Five storylines to follow in women’s racing in 2022
There's plenty to look forward to this year.
There's plenty to look forward to this year.
With riders on their way to training camps and teams planning for their first races of the year, the off-season is well and truly behind us. New team kits have been revealed – at least some of them – and a new season is upon us. And with that new season comes limitless possibilities for riders seasoned and new, teams with a point to prove, and a ton of racing.
There’s almost too much to look forward to in 2022 to write here, but a few potential storylines in the new year are worth thinking about ahead of time.
At the moment we are seeing rapid growth at the top level of women’s cycling. In 2019 a team either held a UCI license or it didn’t. There was no such thing as minimum salary. In 2020 the formation of the two-tier team structure introduced Women’s WorldTour teams, and only eight squads made the cut. In 2022 there will be 14 Women’s WorldTour teams. Fourteen. The maximum number of WorldTour teams allowed by the UCI is 15.
The jump from nine WorldTour teams in 2021 to 14 in 2022 definitely has something to do with the addition of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift to the race calendar. There is also a declining number of non-WorldTour races, mostly thanks to the global pandemic.
A WorldTour level team is automatically invited to any WorldTour race, and with the increased number of WWT teams, it’s safer to join the ranks than hope as a Continental team you’ll get an invite. Indeed with 14 WorldTour teams lining up at races, the number of non-WorldTour teams allowed to start will drop.
As a result, there are a handful of new teams in the Women’s WorldTour who will be finding their footing this year. Some are established teams that are taking a step up. Team Jumbo-Visma, for example, was already running as a WorldTour team in all but license in 2021. They will be just fine. As will the new UAE Team, which is basically former WorldTour team Alé BTC Ljubljana.
Likewise, EF Education-Tibco-SVB has been racing at the WorldTour level for years. The main difference for them will be the minimum salary and an increase in support staff. It might take some growing pains for the American team but they at least have a good amount of WorldTour racing experience.
For some other teams, the change will be jarring, to say the least. Human Powered Health, formerly Rally Cycling, have barely cut their teeth on the European scene and will now be expected to go up against the best of the best. They’ve added some new names to the 2022 roster but have also lost a handful of their top riders (Clara Koppenburg, Heidi Franz, Kristabel Doebel-Hickock, Emma White, and Sara Poidevin).
Uno-X is in the same boat, although they at least have some WorldTour experience on their roster with Julie Leth and Hannah Barnes. They have the advantage of being a European team so their riders are more familiar with European racing but their roster is packed with young riders.
The Swiss team Roland Cogeas Edelweiss Squad (yes, Squad is in their name), is a continuation of Russian Continental team Cogeas-Mettler. They have been home to former time trial world champion Amber Neben and the controversial Olga Zabelinskaya. Like EF Education-Tibco-SVB they’ve been taking part in WorldTour races for quite some time, but they aren’t as cohesive a unit as some other teams at their level.
At the moment, as the WorldTour calendar expands, smaller races are left behind while some of the bigger non-WorldTour races are still attended by most of the WorldTour teams, making it harder for Continental teams to develop riders. The jump from junior to WorldTour is bigger than ever and it’s only going to get harder for those young and new riders to find their way into the WorldTour if the level keeps rising. The top races are already dominated by only three of the established WorldTour teams … and Marianne Vos.
In conclusion, new WorldTour teams have a high bar to reach. Even some of the more established WorldTour teams struggle to compete against the likes of SD Worx, Movistar, and Trek-Segafredo. It will be interesting to see how the new WorldTour teams shake up the racing.
Another change in women’s cycling is the growing number of women directing top-level teams. One of these women is former world champion Anna van der Breggen, who retired at the end of 2021.
Van der Breggen was one of the greatest cyclists of her time, racking up too many wins to count, including gold in the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games road race in 2016, the 2018 Road World Championship title, both time trial and road rainbow jerseys in 2020, and seven consecutive La Flèche Wallonne victories.
Now Van der Breggen will trade in her bike for a steering wheel. The Dutchwoman is going straight from racing to directing her former team, SD Worx, in 2022. With the number of victories to her name, not to mention the numerous times she’s assisted in team victories, it is both interesting and exciting that she will pilot SD Worx in the 2022 season. It’s not always that a good bike racer makes a good team director, but Van der Breggen’s experience indicates she will fit seamlessly into the role.
One usual challenge for a rider transforming over the off-season into management is the relationship between themselves and their former teammates. Some former riders, men and women, who have tried the shift have struggled to hold authority among their friends. For Van der Breggen it’s hard to see this being an issue. Already in 2021, she was trying out her new position while she was still racing. Plus, who would dare question one of the greatest of all time?
As Van der Breggen takes on more responsibility at SD Worx it will be interesting to see if the team’s tactics change or stay the same. After all, why fix what isn’t broken?
Once the Spring Classics are wrapped up Van der Breggen will be joined on the management side by another legend of Dutch cycling, former world champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak. Van den Broek-Blaak announced her retirement at the same time as Van der Breggen but said she would first race through the 2022 Spring Classics campaign.
Another master tactician, it’s incredibly exciting to see Van den Broek-Blaak interested in a director position. In the past, very few retiring female pros have stayed in cycling. These two women choosing to stay in professional cycling when their racing careers have ended could change how many women we see behind the wheel in the future.
In addition to Van der Breggen and Van den Broek-Blaak at SD Worx, Uno-X has hired Alex Greenfield, a former track and road cyclist from the UK, to help direct their new women’s team. Greenfield worked a little bit with Wiggle High5 before coaching the endurance contingent of the New Zealand track program.
