Should the whole season run as planned — the Chinese races at the end of the year are still doubtful due to COVID-19 restrictions — there are 86 days of WorldTour racing planned for 2023. Even without the Tours of Chongming Island and Guangxi, there are still 82 days — 11 more than this year.
While teams are allowed a maximum of 20 riders, which can go up to 22 if they have more than one neo-pro on their roster, most are running at far fewer. UAE Team Emirates has the most on its books with 16 riders, while Canyon-SRAM, like most teams, has a roster of 15.
Budgets are increasing in women’s cycling, but they have not matched the pace of growth of the calendar and Lauke says teams are hitting a limit.
“At the end of the day, it all comes down to how much money you have. What I found out for most teams looks like they will go between 14 and 16 riders because they can’t afford many more,” Lauke told VeloNews. “At the moment, we’re still growing and the sport needs to find its place. So many things are going in the right direction. Many things like the professionalism of the sport is getting better and riders can earn a decent salary. I think we get to a point where riders might not need to work after their career anymore — if they spend their money as income wisely as an athlete.
“There is a proper structure, they can focus on the sport. But now we need to deliver good bike races constantly so spectators find it interesting. It’s a growing process and the teams that I’ve talked to they’re all a little bit on the edge.
“That means at some races, you might start with less riders, because otherwise, it’s too demanding for some athletes to give them one race after another. You don’t want that to overtrain them and cook them… I don’t believe that we will see every team on the WorldTour level participating in every WorldTour race with a full squad. I do not see that happening, because it’s simply not affordable at the moment for any team.”
- Bigger salaries, maternity cover, development teams all part of big changes for women’s cycling in 2023
- Magnus Bäckstedt on returning to the peloton as a DS, competing against his daughters
- Kasia Niewiadoma: ‘Knowing that I didn’t win anything this season upsets me’
Due to injury and riders with commitments in other disciplines like cyclocross and track, Lauke says that it will be impossible to have a full roster available to race at any given moment in the season. As the season progresses and fatigue also starts to set in, teams are likely to be thin on the ground come the closing weeks of the season.
Lauke worries that spreading teams and riders too thin could have a negative impact on the racing itself.
“At the moment, it looks like we try to copy the calendar from the men’s WorldTour, which goes from January to October. If you want to race from January 15 (the date of the opening Women’s WorldTour race) and then you want to race through October 21 in China it’s pretty much like 10 months of racing with 15 riders and this is too demanding,” he said.
“They are mentally tired, and they cannot deliver good performance anymore. This then leads into a lack of competition within the bike races and that’s boring for the spectators again, so you need to find a fine balance to make sure that you have enough races, that you have enough riders and that you can afford all this on the highest level.”
Tweaking the structure
Teams fielding smaller rosters at races are already an issue in the Women’s WorldTour. At the final event of the series this season, the Tour de Romandie, just five teams of the 16 in the race fielded a full roster of six riders.
This was perhaps exacerbated by the world championships being held in Australia adding to a travel-weary peloton, but there were similar issues in 2021. The Ronde van Drenthe finished off that season’s calendar with just four of the 15 teams sending a full complement of six riders.
Another challenge for teams will be a recent change in the rules that requires teams to send seven riders to WorldTour stage races of six or more days. That includes the Giro d’Italia Donne, Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, La Vuelta Femenina, Women’s Tour, the Tour of Scandinavia, and the Simac Ladies Tour.
While the team’s top riders will have more say in where and when they race, the remainder of the squad will have to take up the slack. Lauke believes that the sport as a whole needs to take a big-picture look going forward to see where certain aspects can be refined or fixed.
“I understand that sometimes men’s teams have two or three programs next to another, but I do not think that any team can say they have, scientifically the best race program for each of their riders, because I think many of them just fill gaps throughout the season,” he said. “Only probably is at best 10 riders in the men’s team, maybe on the women’s team, there are that top five riders who might have really a really good program. Then you start to juggle it around… and all of a sudden, they don’t have a nice program anymore. The recovery periods are not looked after, or the proper build-up periods. I think it goes against the philosophy of giving riders a proper break, a proper build-up, and being able to achieve the goals that have been set together. In my opinion, it needs further exchange to fine-tune the whole system.
“[Organizers] want the best riders, but we have now, this team with 15 riders. We have riders in the ranking between number five and number 500, in the WorldTour but every race organizer is asking to have number five in the world ranking instead of number 500. You need to protect your riders at some point, but then race organizers are angry that you don’t bring your strongest squad on paper.
“On the other side, I believe, even if a rider who’s younger, and usually works for the number one or five, that she also deserves a chance to blossom and develop a career. I wish that race organizers, government, and teams, instead of only seeing your own position, sometimes try to take a helicopter view and try to see the whole sporting system and I think that would be much more beneficial.”