≡ Menu

U23 World Champion

Embed from Getty Images

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?

Embed from Getty Images

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.

2021 Today
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?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gelato4bahamontes Tuesday, 21 September 2021, 7:21 pm

    Read somewhere Italy wont select any u23 from a world tour team

    • The Inner Ring Tuesday, 21 September 2021, 7:45 pm

      Would especially make sense for them as a country with a big U23 scene, Italy is one of the countries where people travel to in order to race for their U23 teams, eg all the Slovenians, Ukrainians, Croatians and the Australian U23 team has been based in Varese etc… but Italy sends pros to the Tour de l’Avenir though.

  • Richard S Tuesday, 21 September 2021, 7:26 pm

    Is the problem not, like with the white jersey at the Tour, that the upper age limit is too high (way way way too high in the case of the white jersey)? U21 would maybe be more appropriate. Or/and make it for riders on development or Conti level teams, or lower, only.
    It’s a bit like the u21 level in football. Technically you could play in the final of a u21 tournament aged 23 if you were 21 when the tournament qualifying process began. But by that age, if you’re really any good, you’re an established star and regular senior international. Really good players are established stars in their teens. So all it really means is you’re not really that good and not likely to make it. And it’s the same with the u23 cycling. If you’re winning it at that age when you’re on a pro team and haven’t been selected for your country, it probably just means you’re not that good.

    • The Inner Ring Tuesday, 21 September 2021, 7:39 pm

      I see what you mean but thing the white jersey competitions have become incidental because one young rider has tended to run away with the race as a whole, but would say we still need the U23 ranks to provide some depth and cater for more than the junior > pro conveyor belt aspect. But there’s already an informal system like this, beyond the junior superstars currently attracting a lot of interest, riders shining at 19-21 years tend to interest the pro teams and 22/23 is now late to turn pro, rare even.

      • Richard S Tuesday, 21 September 2021, 9:35 pm

        Up to what age is the Junior category?

        • UHJ Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 9:49 am

          Up till and including the age of 18, hence the term Under 19; U19.

          • Richard S Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 6:15 pm

            Right. Well I’d say then instead of u23 have a u21 category, riders up to and including aged 21 that haven’t taken part in an elite world tour race.

          • Pete Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 6:54 pm

            Richard’s suggestion makes sense. Once World Tour, that’s it, no sandbagging the lower ranks.
            But if a rider leaves World Tour to ride for a continental team, that’d be OK, as this usually soon-to-be-retirees.

          • CA Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 7:00 pm

            Richard S – great idea. It appears that in 2021 the depth of riders at age 23 is too strong to qualify as developing.

            For the Women’s categories, perhaps they could have an Amateur category – and include riders regardless of age to give the field some depth. It would be a chance for strong women from many countries to have a chance to compete on a world stage and gauge the strength of each country’s female amateur field.

  • Sustainer Tuesday, 21 September 2021, 9:20 pm

    Wasn’t Richmond 2015, not 2016?
    Interesting to look at the subsequent careers of Ledanois and Consonni – that second place must have been irritating, but it looks like this later morphed into a far better palmares than the winner.

    • The Inner Ring Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 2:29 pm

      Ledanois had a complicated time to say the least (see Le Monde); Consonni as you say’s done well and is a versatile rider, an Italian version of Bryan Coquard as he’s featherweight but can do bunch sprints and the track, only with more wins to his name.

  • Morten Reippuert Tuesday, 21 September 2021, 11:34 pm

    Danish federation does not pick WT riders for U23 ranks.

  • RayG Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 3:42 am

    If no pros could race it, would it be better to rename it B-grade?

  • Anonymous Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 7:12 am

    I’m in agreement, although one thing to consider is that plenty of U23 riders might have been signed by top teams but not yet had the opportunity to compete in top races. They’re only permitted by their trade team to enter the slightly lower level races. They’re not all Remco. So U23 Worlds is a legit major goal.

    OTOH seeing the disparity in equipment and support for the riders in the U23 TT, it really makes you feel for the kids who haven’t got a full team (and $$$) behind them

  • DJW Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 9:09 am

    Riders and teams seem to be playing the game. There are only a handful of WT riders in the U23 field, and almost none who would have been selected for the open age race (U23 Vermeersch would not have been selected by Belgium though he could have had a place in many other teams). Similarly Evenpoel and Pidcock are reasonably selected for the open age race when they could have been selected as U23s.
    Conclusion: at least in 2021, the fields in both races seem fair taking into account both age and past results.

  • Rod Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 10:57 am

    Glad to have you back blogging Mr Inner Ring, you’ve certainly been missed!

