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Development teams: The next big push in women’s cycling

As the gap widens between the top of the sport and the lower rungs, development teams are one way to bridge the gap.

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Women’s cycling is thriving at the moment with new races, new teams, and increasingly bigger sponsors coming into the top of the sport, but the focus is starting to turn to its lower rungs.

In the past, top teams have had unofficial relationships with smaller squads as de-facto feeder teams. But a recent rule change by the UCI means that WorldTeams can now set up their own official development squads, with riders allowed to race up with the elite team.

Following the rule change, there has been a small influx of development teams with Fenix-Deceuninck and Israel-Premier Tech Roland joining Canyon-SRAM in creating a feeder squad. It’s still a relatively small number, but the new rules are giving more teams ideas of their own.

“It is at the moment is an idea can become stronger,” Rubens Bertogliati, team manager of the UAE Team ADQ squad, told VeloNews. “Now that the rules are more clear, it’s even easier. On the UCI side, they need to find the right system to enlarge the base of this pyramid. We are all happy following all the great champions, Annemiek van Vleuten, Marianne Vos, and Marta Bastianelli that are competing and doing great things at the top of the pyramid, but we have to think that to get there, we need a larger base in order to attract more rider and from those more riders, more champions will develop in the future.”

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The current state of women’s cycling is a far cry from just 10 years ago when most women’s teams were living hand to mouth, and you had to become a detective to figure out what was happening in the vast majority of races. The improvements are something to be celebrated, but the progress at the top of the sport risks leaving a widening gap for riders to leap as they progress through the sport.

With no official U23 step in women’s road cycling, riders leaving the junior ranks are forced to step immediately into the elite category where race distances and peloton sizes are basically double what they’ve been doing until then.

Before the recent developments in women’s cycling, turning elite right out of the junior ranks was tough, but possible for a large group of riders. With the strength of the peloton deeper and the pace much quicker, it is now a far more daunting prospect for 18-year-olds looking to make the next big step in their careers.

“I think it’s a little bit incomparable because, in the past five years, the sport has changed a lot,” Elisa Longo Borghini told VeloNews of her jump into the elite ranks back in 2011. “I’m really happy that there are these development teams and these specific races like the Tour de l’Avenir only U23. If we would not focus on the youngsters, we risk ending up having a very strong elite group of riders without any change or any base coming up. So, we need to focus on the young riders and to make them develop because they are our future.”

Taking time to progress

With the current structure of women’s cycling, which features just two license categories, development squads are only officially open to the 15 WorldTeams. The Soudal Quick-Step-AG Insurance squad does have its own development team, but it cannot currently benefit from the new UCI rules as it will be racing at Continental level in 2023.

Valcar-Travel & Service and Parkhotel Valkenburg operate as unofficial development teams, helping out a small crop of riders. Silvia Persico, who is making her WorldTour debut with UAE Team ADQ this season, told VeloNews in December that riding with Valcar was a vital part of her career path.

“For my career, it was really important to ride before in a development team because when you are young you don’t know how the race can go. If you ride in a WorldTour team without first riding in a development team, maybe you can’t finish [races] and you must always work for the other girls. It’s like you miss that one step and, for me, it’s really important.”

Under the new rules, the development team must be run by the same paying agent as the WorldTeam, and have a similar identity when it comes to the team name and jersey. It must be registered as a Continental team, and it cannot compete in the same event as the elite team.

Riders on the roster of an official development team can be called up to race with the elite team at any point, and vice versa. However, the rider remains a member of the original team, and any points earned while racing with the other squad will go to the original team.

It means that young riders who may not be ready for the full step can make guest appearances at bigger races to gradually build on their experience.

“I directly went to the [FDJ] team after I was a junior and I directly did some WorldTour races and it’s hard mentally,” rising climbing talent Evita Muzic told VeloNews. “I think it’s good to do one or two years in a development team and do some UCI races but not the biggest races in the world and take time to really progress.”

For riders like the new U23 world champion Niamh Fisher-Black, the jump was even harder as she had no obvious pathway from racing in New Zealand to the professional ranks. She was brave enough to pack up her life and move to Europe aged 18 and was fortunate enough to land a ride with a top team.

While it worked out for her, it takes guts to do something like that, and not every 18-year-old will have the confidence to do it.

“I had to come to Europe all the way from New Zealand, so I didn’t have much support. I obviously didn’t have family, and I sort of did it off a whim,” Fisher-Black told VeloNews. “I think adding in this development pathway opens up doors to riders, like me from New Zealand, from Australia, from America, who have to come a long way from home, and we just need that extra little bit of support.

“That’s what a development team should provide. To see some development teams in women’s cycling, will be hugely beneficial to the sport, and we’ll probably see a lot more talent coming through because it just opened so many doors for other riders.”