Should World Tour Pros Race The U23 Worlds?

The UCI have changed the rules and from 2016 onwards any rider under 23 can race the U23 World Championships, including World Tour pros. Previously pros with World Tour teams were excluded even if they were the right age. This change has brought howls of protest with visions of established pros on big budget teams riding away with the title at the expense of amateurs in search of recognition and reward. This has happened already and the rule change is probably the right thing to do.

First let’s ask what is the point of the U23 race? Why is there no U21 Worlds or for that matter U25, U28 and U35 races? The U23 title is an arbitrary contest, the world champion below a set age. A line has been drawn on a calendar in order to provide younger riders with a developmental goal, with a field and distance to suit the age bracket. Also it’s come about as the U23 title is the modern equivalent of the amateur title won by the likes of Eddy Merckx before turning pro. Although as we’re about to see, there’s nothing amateur about it these days.

Look at the last edition in Richmond won by Frenchman Kevin Ledanois, a member of Bretagne-Séché in the Pro Conti level. A pro, an entourage, a salary. No wonder Simone Consonni looks so upset above. Ledanois has been swimming in the deep end already with races like the Volta Catalunya, the Tour of Turkey and several other longer stage races in his legs before showing up at the U23 Worlds.

Saying Ledanois can ride but World Tour pros cannot is hypocrisy, no? What’s the difference? Many Pro Conti neo-pros already race alongside World Tour ones. Now you might say a World Tour pro does bigger races and comes from a wealthier team and you may be right. Yet it equally be the case that a World Tour neo-pro gets a quiet programme of secondary races meanwhile a Pro Conti team is smaller and stretched meaning a neo can be dropped in the deep end even more so that by September and the Worlds they’ve got a lot more hard racing banked in the legs. Plus the mention of “World Tour” probably makes us think of Astana, BMC Racing and Team Sky but it’s also Cannondale, FDJ and IAM Cycling. Cofidis is Pro Conti ranks but has a comparable budget to IAM Cycling where each spend about €10m a year. In short if an U23 Pro Conti rider can ride then letting a World Tour rider take part isn’t a big change.

If you’re not swayed by the practical argument so far there’s also a moral case to be made. If there is a World Tour rider who is so good that they’ve beaten more senior riders for wins during the year then they’ve no place in an U23 race anyway. Take Orica’s Caleb Ewan or BMC Racing’s Stefan Küng, both have won World Tour races already. They’d just look silly if they started an U23 race, it’s as if Chris Froome or Peter Sagan demanded to ride a junior race, won and pocketed the prize. These riders should play in the big boy’s yard already and do the senior race, either to win or to learn their craft. Winning the U23 title would add little to a World Tour rider’s development, tactical craft or even their palmarès since we expect better of them.

In some ways the whole idea of an U23 rainbow jersey is debatable. This series exists for rider development, to create a space to race in for promising riders. The Nations Cup series of U23 races is excellent but development and detection are a longitudinal matter across the season rather than who rode well on a certain course on one day. It’s the cherry on the cake of a long season and surely a World Tour pro wouldn’t want to regress for a day?

  • Nitpicking: The rule change says any World Tour U23 may ride as long as they haven’t done the senior race already, so this means a rider like Tiesj Benoot cannot compete in the U23 race in Doha next September.

Outraged that World Tour pros will be on the start line for Qatar in 2016? It’s understandable but given many starters come from the pro ranks already it seems harsh to say the handful of World Tour U23s should be blocked while other pros get to ride; if you think the U23 race should be for amateurs only then the battle was lost a long time ago. This year’s title was won by a pro.

To answer the headline: yes they should be allowed to start, it’s whether they need to that’s the question. The rule change just allows all pros to start which is more honest and easier to understand. There is the fear of a top pro like Ewan taking to the start, a rider who has progressed far beyond the purpose of U23 races but if this is the case why start, what is there to gain by literally beating a bunch of amateurs? Win and they’ve just stolen some kid’s lunch. The irony here is that if one rule has changed another stays the same: the U23 world champion can only wear the the jersey in U23 races meaning any pro who wins can never wear the jersey in a race. So why bother starting?

Photo of Chris Froome at the Critérium du Lacq by sudgirondecyclisme

32 thoughts on “Should World Tour Pros Race The U23 Worlds?”

  1. There are many arguments for and against allowing under 23 WT riders complete. On balance, I suggest the event should be open to everyone, irrespective of status. The days of the ‘amateur’ rider being supported at best by a bike shop, race winnings and helpful parents is lost in the mists of the past, the playing field is much more level now. Of course there are different levels of competition, but lets see the best riders complete against each other, and not exclude some in an equally arbitrary manner as the age limit.

    Can the world under 23 road champion carry the rainbow stripes on his jersey, whatever his status ? I have certainly ridden with such a rider with bands on his sleeves and collar, long after the event.