    • jc Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 10:54 pm


  • plurien Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 11:51 am

    It is time for a change, and for a positive reason: Recognition that we are in the post-doping era. Riders under 23 are now capable of winning WT and GT races.
    Switch to an u21 category instead of u23. Riders come up in two-year steps so this would be a more logical progression after Juniors.
    At the same time, any rider with a full pro contract should not be allowed in, with the intention of boosting development and feeder teams’ importance.
    Grand Tour Young Rider jerseys should also be awarded to riders in the u21 age band.

    Could also form part of a reset for women’s cycling to get nearer to parity with promoters and media through recognition of athlete abilities at the time all riders are seeking that pro contract.

    • Charles Thursday, 23 September 2021, 7:53 am

      Out of interest how many under 21 riders actually rode the Tour this year? Who would have won?

      • James Thursday, 23 September 2021, 8:39 am

        Fred Wright (TBV) was the youngest rider this year. He turned 22 in June, and finished 96th in GC (+3hr24). Pogacar is only 9 months older than him.

  • Hammarling Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 12:17 pm

    Forget the nit-picking on whether a rider like Evenepoel could turn up to the U23 race, the Women do not even have an u23 race! That’s the major flaw in the U23 aspect. And it’s not a question of scheduling, the UCI easily has enough time & resources in Worlds week to fit in an W-U23 ITT & RR. Instead it’s a hold over of out-of-touch UCI management continuing to drag their heels on giving legitimate and measurable support to the Womens side of the sport.

    Radical alternative, cut the Men’s U23 events! As discussed smartly by Inrng they are not really functioning as intended. And by removing them the line between development & pro becomes clearer, and we have equal opportunity for both Men & Women at the road worlds.

    • CA Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 5:37 pm

      Honestly, I respectfully disagree. It isn’t a simple solution to start up Women’s U23 events (both a circuit of races plus the world championships category). I am not saying this as a chauvinist or from a prejudicial point of view – personally, I love the women’s races and am very happy it is expanding at a very rapid pace. The women’s olympics road race was one of my favourites for the year.

      Now, it is very difficult to build this circuit. If you disagree, I beg you to try planning out the specifics. Or, at least go through the exercise of trying to plan it. Now, picture yourself as an avid cycling fan trying to build this up. I assure you, this is an enormously difficult task. And, to take a little heat off the UCI – they do not easily have the necessary resources to do this.

      • Hammarling Thursday, 23 September 2021, 12:31 pm

        I worked on the RideLondon races & events for a couple of years, has been involved in ways with the UK’s Tour Series a few years ago, and have worked in other events as well, i know exactly what goes into planning a bike race 😉

        And in this case it’s much much easier than you think. Because they already have the rest of the routes in place, discussions with local police & communities, investment in infrastructure & staff. Adding in a Womens U23 ITT & RR to this is a surprisingly low amount of work or cost, compared to the rest of the Worlds.
        The UCI proved they can add events to the Worlds, look at the addition of the TTT in 2012. They’ve consistently expanded categories available at the Para-Worlds. It’s not free to make an expansion but is very much possible.

        I mean, if the UCI are that stretched then my suggestion to cut the Mens U23 definitely makes sense.

  • Grant Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 2:16 pm

    Does anyone know why there isnt a U23 category for women at the World Champs?

    • The Inner Ring Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 2:18 pm

      Short answer is because it’s a men’s only category, there’s no U23 women’s race at the worlds because there’s no calendar of U23 races for women at all, no Paris-Roubaix, L’Avenir, Lombardia etc. But as suggested above, with the women’s calendar and teams expanding fast it could be time for this to happen.

      • GRANT WOOD Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 2:25 pm

        Thanks. And good to see you back!

      • Anonymous Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 4:18 pm

        pretty weak argument, since the European Championships 2 weeks ago had Women U23 competitions…

        • The Inner Ring Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 5:06 pm

          That’s sort of the point, there’s no big calendar. Having one or two races late in the season is a start for the women but ideally having some sort of calendar from March to October would be better… but we’d circle around to whether pros could ride, as UHJ points out Gigante and Norsgaard might want to ride them but should pros ride?

      • UHJ Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 4:48 pm

        Yes, it is about time. Sarah Gigante, Emma Norsgaard et.al have started the talks. Could be expected within a couple of years is my guess.

        • DaveRides Saturday, 25 September 2021, 5:12 am

          It has since been announced by the UCI that next year will feature a U23 prize for the best placed eligible rider in the women’s World Championship race.

          The specifics haven’t been confirmed, e.g.
          1. Whether it is a full World Championship title with a medal and rainbow jersey. I hope not, as that would be demeaning. A framed certificate for Age Group Best Placing would be more appropriate.
          2. Whether WWT pros will be eligible or only amateurs and Women’s Continental riders. If it is the latter, Gigante may not be eligible as Tibco-SVB is applying to move into the WWT pro division next year.

          This is a good chance for the women’s side of the sport to make a carefully considered decision and not repeat the same mistakes made on the men’s side.

      • Morten Reippuert Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 7:01 pm

        Am i the only one who sometimes who thinks there could be an over 30 category for the women (also called the non-Dutch category?).