Former professional racer Giorgia Bronzini will go from directing Trek-Segafredo in 2021 to directing Liv Racing Xstra in 2022. Carmen Small, who has been working with the Continental Ceratizit-WNT team for a few years, will direct for Jumbo-Visma. And Ina Teutenberg remains the woman in charge of Trek-Segafredo in 2022.
So there are at least six women directing women’s WorldTour teams, that we know of, in 2022. Seven with Rachel Hedderman, who has been directing Tibco-SVB for a number of years but will step into a management role in 2022.
After the season she had in 2021 it’s hard to believe Demi Vollering is basically new to cycling. Vollering finished the year with victories at La Course by Le Tour de France, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Giro Donne, and the Women’s Tour. She was the right-hand woman of Anna van der Breggen from the first race of the year to the last.
Vollering has been steadily gaining experience since she started racing full-time in 2019 for Parkhotel Valkenburg. Even before she joined the SD Worx team she was a rider to watch.
Now, with Van der Breggen retired, Vollering has even less competition for the top spot at SD Worx. That said, the team is really good at spreading its wins around.
When it comes to big races like the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, the Ardennes, and the Giro Donne, Vollering will have to take on more responsibility than she is used to. Lucky for her, Van der Breggen isn’t going far and Vollering will still have that strong personality to guide her and help her continue to grow on and off the bike.
It’s impossible to predict how many races she will win in 2022, but given Vollering’s impressive progression, you can bet it will be more than a few.
In the wake of not one but two Olympic years, due to the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games to 2021, there is a chance the racing will lull a bit in 2022. It’s no secret that the level of racing goes up a few notches in the build-up to the Olympics. For two years the peloton has been mentally and physically drained. Usually, the year after the Olympics, we see some new names winning races and some seasoned riders taking a bit more of a backseat.
With the WorldTour expanding and the stakes being even higher than before, that might not happen in 2022, but after two years of anticipation, racing dynamics could shift a little. We already saw a change to racing after the Olympic road race in 2021, after all.
This is not to say the racing won’t be exciting. There are riders who missed out on their Olympic teams, and those who walked away from the Games broken-hearted. Those riders will be fighting tooth and nail for victories in the new season. But some riders who put everything into the Games only to come out empty-handed can struggle to get back on the horse and find that drive to keep fighting.
Professional cyclists are just humans, with emotions that can impact their racing. The conversation about mental health in sport and society continues to be an important one, so in no way is it a bad thing that some athletes feel less than willing to bury themselves in the wake of an Olympic cycle.
Another post-Olympic trend we’ll see in 2022 is track riders taking to the road. Chloe Dygert will make her first appearance with Canyon-SRAM after signing for the team for the 2021 season. Alexandra Manly, who was part of the Australian Olympic track team, will return to BikeExchange-Jayco. Manly previously raced on the road for Mitchelton-Scott/Orica-AIS from 2015-2019. Uno-X picked up British track legend Elinor Barker on a two-year deal knowing she was pregnant when she signed her new contract. Barker has also raced on road teams before, from 2014 to 2019.
Other riders who have continued to race for a road team while focusing on track, like Trek-Segafredo’s Letizia Paternoster, will now be seen racing with their road teams a lot more frequently than in 2020 and 2021.
In general track riders are exciting additions to road racing, so it will be awesome to see some of them animate the racing when it all kicks off in February.
In 2022 the Women’s WorldTour calendar will boast a record number of events at 25. There are new races, like the highly anticipated Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, and some races like the Giro Donne that will return to WorldTour status after a year at a lower level.
The 2021 calendar included 13 one-day events and five stage races for a total of 37 race days. The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift and the Giro Donne alone add 18 days of racing. With other new races like Itzulia Women and Tour de Romandie, plus returning races like RideLondon – now a three-day race – and the Tour of Chongming Island, the 2022 calendar has an additional 34 race days.
With a front load of one-day events, and most of the stage races packed into the middle and end of the season, teams will start to deteriorate by the Simac Ladies Tour at the end of August. It will be important for teams to pay attention to how riders are handling the racing load, especially the new WorldTour teams.
By the final couple races in 2021 teams simply didn’t have any riders left. The postponed WorldTour one-day Ronde van Drenthe, the final race of 2021, had WorldTour teams like Alé BTC Ljubljana, Trek-Segafredo, and Liv Racing fielding four person teams. Some teams, like Canyon-SRAM, could also only send four to the Women’s Tour (of Britain). So as the calendar grows, the teams need to follow suit.
Most teams have rosters of 12 to 16 riders – not enough for a lot of riders to take significant breaks during the season.
Many of the new WorldTour teams, including EF Education-Tibco-SVB and Uno-X, have cited the new Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift as one reason they went to WorldTour status. The importance and significance of this event is still up in the air, but with the focus the men’s Tour de France typically gets, and the fact the women’s Tour de France will have live coverage for the first time in history, this race has the potential to pull in a lot more interest than women’s cycling has ever seen.
For this reason the best names in women’s cycling will be on the start line and they will be in their best shape of the season. Or at least they will aim to be.
Battle of the North, which replaces the Tour of Norway, takes place just after the Postnord Vårgårda team time trial and road race return in early August. The Tour de Romandie, a newly announced addition, is slated for October before the return of WorldTour racing in China with Tour of Chongming Island and Tour of Guangxi.
Overall it’s a lot of racing, which is awesome for any fan of women’s cycling. We will get to see more riders on the top step and fighting for results as top names pick and choose which events to target.
What other storylines are you looking forward to following in 2022?