      • According to current UCI rules, they could only wear the world stripes in U23 races in following years and only in the discipline that they won (e.g. TT or Road). Masters also have UCI world championships, but the stripes can only be worn in Masters races, not other Elite races.

  2. My sentiments exactly. Age should always have been the definitive criterion and it’s good to see the UCI righting a wrong. On a more cynical note, ASO’s move to undermine the World Tour (and Velon) shows how arbitrary the distinction between team categories has become.

    • ‘ASO’s move to undermine the World Tour (and Velon)’? Or Velon and the UCI’s move to undermine cycling – by ensuring that the current WT teams are protected regardless of whether or not they’re any good. If this system had been in place last year Dimension Data would not be where they are – but the finances of the owners of Velon teams would be more secure.

  3. Do you recall the farcical 2004 (2006 maybe?) Australian championships where the senior and u23 riders started together? An u23 rider finished 1st but was only awarded the u23 jersey and not the senior one as well.
    The second rider across the line won the senior national championship and IIRC another u23 rider finished third to boot.
    The next year cycling Australia solved the problem by running the races separately.
    This seems positively sensible by comparison. 🙂

  4. The italian rider is Consonni!

    I agree with you when you say there won’t be much of a difference since PCT u23s are already allowed to start. Honestly I’d prefer to see only continental/amateurs cyclists in u23 events but I also understand why many people want the race to be open to all u23 riders.

    I think a really talented young cyclist will always have a chance to show his talent, whatever his level of racing is, even if he’s part of a national amateur/elite u23 system like in France of Italy ( look at Consonni or Moscon… )

  5. I agree. The category “U23” should be reserved for rider under 23 regardless the team. Just to make things simple. But if riders from a WorldTeam are excluded, riders from a ProContinental should be excluded as well, cause they are starting in the same races.

    Concerning the Italians: They complain about riding against ProConti-riders and they will complain about riding against WorldTeam-riders. Bit they complained as Ciolek won the U23-title as well, because he was member of a Continental Team. O the other hand they are proud to tell everyone that their “dilletanti” are in fact real professionals. A bit old school, a bit hypocritical.

    Concerning the UCI, I hav to say: right direction, wrong way:

    UCI-Rule 1.1.036: (…) Under 23 (MU: Men Under 23) This category shall comprise riders aged 19 to 22. A rider of this age who is a member of a UCI WorldTeam shall be deemed ipso facto elite.
    If such a rider, who is still under 23, ceases to belong to a UCI WorldTeam by virtue of which he qualified as elite, he will be requalified in the under 23 category.

    And on that point they start to make exceptions for the U23-NationsCup, the U23-World … PLZ, just delete the sentences two and three!

  6. I would have wished the UCI eliminated both WorldTour & Pro-Conti riders from this title, and this category.

    If the point of U23 races are for development, by the time a rider signs a contract with a WT or PC team, they have already “made it” to the official professional ranks, have a minimum salary and levels of support that go beyond those at the Amateur and Conti level. Their further development comes from competing at the level they earned, not by going downstream (this is not meant as an insult for those riders on a lower tier).

    I believe this is a symptom of the UCI’s decision to abolish the Pro/Amateur line (not that it was ever really clear in practice) and the fact that there isn’t a true or dedicated circuit for PC teams. The later is another subject matter all together, but one which I believe is important for increasing stability in the sport.

    • I’ve often heard that a racer hasn’t really “made it” until he lands a second contract. Showing well at the under-23 Worlds can make an incredible difference for a rider who has a schedule of low profile races, regardless of whether he is WT, Pro-Conti or Continental.

      • Understood regarding the 2nd contract, but the goal of developing a rider is to get them there; keeping them there is another matter, as it is out of the hands of their prior team. If they are only riding in lower tier races, then are they truly there? This what I was referring to about having a true circuit for the PC level. I hesitate on expanding further so as not to hijack the post, as it goes into the very nature of the WT & Continental calendars.

        But if they win a race against riders at a lower level, shouldn’t it be more expected than revered? And we need to look at the World Championships as a 1 day race, which doesn’t necessarily offer much for a burgeoning stage racer.

  7. Why not just split the race and give a worlds jersey to the U-23 WT and PC participant, and at the same race who ever is the “first” continental finisher is awarded a U-23 jersey!
    or am I missing the point?

    • Years ago there were a 3-nations-championship with riders from Germany-Switzerland-Luxemburg. No big fun. The problem is: the gernans followed only the germans, the swiss the swiss and the one from Luxembourg …

      It’s more fun to see 1 race, where the 1st is the first.

