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UCI Road World Championships: Can the U23 women’s road race category work inside another race?

The first U23 women's road race champion will be awarded Saturday but the riders will have to compete against the elite.

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WOLLONGONG, Australia (VN) — After history was made Sunday with Vittoria Guazzini crowned the first U23 women’s time trial champion at the UCI Road Cycling Championships, another momentous moment will come this weekend with the first rainbow jersey awarded to a U23 women’s road race champion.

It will be a special occasion for the winner, and is another major milestone for cycling and women’s racing. However, how the race to win that jersey will develop is a complicated matter that few, if any, feel able to answer at this point.

As happened last Sunday in the elite women’s time trial, the U23 will be plucked from that field depending on how they stack up against their older counterparts.

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That method worked well in the time trial, but there is a lot of skepticism about how well it will function in the moving mass that is a road race. The nature of a TT is that it is every rider for themselves, and tactics are not impacted by others, including teammates.

The road race is a very different beast and how any given U23 rider does could depend on the overall ambition for the team. While the U23 worlds jersey might be a nice bonus, there are few teams in the bunch that will realistically be focusing on it.

“For the ITT, it’s not a problem, because it’s just a classification, but for the road race it will be special,” said Marie Le Net, who finished fourth in the U23 category in the TT. “You can be dropped but you have to do the sprint because you don’t know if you can win a medal for the U23. It’s strange to have one race with two classifications. It’s better than nothing, I think.

“For the French team, the goal isn’t the U23 jersey, the goal is the elite jersey. I think for most teams it will be the same.”

Racing for the rainbow, no matter what

Vittoria Guazzini won the U23 women's TT title in Wollongong
Vittoria Guazzini won the U23 women’s TT title in Wollongong to make history in the new category. (Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images)

That “better than nothing” idea is probably not what the UCI was aiming for when it unveiled the inclusion of the category last season. However, that seems to be the most positive sentiment on offer from many of the younger riders.

For some of the younger riders, tight national selections have meant that they haven’t even made the trip to Wollongong. Countries like the U.S., Australia, and South Africa do not have any riders that qualify for the category, while nations such as the Netherlands, France, and Italy have brought U23 riders but will be putting them to work for their older teammates.

Some of the riders that will have to swallow any U23 ambitions to help their teammates would have a real shot taking the rainbow jersey given the opportunity. It may be possible to dovetail both goals, but it’s a risky strategy that could see a team ruining both.

Dutch rider Shirin van Anrooij would be the favorite for the U23 title if she was given the freedom to ride her own race, but the Netherlands has its eyes set on the elite competition.

Van Anrooij was understandably disappointed that she would not have an opportunity to go for gold, and she focused on earlier in the week where she could control her own destiny.

“For the road race, I still think it’s a bit crazy to have the U23 podium in an elite race. With the national team, we’re here to fight for the rainbow jersey for the elite race and I’m just there to really support them,” Van Anrooij said after taking silver in the U23 TT category. “I didn’t come here with the goal to fight for the world champion’s jersey in the road race. The real big goal was in the TT and, in the end, I’m happy with silver and we’ll see what happens in the road race.”

There is a smattering of nations whose teams are so dominated by U23 riders that it may see them going on the hunt for the new title rather than looking for the elite result.

Great Britain comes with a team packed with young riders such as Pfeiffer Georgi, Anna Shackley, and Elynor Bäckstedt. However, it also has two strong riders that do not qualify for the U23 category and could legitimately go for a result in the elite competition.

Canada also has a big contingent of promising young riders that could come home with a result in the younger category but there’s also Alison Jackson, who is an outside contender for the elites.

Even those that do have a strong cohort of U23 riders will potentially have to balance that with other goals. Predicting how the U23 competition will pan out is even more challenging than it is with the elites.

“I think it will be more an accident [who wins], if we can say it like this, because we know that Shirin is the best climber in the U23 and with this lap, with the big climb, the race will be hard. I don’t know if there will be any countries that are just riding for the U23,” Le Net said.