Last week in Tabor, Czech Republic, the sport's governing body announced with little fanfare the first new race added to the programme of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships since 2000, a still-to-be-named category for women aged 17-22. The announcement may have been small, but it is a momentous occasion for the young women who have been stuck competing against those who are older and more experienced, often times not ever being selected for the sport's biggest race, despite their hard work and talent.
While the elite men have raced since 1950, the junior men since 1979 and the under-23 category was added in 1996, the new youth women's category is the first new race since the elite women were added to the programme in 2000, when Hanka Kupfernagel won the first gold medal in Sint-Michielsgestel, Netherlands.
UCI cyclo-cross coordinator Peter van den Abeele told Cyclingnews that the race will be added to the Saturday programme when the 2016 Worlds take place in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, and will be for the combined junior and under-23 age group. The addition of the new race comes at a time when the elite women's field has become more competitive than ever. Five women battled for the race in the final laps in Tabor, with Pauline Ferrand-Prevot of France narrowly topping Belgian Sanne Cant in a hard-fought sprint.
"We saw the elite women's race this year was the most exciting in the race's history," van den Abeele said. The elite event has been open to women 17 and older since the race began in 2000, but they're not always competitive. Marianne Vos won her first elite title at the age of 18, but this year's top-placed under-23 rider was Italian Alice Maria Arzuffi in 14th place. "It's good for the development of the sport. There have been Continental Championships with this age category, and there are many countries that have national championships for youth women. It's hard to estimate how big next year's field will be, but we estimate 30-40 riders for each women's race."
While the Europeans have had a women's under-23 category for the past two years, and the inaugural Pan American Continental Championships had one last year, having a separate category at the World Championships is timely, and is the result of a concerted lobbying effort by Helen Wyman, who together with Geoff Proctor, Beat Wabel, Mike Plant and riders' representative Sven Nys comprise the UCI Cyclo-cross Commission.
"This was actually something we have talked about since I joined the commission," Wyman told Cyclingnews. "Holland and Belgium have had over 30 racers in their junior category at their national champs for many years. The European Championships had the first youth category in Czech Republic in my first year on the commission last year. This season we had a Continental Championships held for Pan Am as well as Europe, and that meant a further roll out of the category. So the next logical step is a World Championships. Zolder is the perfect place to start the category."
Developing women's cycling has become a priority for the UCI, thanks in part to the vocal efforts of Wyman, Vos and other riders who have blanketed social media and worked behind the scenes to make it so, but the timing was also good given the increase in younger women coming into cycling.
"Peter was very much behind the step as he has seen the growth of Junior and U23s in mountain biking, and knows it will help grow women's 'cross even further," Wyman said. "I think it's safe to say, based on Tabor worlds that elite women's 'cross is as exciting as it has ever been with five riders in contention for the win with one lap to go. To me this category provides a fantastic motivation to keep the quality young riders in the sport, ensuring Worlds is even more exciting in the future."
Wyman isn't stopping there. She will now lobby to have the category added to the World Cup schedule. "I’d love to see all of this happen within my four years on the commission."
The addition of the category to Worlds comes one year too late for Canadian Maghalie Rochette, the under-23 Pan American champion. Although she will be one year too old to compete in it next year, she's happy to see the race added. "Even if I personally will not be able to benefit from that great addition, I still really applaud the efforts of Helen and everyone else who has played a role in that," Rochette told Cyclingnews. "I think that the addition of a youth women category at the World Championships is a huge step forward for cycling in general and specifically, for the sport of cyclo-cross."
Rochette sees the category as an opportunity to further develop the depth in the elite women's races in the future. "It will give a great platform of development for young riders as they will have the opportunity to gain a lot of experience by racing internationally against other girls of the same age, and it won't be as intimidating for them as racing against the best women in the world.
"I think this will translate in more experienced and more mature riders because aside from just the racing, they will have the opportunity to learn how to prepare for a big event, learn all that comes with travelling away for races, and most of all, it will probably become an immense source of motivation for them to compete in cyclo-cross as they will have a big goal to aim for. Hopefully, because of the addition of that category, young girls will be more encouraged to race cyclo-cross and therefore, maybe the elite women’s field will become even bigger and deeper in the next couple of years.
"I think that the UCI is putting a lot of effort in growing the sport of cyclo-cross worldwide and I feel like they are doing an incredible job; first by adding two North American World Cups and by adding a youth women category. It’s incredible to see how fast the sport is changing and I feel extremely lucky to be a part of that generation of riders who get to benefit from the effort of older riders that worked so hard for us to have the conditions we have now. Of course there is still some work to do, but I am very grateful for the changes that have been made so far!"
Collegiate champion Emily Shields is also one year too late to race in the new category, but also hailed the news as a big step forward. "It is a great step forwards in women's cycling. Junior and U23 women deserve to have a race at Worlds. We all train and race just as hard as the guys, and it's sad when our season is over after Nationals, and the boys get to go on to Worlds.
"I am sad this year was my last as U23 because I would have loved to race 'cross Worlds as a junior or U23. Instead, I had to hope that one day I could do it as an elite or never at all. Maybe if this goes well and the field sizes are big enough they can eventually separate it into junior women 17-18 and U23 women, but this is a great first step."