Words by Matilda Price | Photo by SWpix.com
The WorldTour season is starting earlier, and the opening races are more important than ever
When the prospect of relegation entered the horizons of some men’s WorldTour teams last season, it felt like something of a last-minute realisation. The teams had known for almost three years that their licences would be up at the end of 2022, but the scramble to secure points and a future in the WorldTour – or indeed not – didn’t become a real feature of racing until the summer just gone. After not thinking or talking about UCI points much at all, suddenly it was all the cycling world was doing: teams strategically picking races where they could add the most to the tally, pundits reviewing on an almost daily basis where each team stood in the battle.
For the women’s WorldTour, the end of 2023 will mark the first time that teams will either be relegated out of or promoted into the top flight of the sport. This may be the first year we have actually had the maximum 15 teams in the WorldTour, but the three-year cycle has already been going, and it’s about to be up. But rather than a last-minute panic in the summer and September, it seems the teams fighting for their place in the WorldTour for 2024 are already well aware of the need to get points on the board – and when better to start than January?
This season, the Women’s WorldTour has started earlier than ever. Traditionally (if you can ascribe ‘tradition’ to the still relatively new WWT) the calendar has started with Strade Bianche at the start of March, but this year, WorldTour racing kicked off in the third week of January. We’ll have had nine days of WWT competition – including two stage races – before a wheel even hits the white roads of Tuscany.
January and February have slowly been getting busier and becoming more important in terms of racing for the women’s peloton, with various warm-up races in Spain and the previously non-WWT but still prestigious Opening Weekend. This year, though, 2023 has started with a bang, with teams grabbing the earliest chances to get wins and points under their belt, as well as fine tune their strategies for the season ahead.
Hitting the ground (down under) running
The Australian summer of cycling. It’s a chunk of the season that divides opinions. Some will tell you nothing before Omloop counts, others see the Aussie jaunts as just a bit of fun – hardly even real racing – and much of Europe is out of step with the whole thing, sleeping through much of the Tours Down Under, Cadel Evans Road Races and Jayco Herald Sun Tours.
The generally accepted truth, though, is that the series of southern hemisphere curtain raisers fall somewhere in the range of ‘not important at all’ to ‘of low-level importance’. Even the races’ biggest defenders and enthusiasts – and the keen Aussies and Kiwis who want to win them – will concede that they’re hardly up there with the big races of the calendar. They’re a chance to get some racing miles in the bank and warm up your legs after the winter before the Classics and spring stages races get under way in Europe.
However, in the new era of relegation and promotion, it’s becoming ever more apparent that regardless of the prestige we may or may not attach to a race, the number of points it carries are the same either way. The degree to which teams recognised or cared about this was mixed, though. The start list was somewhat lacking, featuring just six WorldTour teams, technically not even meeting the ratios a WorldTour event is required to have.
Naturally, without teams like SD Worx or Jumbo Visma, it was easy to talk down the race before it began. But what viewers may have seen a race-dampening lack of big teams, several smaller squads saw it as an opportunity. This was made clear as early as day one, when Daria Pikulik of Human Powered Health shocked the biggest teams to take her first victory in the WorldTour, and get her team’s campaign to stay in it off to a very promising start. Human Powered Health continued to take advantage of the slightly thinned-out field, taking top-10s across the weekend, as did fellow relegation risks Israel Premier Tech Roland and new kids on the block, Zaaf Pro Cycling.
It would be easy to undermine these efforts, to say that the only reason such teams did well was because the big names were missing. But, really, how much does that even matter? To borrow a phrase from the world of football, you can only beat what’s in front of you. You can argue all you like that Grace Brown’s win on the final stage of the Tour Down Under may have been sweeter if she’d beaten Demi Vollering or Elisa Longo Borghini, but it’s hard to imagine that she or FDJ-Suez see the victory as any less important due to their absence.
And for the small teams just looking to take meaningful results, there can be no shame or pickiness in where you do well – in fact it is a choice to be celebrated, that these teams are out there racing and taking chances whilst the more secure outfits use that security to pick and choose. A win is a win, a point is a point, and when your position in the WorldTour depends on them, you’ll take them where you can.
Of course, the season is long, but by making the trip down under, several teams have already earned all-important wins, results and points, grabbing at an opportunity to do well out of a less stacked field. When the decisions on relegation and promotion come around at the end of the season, no one will be worrying about where or how the teams secured the numbers they needed to stay in the WorldTour, only the fact that they did.
The chance to fine-tune the tactics
More than just points and wins added to the tally, though, the first races of the season offer a huge benefit: the chance to really mold a new team, to test new things and try out new riders. With plenty of high-profile transfers this off-season, there are a lot of WorldTour teams hoping to embed new riders in their set up before the Classics begin.
This was clear even before the start of the WorldTour, at the Australian nationals, where Trek-Segafredo pinned their hopes on not one but two new signings, Brodie Chapman and Amanda Spratt. Both coming from long tenures at other teams, it’s never quite clear how new riders will fit in – it’s natural to take a while to settle – but Trek-Segafredo and their new Aussies got the chance to mold together almost immediately, with Chapman and Spratt taking a one-two at the national championships. Not only is it a good sign that the off-season went well, but racking up a big result early on is surely confidence-boosting for a rider putting their faith in a new team and new equipment.
This early chance to try out new things with new riders was perhaps manifested in the clearest way, though, at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. After her victory at the Tour Down Under, FDJ-Suez started the race with Grace Brown (pictured) as their leader and new signing Loes Adegeest as Plan B. Of course, most teams hope they won’t have to use their Plan B, but actually, there is surely some benefit in testing it out, some confidence to be found in knowing your back-up plan can be a winner, too. And that’s exactly what FDJ did at Cadel’s, with e-sports champion Adegeest quickly switching to leadership after Brown faded in the finale.
Making her debut in the WorldTour this season, Adegeest started the year with something to prove, and it surely bodes well for the Dutch rider and the whole team that she was able to pull off a big win so early – and that FDJ had the chance to think on their feet in a race less pressured than the Classics or a Grand Tour.
Heading to the Middle East
Opening Weekend may still be nearly three weeks away, but there’s no rest for the women’s peloton as they tackle another new addition to the calendar, the UAE Tour. It will be the first time the peloton heads back to the Middle East since 2020 and the demise of races like the Dubai Women’s Tour and the even longer ago Ladies Tour of Qatar. It’s also a rare RCS-run women’s race, something that may prove interesting as rumours swirl that they may become involved with the Giro d’Italia Donne.
Unlike the Tour Down Under, the UAE Tour has attracted a star-studded field, missing only Jumbo Visma and EF Education-TIBCO-SVB from the WorldTour and opening the seasons of riders like Lorena Wiebes, Elisa Balsamo and Elisa Longo Borghini. There’s plenty to look forward to at the UAE Tour that we’ve been waiting for over the off-season, and should become long-running threads in 2023: how will Lorena Wiebes fare against her former lead-out rider Charlotte Kool? How will SD Worx balance their new-found sprinting ambitions with GC efforts? How successful have Movistar’s attempts to build a futureproof team been in anticipation of Annemiek van Vleuten’s retirement?
These early-season races still may be just that: early-season races, not quite comparable to the Classics or the big summer stage races, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important or not interesting. Purists may not be fully tuned in yet, sticking to the line that the season starts at Omloop, but the teams clearly see it differently. It may be only February, but with all-important points to score and team tactics to hone, racing has well and truly begun in the Women’s WorldTour.