  8. There was undisguised glee among Topsport Vlaanderen – Baloise riders at the end of the Belgian nationals this year when their teammate Preben Van Hecke took the Belgian champion’s jersey out of the World Tour ahead of a strong WT contingent including Tom Boonen and Iljo Keisse. I look forward to the day an “amateur” U23 rider does the same with a rainbow jersey against the WT and PCT.
    The British run the national championship U23 and elite races simultaneously.
    When Laura Trott (then 22) won the 2014 women’s race, she was given both jerseys. But in the men’s race the same year, Simon Yates (3rd), Joshua Edmondson (5th) and Adam Yates (6th) (all then 21) had to give way to Edward Laverack (13th) for the U23 jersey because all the first three were riding for World Tour teams. Edmondson has ridden for a continental team since January 2015.
    The new rule produces equality for men and women.

  9. Can’t quite see the difference between making it under 25 instead (why 23 ?)
    Back in the day as soon as I started racing for prize money I relegated myself in my amateur club as ineligible in Australia for trying for the Commonwealth games selection !
    I know things have changed since then, but its the only way to truly be amateur.
    Otherwise they should all be allowed to compete if in that age category now

  10. I think the real question, as inrng has posited is, ‘the whole idea of an U23 rainbow jersey is debatable’. If Ewan or Kung, eligible as they are, cannot morally compete for the prize, what’s the point? Best U23 rider in the world, apart from the truly exceptional?

  11. I would tend to agree that by the time you’re lining up for the U23 race you are potentially already not good enough. By the time you are 22/23 if you are going to be a big hitter everyone already knows and you are already in the World Tour contesting the big races and probably in the senior race too. As examples, with this rule the Yates brothers, Julian Alaphilippe and Tiejs Benoot could all contest the U23 race, but seen as they are already contesting Classics and in their full national team what would be the point?! By extension anyone in the U23 race therefore aren’t as good as them. I’d do away with it and the Junior one and just have a U20 or U21 race.

    • I have to strongly object the point of U23 being only second rate rises because they haven’t signed yet a big contract. Look back to Geelong where Matthews won and Degenkolb was second. And look where they are now. Ok, I think Matthews had just signed his pro contract, but degenkolb was riding for the team Thüringer Energie, which had a really sensible approach. While the riders ride for them, they also had to complete an education/apprenticeship if it shouldn’t work out turning pro. I don’t know if he could have turned pro earlier, but he chose sensibly and I do think those two were really the best U23 riders there at that momentand that course, limited competition or not

    • I too have to disagree with your assertion that u23 = not good enough.

      You could be fresh out of the u19 (junior) category, and have yet to prove yourself in the Senior/Elite category, or you could be progressing through the ranks from elite Amateur to Continental team. This is how the system is currently designed.

      The days of most riders signing their first pro contracts at age 19 – 21 are mostly gone. This is due to several reasons, including regulations regarding teams at the 3 UCI tiers (team size, average team age, what races they can compete in), riders retiring at older ages, minimum salaries, riders continuing their educations, and current thoughts on physical/mental development. While there certainly are exceptions of u23 riders being at the top level of the sport, they are no longer the rule.

      Again, I think the question goes to what is the ultimate purpose of the u23 (or u21 or u25) ranks? If they are for development (and most u23 teams are called development teams), then once when progresses out of the system, what should they be eligible for.

      Perhaps the answer is to reinstate Amateur Worlds, or to have a riders without contracts category (though the later opens up another can of worms) instead of a purely age based category.

      • I don´t like the idea of amateur championships.

        First of all: That would be a realy not-good-enough-championship as we saw it in recent years before 1995, with for exeample Danny Nellissen returning from pro to am after a heart disease and winning the am-championships with a huge gap.

        An then: This solution is the opposite of developing the youth. We will see winning 30 year old riders who are simply better as the young ones who will not even have a chance to start. That´s obviously no way to protect and develop the young riders.

        And finally it´s hypocritical: What´s an amateur? A amateur is a sportsman who earns his money not from making the sport, but from his normal job. Do you think any of the amateur-road-world-champions since the 2nd-world-war, was a real amateur? No way! They were payed by the tax payers, clubs, personal sponsors etc.pp..

  12. »Outraged that World Tour pros will be on the start line for Qatar in 2016? «
    I’m outraged about the start line location in general. And I think nothing was wrong with the U23 rules like they was the last years.

  13. Great analysis… I think you could also ask another fundemental question… why the distinction from amateur and professional in the first play… why not the best at any age and then best at age x, y and z?

    From what I’ve read the reason the olympics had the amateur only rule was to keep out the ‘riff raff’… most of the best working class athletes needed to turn pro to put food on the table and compete in their sport where as rich athletes could do if for pleasure… so the power at be put an artificial rule in place in order to have only the ‘right sort of people’ show up… and today it’s completely ambiguous what “pro” is any more… Olympics doesn’t even make that distinction any more… ’cause it doesn’t make sense.. didn’t even really makes sense back then…

    I like making the distinction of adult, but still developing for U23… and that’s the case for WT or Continental or anyone else… best athlete at U23 period.. also like that if they compete at the open race they can’t come back down… I actually think the UCI have this right….

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