclocross champion Helen Wyman. Organizers titled the event the “Helen 100 Trophy.”
“It’s really cool — I think this could have a massive impact on women’s cycling in a few years,” Wyman said. “You could see a whole new group of talented women coming into the top end of the sport.”
Earlier this year, Wyman staged a fundraiser in the UK called the “Helen 100.” The raffle collected donations of 10 pounds each to pay for British women aged 16-23 to attend the UK national cyclocross championships in January. Wyman surpassed her target of 2,500 pounds, and wanted to put the extra funding toward a separate cyclocross project for young girls.
Through her contacts in Belgian cyclocross, Wyman reached out to production company Golazo, which organizers the DVV series. She proposed the idea of funding a junior division at the Loenhout race with the extra money from her drive.
“It’s just a matter of trial and no response from my initial contact to a few race organizers, followed by a random email that hit Golazo’s desk at exactly the right time,” she said. “Sometimes everything just aligns perfectly when you have the right contacts.”
Wyman believes the standalone junior race could help women achieve longer racing times in the future. In 2016, the UCI’s cyclocross commission set a standard for international women’s race times, stating that the events should be a minimum of 40 minutes and a maximum of 50 minutes. Organizers often fail to live up to that standard, however. The Superprestige race in Hamme, Belgium was won by Annemarie Worst in just over 39 minutes. The UCI World Cup round in Tabor, Czech Republic, was won by Lucinda Brand in 40:19.
Wyman said organizers often reference the presence of teenage riders in the elite women’s field as an explanation for the short races.
“Holding back the entire women’s elite field by saying, ‘they can’t do more than 40 minutes because there are junior girls’ is counterproductive,” Wyman said. “It should make us have a junior category, so the elite women can do 50 minutes. Eventually it will come.”
Wyman also believes the junior category could improve the competitive dynamics in the elite ranks. In 2016, the UCI created its own U23 division for the World Cup and world championships, a move that Wyman believes has improved the competitive balance in the elite women’s field throughout 2018.
“Right now we have seven or eight riders doing really well who came through [the U23 division], and I think we could double that in a few years,” Wyman said. “It’s going to make it so much harder to win a race five years from now.”
Wyman hopes Friday’s race persuades other promoters to create standalone fields for junior women. The UCI will stage its first junior women’s world championship race at the 2020 world championships in Dubendorf, Switzerland.