With the five-day Tour de l’Avenir Femmes stage race happening now for Under-23 women, all eyes are watching the race, wondering what it could mean for the future of women’s cycling. With two stages already finished, Antonia Niedermaier is leading the 105-rider field by a narrow margin over her top competition, recent Worlds silver and bronze medalists Shirin Van Anrooij and Anna Shackley. While the racing itself is exciting, what the race signifies is even more historic for women’s cycling. The Tour de l’Avenir has run for more than 60 years as a Under-23 race for men, and this is the first year it has added a women’s race.
Ahead of the Tour de France Femmes, several women in the pro peloton—ranging from top finisher Kasia Niewiadoma to newcomers to the field like Alice Towers—told Bicycling that as women’s cycling continued to grow, so did the need for more Under-23 events to help bridge the gap from junior to elite.
Right now, young women are moving from the junior ranks directly onto professional teams, with few options for racing in a separate Under-23 category. Compared to the men’s side of the sport, this is a huge chasm. The Under-23 men are often able to shift from racing in major UCI sanctioned U23 races to riding with their elite team in certain events, allowing them to learn valuable race tactics and grow as riders.
“It was actually really hard [moving up to the elite field], especially since my second year as a Junior was in 2020, the COVID year, so there weren’t any races happening,” said Towers, who is currently sitting eighth in the Tour de l’Avenir Femmes. “I basically went from being a first year junior to racing in the elite races all over in Europe, which was like a baptism by fire... I think that a separate under-23 category would be good, because it’s definitely hard to get your head around racing in the elite field directly from junior.”
While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for some young women riders who have no issue adapting to the longer, harder elite races, there are plenty of young cyclists who end up overwhelmed and unable to get results in the elite field. Towers recalled how hard her first season was, saying, “You absolutely get your head kicked in for about a year. You really have to be patient. I think it’s important to have people around you to remind you that it gets better. It does, eventually... but it feels like it won’t in the moment!”
Riders go from being in the top 10 in the junior field to struggling to finish an elite race—and are missing out on valuable racing experience as a result.
Even consider the fact that World Championships themselves didn’t have a separate U23 field for the women—though they did have a podium, separated out from the elite results. To be clear, pulling U23 results out of the women’s elite results is not the same thing as a standalone race.
“Even three or four years ago, that jump from junior to elite was crazy,” says Niewiadoma. “And it was not as drastic as it is right now. Even a few years ago, women’s cycling wasn’t at the level that it is right now. So to be honest, it’s quite hard for me to imagine an 18-year-old girl like just jumping into these elite races because they might be very discouraged. I really hope that the under-23 category will have a bigger place in women’s [sic] cycling going forward.”
Hopefully, the Tour de l’Avenir Femmes signals that change.
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