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AG Insurance-NXTG boss: Women’s cycling needs to build its foundations and not just the roof

Women's cycling has been on a rapid path of development recently, but Natascha Knaven-den Ouden believes that more needs to be done for younger riders.

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Women’s cycling has seen some major changes in the last decade with the sport becoming almost unrecognizable compared to just 10 years ago.

Recent seasons have seen the introduction of the Women’s WorldTour series, WorldTeam licenses, plus a plethora of new races. Top-level riders are now afforded a minimum salary that is growing with each year and fans no longer have to rely on a team soigneur or mechanic posting updates on social media to figure out what is going on in the majority of races.

A lot has changed for women at the forefront of the sport, but AG Insurance-NXTG team boss, Natascha Knaven-den Ouden warns against continuing to build at the top and says that more needs to be done to support the lower rungs of the cycling ladder.

“You have to first develop women’s cycling and not from the top but from the bottom up,” Knaven-den Ouden told VeloNews. “It’s like rebuilding a house, but starting with a roof and then the walls are cracking. But when you are building that roof and you put solar panels on it, it’s going heavier and then the walls will break. It comes down when you don’t do anything from the bottom.

“If you build the walls also it will be a solid thing. But when we still are only doing things like equal prize money, it’s going to go to collapse because there’s nothing coming from the bottom.”

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AG Insurance-NXTG was created with the aim of supporting young riders at the start of their elite cycling journey. The team will race with an elite squad for the first time next year and has so far been operating with separate U19 and U23 squads, the second of which has been competing in many WorldTour events throughout the season — including the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

The Tour de France Femmes this season was the peak of these recent developments and has been hailed by many as a turning point for the women’s side of the sport. It was a special moment for Knaven-den Ouden, who used to race herself, and she believes that it was pitched at the right level.

Some of the big-name riders, including the race leader Annemiek van Vleuten, have expressed their desire for the race to head to some of France’s most iconic climbs, but Knaven-den Ouden believes that it could expose some of the major gaps between the WorldTour and the Continental teams, where many riders compete alongside working a part-time job — something that does not happen at the men’s race.

“The Tour de France Femmes was really amazing because I could never imagine the amount of people watching it and the amount of media attention that it got. But we have to watch ourselves,” she said. “I said it in an interview during the Tour, I hope we don’t go to the Pyrenees or the Alps in the upcoming years because then you see the difference in level even better. You see it now. In the Tour de France, we have continental teams with riders who also work next to their second life.

“We have to we have to watch out that we don’t go too fast with the Tour de Femmes to go to the Alps and go to the Pyrenees because it’s too heavy for the peloton as it is right now.”

Providing for U23 riders and teams

The U23 women's peloton at the European Championships
The European road championships has a U23 women’s category (Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

At the moment, women’s cycling operates on a two-tiered system compared to the three tiers that are in men’s racing. Indeed, until the Women’s WorldTour was introduced for the 2020 season, every UCI-registered squad was placed on the same level.

The creation of the WorldTeams has allowed for more of a stepping stone for young riders but there are still major gaps in those structures. Riders just out of the junior categories are largely thrown in at the deep end to race with WorldTour pros and find themselves in a fight to finish, rather than score a result.

Knaven-den Ouden believes that better racing opportunities need to be made available for young riders and the creation of more development teams would force the hand of the UCI. She adds that pressure should be put on some races to invite fewer top teams to make space for younger squads.

“Development teams, that’s what women’s cycling needs now because then you also make a statement to the UCI that there has to be a U23 category, she said. “And those 1.2 races, I think they have to deny access for WorldTour teams to compete in these. That’s the best step up for U23 riders to stick their nose to the window and get results. We see now that WorldTour teams are signing riders too young and put them in the WorldTour roster where they have to fight to finish. And that’s, that’s a pity because they don’t learn.

“We have had several riders that were in our U19 team, and we talked with them when they had to step up to the elite level. We said it’s too early for you to go to Conti level. So, we worked together with a few club teams, and they wrote a program that went abroad, and we put them there and they have really nice races. You see riders competing and they are progressing. They are evolving in their abilities to as a rider, and now some of them are going to be in the continental team.”

U23 racing has been a hot topic in recent seasons, particularly due to the lack of race category for the women at the road world championships, while other disciplines have it. The UCI decided to add a U23 category to the road worlds, but it will not be contested as a separate race but as a classification within the elite race.

The UCI has said it could be at least three years until a separate U23 women’s road race and time trial could be put on.

It has been met with widespread derision in the women’s peloton and few teams have sent included an eligible rider in their elite rosters. The UCI said that it was not possible to make changes to the event program at short notice, but Knaven-den Ouden believes it could have been done.

“It’s a bit of a shame,” she said. “They should take out that mixed team relay because most of the ride is not taking that seriously. Take out that, put back the team time trial because that was a really nice championship, and then put a separate U23 race in. It’s possible.

“If you have a separate championship, you will have separate selections, and then you will have a broader, wider group of riders who can compete.”