Riding is Life


Yara Kastelijn, arms in the air, at the finish of stage 4 of the Tour de France Femmes after winning the stage.

Wheel Talk Newsletter: The Next Generation

Diving in on the state of development teams in women's racing.

Yara Kastelijn greets her teammates after winning the fourth stage of the Tour de France Femmes.

Hello! And thank you again for opening this edition of the Wheel Talk Newsletter. We are well into the offseason and there is a sense of calm in the world of women’s cycling, but it won’t last long. Soon riders will start to pack their bags for winter camp. Their days are packed with team bonding, photo shoots, and new gear.

As they meet teammates new and old, riders will start thinking about next year, and it may seem miles away but in reality 66 days (Tour Down Under) is not far when you’re getting deep in the base miles and enjoying time with family and friends.

We haven’t been completely starved for news though …

On Monday it was announced that EF Education-Cannondale has a new sports director! Carmen Small will join the newly formed team as head sports director, fresh off two years with Jumbo-Visma. It’s a fantastic move both by the team and Small, who has an abundance of experience both in the peloton and in the team car. She’s worked with a couple of the riders already (most notably those who come from Jumbo-Visma) and with Esra Tromp (team manager of EF Education-Cannondale, former manager of Jumbo-Visma).

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Small raced professionally for almost 10 years and was part of teams like Specialized-lululemon, Bigla Pro Cycling, Cylance Pro Cycling, and Cervélo-Bigla. She ended her career with Virtu Cycling in 2017 and went straight from the bike into the role of assistant sports director, in the years since she’s worked with Ceratizit-WNT and Jumbo-Visma and been part of numerous WorldTour wins.

As a rider, she fought for a place in the USA’s Olympic team, landed on many a podium including 3rd in the time trial at the 2013 World Championships, and forged a path for American women trying to get overseas to race. In addition to her DS duties, Small co-founded The Cyclists’ Alliance.

Like Coryn Labecki, returning to an American team will feel different, a bit like coming home, to Small. The style of the team will be completely different from anything she’s experienced in her years directing, Tromp has already been vocal about the vibe the team is aiming for. Small’s experience will also play a large role in moulding the new team, and all their young riders. The team’s roster is a precarious balance of experienced and naïve, brimming with untold potential. If any two people can pilot it in a productive way that will do the team justice it’s Small and Tromp.

In short: if you weren’t excited about this new team before, you should be now.

? Let’s discuss ?

Development teams.

Men’s development teams have been a key resource for developing men’s cycling for years. WorldTour teams like Ag2r Citroën, Groupama-FDJ, Astana, and Jumbo-Visma use their devo teams as a feeder system into their WorldTour teams, and more teams – like Jayco-AlUla and Jayco’s pending sponsorship of the Hagens Berman Axeon team – are following suit. And it’s not just those teams pulling from their own devo programs; other WorldTour men’s outfits keep close tabs on the riders contracted by Continental devo teams, regardless of their affiliations.

On the women’s side, there have never been enough races or resources to truly support development teams. Before the UCI implemented their WorldTour structure for teams there were UCI teams and non-UCI teams. Both teams competed in all the UCI races and a lot of the World Cups. But in the last 10 years, women’s cycling has grown at an almost dizzying rate. In 2016 the UCI replaced the long-running World Cup series with a WorldTour calendar that carried hints of the men’s (albeit a lot smaller). In 2020 the UCI introduced Women’s WorldTeam licenses, a way to distinguish the best of the best from the rest.

Only three years later, 16 teams have applied for 15 WorldTour licenses in 2024. If you’d told the peloton back in 2004 that 16+ teams would have the budget available to meet the UCI’s WWT requirements they would have laughed.

But as the top of the sport continues to grow at a dramatic rate, the bottom remains stagnant. If you’ve been reading these newsletters since the beginning you’ll remember I wrote about the growing gap between the WorldTeams and the rest of the sport. With so much attention on the WorldTour level, development has been overlooked by the governing body.

