Under-23 women’s racing has been a hot topic of late.
Despite the huge developments in women’s cycling in recent years, there has been little change in the development pathway for younger riders. While their male counterparts have the opportunity to hone their talents by gradually progressing through categories, female riders currently have to make the leap from junior to elite racing with no — or at least very little — in between.
Kasia Niewiadoma races for the Canyon-SRAM WorldTeam, which is one of the few big women’s squads to have a fully-fledged development team. Canyon-SRAM Generation was announced last year and is racing for the first time this year with its focus on developing young talent from underserved countries.
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“I definitely think that this is an amazing step forward for women’s cycling,” Niewiadoma told VeloNews. “When you look at the men’s peloton, they always have those development teams that allow young boys coming from the junior category to the elite category to kind of make this smooth step where they still learn and develop as a rider and have their chance to race with their people from their age.
“I feel like in women’s cycling, we don’t have it. It’s like you’re a junior and then, all of a sudden, you’re being thrown into a massive race where you suddenly have to become so mature. I feel like it’s a very difficult step for most of the riders. So having the opportunity to actually stay close to the big team but still having enough time to develop in your own way and to not feel that you’re in a rush or you have to be as good as other riders is definitely a big positive thing.”
While Canyon-SRAM is a relative rarity among the top teams, there are squads such as NXTG Racing that are solely focused on young riders and giving them the opportunity to race and develop without too much pressure.
However, there are no dedicated U23 races on the UCI calendar, except for at events such as the European championships.
Pressure has been mounting on the UCI to create a separate U23 time trial and road race for the world championships — a category the men have had since 1996. The governing body has bowed to the pressure somewhat, but the U23 winner will be picked from the elite peloton for the next three years.
The creation of a proper U23 category at the world championships — which will eventually happen in 2025 — will be another major step for women’s cycling. However, improving women’s cycling for the younger generation is more than just two events at the world championships, it’s a whole structural issue that needs to be addressed.
While some are ready to flourish at a very young age, like Marianne Vos, Niewiadoma believes that giving young riders more opportunities to race with others of their own age will be beneficial to them. She adds that the extra experience will help make elite races safer.
“It’s actually crazy for me to think right now that I’m older than somebody who is 18 or 19 years old, and the person has to race with me or with other girls who have years of experience,” she said. “Also, looking at this from a safety point of view, young girls, not everyone of course, but for a lot of them they’ve just started riding or they’re learning different things about cycling.
“I do believe it would be much more encouraging for them to make this learning step with people from their own age. They can feel that they still belong to the peloton and that they belong in the races, instead of them feeling that they have to hold on for dear life to the last wheel, or feeling scared in a peloton, or doing crazy things because they’re just told to be in the front. Then the crashes are being created and you have the stressful atmosphere within the bunch.”
Niewiadoma, a 10-year veteran of the women’s peloton, knows what she’s talking about. The 27-year-old Polish rider jumped out of the junior ranks at the end of the 2012 season and rode her first pro races the following year.
Her step into the pro ranks was made a little less sudden as she was given the opportunity to race some smaller events with the national squad early in the season. However, she was taken on by the Rabobank women’s squad by the end of 2013 at the tender age of 19.
“I was kind of lucky in a way that my first year I spent racing for the Polish team,” Niewiadoma said. “The first World Cup that I did was the Trofeo Binda and definitely I felt like it was a big thing. I thought that it was cool to be able to race next to Marianne Vos, I remember that. But after that, I would just do smaller races in, like, the Czech Republic or somewhere.
“I feel like I could gain my confidence by doing smaller races and then also learning how to move in the bunch. Towards the end of the year, I did the Holland Ladies Tour [now the Simac Ladies Tour -ed] and that’s when I was riding as a trainee for Rabobank. It definitely was super challenging, and it was like diving into the unknown.
“I didn’t know anything about it and I remember that I didn’t know what an echelon was or like how to ride a team time trial. I remember that I was just so nervous the day before the stage that I wasn’t able to speak. I was just so nervous because I was afraid that I would make a stupid move and I would crash out my team or whatever. It was a cool experience but also very stressful.”