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Women’s peloton on mixed U23, elite worlds road race: ‘It’s like the UCI don’t take it seriously’

Elisa Longo Borghini, Coryn Labecki, and Amanda Spratt all comment on the proposed combined U23 and elite women's worlds road race.

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There’s not much love from the women’s peloton about the proposed integrated U23 and elite worlds road race.

The UCI announced Saturday that it would introduce a U23 women’s road race rainbow jersey this year — and one in the time trial — but there was a catch. For the first three years, it will be contested as part of the pre-existing elite women’s road race with the first independent race to be held at the Kigali worlds in 2025.

It means that the winner of the U23 race may not necessarily come from the front of the race, but further back. The decision to create the category was hailed as a step toward parity for women, but Elisa Longo Borghini says the younger riders deserve their own race.

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“I think the under 23s deserve a race actually. It’s like the UCI don’t take it seriously, honestly,” Longo Borghini told VeloNews. “This can affect the elite racing first of all, and also it’s like not giving the right credit to the under-23 riders.

“Now we have good under-23 riders, and they should be free to choose whether racing in the elite category or the under 23. A little bit like is happening in mountain bike or cyclocross. I think it’s a pity that they don’t get their own race and it will for sure affect the elite race. And it could also play a big role in the selections for some nations.”

Details on how the combined race will work have been non-existent so far, leaving many to wonder just how it will actually work.

Currently, teams are restricted to a maximum of seven riders — though most have far fewer due to qualification rules. The Netherlands managed to get eight for Flanders 2021 due to being a top-ranked team and having the defending world champion.

Not one of its eight riders was from the U23 category, with the 25-year-old Demi Vollering the youngest Dutchwoman to line up. Other teams, such as Italy, did bring U23 riders, but riders in that category make up less than a third of the start list.

It’s not clear if nations will be mandated to bring a certain number of U23 riders or if it’s a discretional choice. We also don’t yet know what will happen if a U23 wins the elite race as Elisa Balsamo did last year.

Will they get both jerseys or would a rider such as Balsamo be eliminated from the elite results?

“It just complicates it when you say they’re going to be part of the elite race,” Amanda Spratt told VeloNews. “Do you say ‘OK, you can only have a certain number of U23s in the team, or do you increase team size?’ It just becomes a little bit messy as well, in terms of team and tactics. I don’t know if everyone’s going to get the best out of everything if you try to combine it like that.”

Coryn Labecki took bronze in the junior worlds road race in 2010 and then didn’t return to the event until she made her senior debut in 2015. The American racer agrees with both Spratt and Longo Borghini that holding a race within a race doesn’t do the U23 riders justice.

“If you want to have U23 women’s race at worlds it has to be separate. I think that’s the only way,” Labecki said. “It’s not really a race anymore for the U23 it’s just surviving, and then what do you do with selection for a nation? Is It 60/40 elites and U23? Or is it an additional U23 on top of however many spots you qualify? I think it just overcomplicates what a bike race should be. They deserve their own race, and they deserve to find it out for themselves.”

A proper stepping stone

The push for a proper U23 women’s race has been growing bigger in recent years, but the UCI has been quiet on it until last year’s worlds in Flanders. The governing body said that logistics prevented it from bringing forward a stand-alone race to earlier than its three-year plan.

The dragging of feet from the UCI is frustrating many riders.

“I don’t know if they’re just twiddling their thumbs or they’re busy with something else,” Labecki said. “If we could do it in one or two years, I think it’d be a little bit more reasonable. Especially given that corona has made things a little bit more difficult. The sooner the better, but hopefully, they have a good reason for it.”

The introduction of the category seems to be a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Some want to see a stronger cohort of riders in the U23 category before introducing a proper race, but Spratt believes that it is the race that should come first, and the riders will follow.

“Some of the under-23s have been quite vocal, like Niamh Fisher Black, who won the Women’s WorldTour young rider category,” she said. “She came out and wrote a brilliant tweet that said ‘we race our bikes to cross the finish line first and salute not to just finish in the bunch and be awarded a medal.’ I think coming from riders like that kind of says it all.

“Maybe there are some concerns about, there are not enough riders and not enough strength but I think have the race and the strength and the riders will come after that.”

Spratt adds that the lack of an intermediary step between the junior ranks and turning elite is turning many away, particularly in her native Australia, where getting a contract to race in Europe can be a difficult prospect.

“When I came through as an under-19, you went straight into elite,” Spratt said. “There are some riders that win straight away like Marianne Vos, but the vast majority take time to develop. From an Australian perspective, we lose so many riders from that U23 to elite step because there’s just not that steppingstone.

“Maybe in the first or second year of the under 23 race the strength will not be as great as we don’t have as many numbers. But if you have that race, then I think more riders will stick around having that intermediate goal before having to race the elites. From the perspective of growing the sport from the bottom up and keeping the young riders in the sport, it is quite an important step.”