Thankfully, with all eyes on the future of the sport, some teams have taken developing the next generation into their own hands. Just last week dsm-firmenich announced a partnership with the British team Tofauti Everyone Active to help nurture upcoming talent by giving them access to the WorldTour outfit. The WorldTour team has worked with the Dutch women’s team GT Krush in the past to spot talent and nurture them before they are ready for the step to the big leagues.

While the deal is not a formal development team, there are several women’s WorldTeams that do have development programs.

One of the first and arguably one of the most successful is Canyon-SRAM’s Generation Team. Just this year the team elevated two riders from the Generation team to the Elite WT team with incredible results. Both Antonia Niedermaier and Ricarda Bauernfeind went from new recruits fresh from the devo team to the talk of the peloton. Niedermaier won an impressive stage of the Giro Donne solo by holding off a chase from the legend, Annemiek van Vleuten, and Bauernfeind won a stage of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift with a gutsy late move.

Antonia Niedermaier leads the peloton representing Germany during the U23 European Championships.
Antonia Niedermaier pictured during the U23 European Championships 2023.

In its first season, the Generation team had to be a separate entity from the Elite team because the UCI didn’t have any rules in place for women’s development teams attached to WorldTeams, but before the 2023 season, relegations were put in place that connected the two teams and allowed riders from the devo team to guest ride for their WT equivalent.

This year Jayco-AlUla announced the team would merge with another WorldTeam, Liv Racing-TeqFind, to form a development team both under the name Liv Jayco AlUla. The details of the development team haven’t been released yet, but the bike brand has committed to partnering with the two teams through 2027.

Another WWT with a development team is UAE Team ADQ. The long-running women’s team formerly known as Alé Cipollini (and then Alé BTC Ljubljana) became UAE Team ADQ last year. At the end of the 2022 season, they quietly merged with the incredibly successful Italian team Valcar-Travel & Service, a team that brought riders like Elisa Balsamo, Silvia Persico, and Chiara Consonni through the ranks.

Fenix-Deceuninck joined the WorldTour in 2023 after beating out AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step to the license. Formerly Plantur-Pura, the Belgian team rocked this year’s Tour de France Femmes with one stage win and countless attacks. The elite team is pretty young and could be considered a development team, but they actually already have a development team. Their 10-rider development team formed in 2023 when the elite team was granted a WT license.

Gaia Tormena walks onto the sign-on stage before the start of Clasica de Almeria Women 2023
Gaia Tormena pictured during Clasica de Almeria Women 2023.

AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step was originally one of the only U23 women’s teams in Europe under the name NXTG. When the team announced WT ambitions for 2023 and signed Ashleigh Moolman Pasio there was a sense of disappointment, because the sport so desperately needs teams for young riders. But the team quickly announced a devo team along with their WorldTeam that would retain the original identity of the team. The AG Insurance-NXTG U23 team is home to 12 riders, all under the age of 23 (obviously). It remains one of the only teams solely for U23 women.

The final team to have a development team is Israel-Premier Tech-Roland; although very little is known about this one, it is one of the biggest devo teams at 17 riders. It is also one of the most multi-national with riders from Switzerland, Canada, Ukraine, Israel, Italy, and two sisters from Afghanistan. Two riders from Israel-Premier Tech-Roland’s devo team, Elena Hartmann and Alice Sharpe, jumped from the devo team to the elite team on the first of June. Hartmann ended up racing the Tour de Suisse, Tour of Scandinavia, Simac Ladies Tour, and even the Tour de France Femmes.

Those teams are an encouraging sign that the sport is trying to create spaces for riders to develop, but a major roadblock for these teams is the number of races they can attend. They can’t line up against their affiliated WWT teams, which ruled out WWT events, and a lot of WorldTeams end up racing a lot of the lower-level races throughout the year, especially this year when teams like Israel-Premier Tech-Roland were scrambling for points. Four riders on their development team didn’t get a single day of racing, while six of their riders had under 10 race days.

