It’s time for a standalone U23 women’s race at Aussie Road Nationals

It's been well over a decade since the U23 men got their own road race. Why not the women?

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The 2022 Australian Road Nationals look set to follow a familiar format, with elite and U23 women’s fields combined into a single road race. But as Sarah Fitton writes, the time is right for AusCycling to provide a standalone race for U23 women.

2021 has seen road cycling take some big steps towards a more equal sport, with the introduction of a women’s Paris-Roubaix and the announcement of the Women’s Tour de France for 2022. 

Now, a growing number of voices are challenging the discrepancy between genders in the U23 category and the missed opportunities to support the development of young women emerging from the junior ranks. Amongst the advocates for change is the Cycling Equity Coalition, a 250-member strong group of women advocating for gender equity in Australian cycling.

Those of us within the Coalition are calling on AusCycling to lead the way and create a standalone U23 race for women at the 2022 ‘RoadNats’ and to advocate for a standalone U23 women’s road race when Australia hosts the Road World Championships in Wollongong in 2022. 

Stalled progress after a promising start

The U23 women’s road race and time trial debuted at the Australian Road Nationals in 2007 while the U23 women’s criterium began when the race moved to Ballarat in 2010. Since then, U23 riders have had their own podium presentation but have always raced in a combined field with the elite women.

The choice to combine the elite and U23 fields was probably the right decision at the time, given the smaller numbers of women racing. The men’s U23/elite fields were also combined until 2007, the same year the U23 women’s category was established. 

But women’s cycling has seen explosive growth in recent years and the number of women entering RoadNats continues to grow. In 2021 there were 28 U23 women in the combined U23/elite road race, while the U19 women’s race, with a smaller field of 22, was run as a standalone race.

It’s not only the size of the field that warrants the separation. The combined format of the U23/elite women’s races at RoadNats pushes women exiting the U19 ranks into an elite field (which included eight Women’s WorldTour riders in 2021). As the women’s professional field continues to gain strength, this combination robs the U23 women of a developmental stepping-stone. 

Beth Jackson (18) makes the jump to the U23 ranks next year and believes the categories need to be separated. “It would be easier to transition into U23s and then into elite from there,” she said. “It’s a weird time for lots of female cyclists because we seem to have development programs up to U19 then are forced to take this leap to elite with minimal support.”

A combined U23/elite peloton at the 2021 Road Nationals.

Podium results at RoadNats highlight the strength disparity between the categories. Prior to 2018, only two U23 women had won an overall elite title – Carla Ryan in the time trial in 2007 and Lauren Kitchen in the criterium in 2011.

In 2019, U23 debutant Sarah Gigante’s solo attack from the breakaway in the dying laps of the road race saw commentators scrambling for the rule books. Her win saw the then-18-year-old awarded both the U23 and elite national titles. She went on to win the U23 and elite time trial titles in 2020 and 2021 as well.

Gigante acknowledges that she has personally benefited from a combined field (by winning both road categories in one race) but is nonetheless a strong advocate for establishing a standalone U23 race. “I’m not saying you don’t get strong or willing U23s who don’t ‘need’ this category,” she said, “but I feel like the majority would really benefit from a separate class.

“Eighteen-year-olds would have more sense of hope when they go from a small junior race to a much faster, longer, and harder senior race.”

The dynamics and tactics change when fields are combined. Gigante says a standalone race would give more U23 women the opportunity to actually race – attacking and showing their tactical skills – rather than “just trying to hang on while the elites smash it on the front.” 

The combined format can also have negative impacts for the elite women’s race. Following the UCI’s announcement of the introduction of a combined elite/U23 race at the 2022 Road World Championships, many women spoke out against the format. On Twitter, Brodie Chapman said that two races in one makes no sense. “I’ve raced at Nationals before where the actual race was up the road but the teams behind didn’t work to bring back the break because they were chasing the U23 jersey,” she said. 

In the men’s ranks, stronger U23 riders have to make the decision whether to take part in the elite race to contest that title (like Luke Plapp did last year). A stronger U23 woman should also have the opportunity to make that choice. 

