The World Championships are on this week and some World Tour pros are riding the U23 races. They qualify by age but shouldn’t the category be reserved for developing riders?
Once upon a time we had amateurs and pros. The amateur category often saw up-and-coming riders win, for example a teenage Eddy Merckx won in 1965 and normally all the top amateurs turned pro. Except the Eastern bloc riders but because they rode as amateurs for the whole career so they’d often dominate the amateur ranks. The amateur category died out in 1995 and the U23 category was introduced the following year.
The U23 category was created as a bridge between the junior ranks and the pros. A rider – men only for now – could emerge from the junior ranks and find a series of suitable races rather than suddenly going from 120-140km to 200-250km distances. It’s taken time but today U23’s calendar is a good mix of classics and stage races, the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège is about 170km and stages of the Tour de l’Avenir or U23 Giro tend to be 140-160km. The only thing missing is an equivalent for the women’s calendar because all the same issues of professionalisation and development are accompanying the rise of the Women’s World Tour and the gravitational pull of the new Tour de France femmes.
One point to dwell on is that recently Pro Conti riders could ride the U23 Worlds, this meant you had riders who enjoyed a full pro season, able to bank World Tour stage races and even a grand tour, going up against rank amateurs in the Worlds. If a picture speaks a thousand words, in 2015 Kevin Ledanois beat amateur Simone Consonni in Richmond.
No wonder Consonni looks distraught getting beaten by a pro. A solution to this anomaly came the following year and the U23 Worlds were opened up to World Tour pros as well. It made sense in that if some pros could already ride the Worlds then you might as well let more do it, there’s not much difference today between, being on Lotto-Soudal or Alpecin-Fenix, or Cofidis or Arkéa-Samsic when it comes to resources.
There was no U23 worlds last year so the issue didn’t arise. But we’re here now and a handful of established pros are riding the U23 races. I could list them but it’s really not about these individuals, it’s the system. If they’re racing against pros all season then stepping back down to the U23 ranks feels odd but the system both permits and encourages this, there’s a jersey, a prize and national selectors, whose roles usually depend on results, have every reason to pick a relatively seasoned pro over an up-and-comer.
Now before anyone rushes to the comments to say “but they’re aged U23 and so eligible to race“, yes that’s factually correct. But it misses the point, the category is formally defined by age but whole point is development. We could reprise the old French term for the category of espoir (“hope”). Yes riders are 19-22 years old but the real purpose of the category is to bring riders on from the junior ranks. A rider who has quit, or even skipped the U23 ranks to turned pro, has jumped passed this category so it’s odd they can revert for the Worlds.
In reality just because some can ride doesn’t mean they do. Remco Evenepoel is after the senior title this Sunday. But others might not. And again it’s not about those that do, it’s the system. You can see the incentives, a rainbow jersey – for day, they can’t wear it in a race – and also the UCI points on offer for them (125, the same as a 1.1 race and comparable to the 120 on offer for a Tour de France stage), plus a title for their selector and national federation who might have funding riding on results and so could lean on a rider to make themselves available for the day.
Yes the U23 category sounds like it’s defined by age and is for 19-22 year old riders. But the real point of the category is a staging post between the junior ranks and the pros. Surely a rider who has moved up to pro ranks can find other goals and leave the rainbow stripes to someone else hoping to convert them into a contract and a pot of gold?