Elena Hartmann in her time trial helmet focused before the start of the Simac Ladies Tour time trial.
Swiss time trial champion Elena Hartmann before the stage 2 start of the 2023 Simac Ladies Tour.

Other teams had similarly erratic schedules for their riders: UAE Development’s riders raced between 11 and 51 race days, and Fenix Deceuninck’s riders ended up with between one and 34 days. AG Insurance-NXTG did a pretty good job balancing race days for its 12 riders but one, Senne Knaven, only got in five starts (some of the range may of course be due to injuries or illness).

Canyon-SRAM’s devo team, the smallest of the lot with eight riders from Germany, Austria, Namibia, Jamaica, Rwanda, Algeria, and Paraguay, raced between two and 44 days. Agua Marina Espínola raced the most with the team. Her season included Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l’Ardèche, Giro Toscana, Princess Anna Vasa Tour, Setmana Ciclista-Volta Comunitat Valenciana and more. All in all, a pretty decent calendar.

More teams might acquire development programs in the future, while some are just signing development riders to their elite teams. Lidl-Trek hired six new riders for the 2024 season, five of them are 19 or younger.

The whole thing is pretty interesting because women’s cycling already has a depth problem. But the only way we can develop riders to rival SD Worx is to work on the lower levels of the sport. The UCI has already announced a ProTeam tier will be added to the women’s peloton in 2025, something that is desperately needed. At the moment, a handful of teams part of the WorldTour that can’t compete against the top teams, but because there are so few teams, they can get away with barely featuring in the races.

At the moment we are teetering on the edge of what was and what the sport can become, and the importance of these development teams cannot be understated.

? The joys of social media ?

Rouleur Live is the place to be, this year’s especially so. All three Queens of Paris-Rouabix were in attendance and as you’d expect, Alison Jackson was churning out some phenomenal content.

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?️ A picture worth a couple words ?️

Speaking of Paris-Roubaix…

Elisa Longo Borghini rides over the Paris-Roubaix cobbles, led by a TV motorbike with fans on either side.

I have an almost ridiculous number of Gruber Images from Paris-Roubaix saved for later use. It’s a race that produces endless stories, images, emotions. Every rider leaves the race with a tale to tell.

This image is from the 2022 edition. After a rollercoaster start to the season Elisa Longo Borghini surprised everyone by soloing to victory at Paris-Roubaix. She was the second straight Trek-Segafredo rider to win after Lizzie Deignan won the first edition in 2021, in much different conditions. Longo Borghini’s Paris-Roubaix was hot and dusty and the Italian’s victory was one of the best of the 2022 season.

? Your weekly dose of Taylor Swift ?

1989 (Taylor’s Version) has been out in the world for almost two weeks and some people may not like her, her music, or “understand the hype,” but personal preference can’t make the facts go away. Swift’s fourth re-record debuted at number 1 on Billboard 200 with the biggest week for ANY ALBUM in eight years (since Adele’s 25 in 2015). It’s Swift’s biggest week ever and her 13th (can’t make this stuff up, IYKYK) Billboard No. 1 album.

The day of its release, 1989 (Taylor’s Version) saw the biggest streaming day for any album in 2023 on Spotify and of all time on Amazon Music. It topped the charts in Belgium, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, the US, and the UK.

It is Swift’s sixth album to sell over one million units in the first week. (Remind me to tell you about how Swift singlehandedly saved vinyl post-pandemic).

As for critical reception? Rolling Stone, NME, The Times of London, and more gave the album a 5/5 star rating, with Rolling Stone claiming the vault tracks on this re-record are her best yet.

? Until next time! ?

As always, thank you for reading! I will be back next week. Feel free to reach out with any topics, questions, or thoughts you want me to include in future editions of the newsletter. I love hearing from you all!

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