The U23 men have long had their own race at Aussie Road Nationals. It’s surely time for a standalone U23 women’s race, too.

When will it happen?

We asked AusCycling’s general manager of sport, Kipp Kaufmann, whether AusCycling missed an opportunity to make a statement by establishing a standalone race ahead of the introduction of the U23 women’s category at the 2022 Worlds in Wollongong. “We didn’t look at separating it this year,” he said. “Could we have done it? Maybe we should have, but it’s certainly something that we will be considering into the future.”

Kaufmann explained that it’s been a big year for a new organisation still finding its feet, and that COVID has made things particularly tricky. “We’re coming out of lockdown [in Victoria] a month and a half before the event itself [the 2022 Road Nationals in January], and there’s been quite a number of challenges just keeping the year together,” he said. “There are some changes [but] we decided to not make dramatic changes.”

The primary issue is the scheduling of the RoadNats road race program, which runs over the Saturday and Sunday. It’s a tightly packed schedule. An U23 women’s road race would require about three hours of additional road closures.

Kaufmann says that without thinking “outside the box” AusCycling would probably need to add an additional day to the program, which would have implications for the Ballarat community, for the budget, and for the athletes and their schedules – all factors that need to be thought through. 

For Carol Cooke, multiple-time national champion and Tokyo Paralympics silver medallist, it’s a familiar story. When she lobbied for inclusion of paracyclists at RoadNats several years back she was given two answers as to why that couldn’t happen. Firstly, that paracyclists couldn’t possibly ride up Mt. Buninyong (she entered the gran fondo to prove them wrong) and secondly, the cost of closing the roads for extra time while they added races. 

She says she doesn’t see any reason why AusCycling can’t establish the U23 race at 2022 RoadNats. “I know that the obvious replies you will get will be that they don’t have time for it on the program and it would cost more to shut roads down longer etc.” she said. “They are always the same answers … they were the same when I lobbied … [yet] they made it work.”

Paracyclists were eventually added to the Road Nationals program in 2018 when the event also expanded to also include U19 categories, at which point Cooke says there were no more excuses. Kaufmann agrees that despite initial reservations, the U19 and Para athletes now form a cornerstone of Road Nationals. “I think if you would have asked us five years ago, could that happen, everyone would have said ‘No, that can’t happen,’” he said. “And then we did it, and you wouldn’t get rid of it anymore.”

Gigante, as an U23 rider, taking part in the combined elite/U23 race in 2021.

One way to fit an extra road race into the existing 2022 RoadNats schedule would be to run two races on the circuit at the same time. It’s a creative solution employed in the U19 categories, with the U19 women setting off shortly after the U19 men.

Gigante said her experience racing the format was positive – it was well organised and a small group of U19 men passed her only once, while on the main climb. However the U23 men’s field is much larger and the U23 races are longer, creating more risk of interference.

Committing to the future

Kaufmann says that while AusCycling wants to introduce a standalone U23 women’s race as soon as possible, he is hesitant to nominate a date. “I think the answer is we want to … try to find solutions to some of the issues… so that it will always be part of the championships and that we won’t revert backwards,” he said.

There will always be tension between allowing sufficient time to resolve issues and recognising that a deadline can produce creative solutions. After the late cancellation of the 2021 Masters Nationals, AusCycling squeezed the Masters National criterium and time trial races into the 2022 RoadNats schedule. Kaufman says this was an example of AusCycling being forced to find a solution that they otherwise would have said was too hard.

It’s a useful lesson for the introduction of a standalone U23 women’s race. An early commitment by AusCycling would provide sufficient time for planning. The race may not be introduced at 2022 RoadNats but 2023 is a realistic goal.

Ultimately, any decision on introducing a standalone U23 women’s race at RoadNats will need to come from AusCycling. The speed at which they are able to achieve this will speak to their priorities in the year ahead. 

In the meantime, Gigante says that she can think of many women who are understandably reluctant to race against the elite women at RoadNats but would be willing to get out and race against other U23 riders. The biggest advantage of introducing a standalone race now? “Keeping way more girls in the sport.”

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