        • Richard S Thursday, 23 September 2021, 8:05 am

          Or just a Dutch and none Dutch category. The elite women’s road race at the Dutch National championships must be the best race of the year.

  • GB Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 4:07 pm

    I guess it’s not an issue totally confined to the World Champs, you also get the odd WT pro appearing in l’Avenir.

    • The Inner Ring Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 5:08 pm

      Likewise, seems odd for a guy who has ridden the Giro in the season do to Avenir for example.

      • Charles Thursday, 23 September 2021, 8:05 am

        Alexander Richardson (Alpecin-Fenix) turned up to race a fully amateur UK Nat C crit this year. He won. What a guy!

        • Davesta Thursday, 23 September 2021, 1:56 pm

          He also turned up a week later and finished 16th. Not sure what to make of that tbh !

  • CA Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 5:32 pm

    Inrng – welcome back!

    Couldn’t agree more – I suggest U23 Worlds 1) institute a rule that any rider has not entered any WT, .1, .2 or .HC races in order to be eligible and 2) this race change its name to Espoir Development World Championships

    • DaveRides Saturday, 25 September 2021, 5:06 am

      Banning riders who have participated in a .2 race is restricting it a little too far, as .2 races are open to domestic teams.

      I would make a far more radical change: make it a qualifying race offering young riders entry into the actual World Championship race.
      Reduce the size of larger teams in the World Championship by one rider each, and then offer the top 15 finishing nations in the U23 qualifying race an extra wildcard entry only to be used by the U23 rider who won their place in the qualifier.
      Then when the World Championship race rolls around, award the best placed U23 rider (who might be one of the wildcards, or a PT/WT pro who was already selected) a framed certificate (no rainbow jersey or medal) for winning Age Group Best Placing.

      A more coherent development pathway will be provided by this than the current farce of a rainbow jersey awarded for a U23 rider winning a race not contested by the best U23 riders.

  • Anonymous Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 10:36 pm

    Just a small historical side note:

    Many “amateurs” from behind the Iron Curtain were de facto pros, who as salaried employees of state owned factories/companies only had to show up on payday. This was referred to as “having a sports job”.

    • The Inner Ring Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 11:13 pm

      Indeed, they rode full time but often for the national team as they could not have professional teams. It’s a longer story of course, but the short version for above is that it meant some older riders, often from East Germany, could become amateur World Champions. But they were otherwise pros, just not with the licence.

  • Tinned Fruit Wednesday, 22 September 2021, 11:36 pm

    I’d be interested in the stats and whether the old norms still hold and it is still a matter of incremental steps for most and peaking mid to late 20s. We get blinded by the lights of a few phenoms but even MVDP didn’t fully break through on the road until he was 23/24.

  • Tom J Thursday, 23 September 2021, 1:59 pm

    Firstly, welcome back @inrng!

    I seem to recall that back in the day of the amateur world championship, if you had become a pro for any length of time but then dropped out (i.e. no contract), you couldn’t return to the amateur championships for a period of time – two years rings a bell. That was a tacit recognition that the level of the pros was higher than the amateurs.

    The lateness in the season of the World Champs does complicate things now, for example a rule such as “if you have raced a 1.x / 2.x race you can’t race the U23 worlds” might dissuade riders from becoming a stagiaire in August if it meant they couldn’t ride the Worlds in September.

    I think I’d go with no age restriction, but an upper limit on team – say only available to riders who have not ridden higher than Continental level in the last two seasons (making allowance for stagiaires “acting up” in the season of the WC). That would stop a 21 year old Tour de France winner riding the championship, but allow a 27 year old journeyman who never got above Conti level to ride the World Championship: it would be down to national federations whether they preferred to select older riders who had “never made it” or concentrate on young up and coming riders on the verge of signing World Tour or Pro Conti contracts.

    • UHJ Thursday, 23 September 2021, 6:06 pm

      Correct, Tom J.
      Back in 93 Alex Pedersen won the amateur WC coming from a period as pro. I don’t know how many years had to pass, but it was regulated.

    • DaveRides Saturday, 25 September 2021, 5:14 am

      If you’ve been picked up as a stagiaire you have made it, and have no business riding in a development race.

      • Cinjet Tuesday, 28 September 2021, 2:42 pm

        A stagiaire at a World Tour team definitely hasn’t made it. Not all stagiaires get a contract, there are more stagiaires than contracts.

  • Ralph Friday, 24 September 2021, 12:39 pm

    I don’t really understand sport nor bureaucracy…but I think what Inner Ring is trying to say here is that there should be levels of competitive achievement, with each jump to the next level providing a big enough incentive (prestige/money), so as to not want to wallow around at the top of your pond. Progression is the key. Once you have moved on, there is no going back. And thinking about it, whatever the U23 etc.. is, as a band of progression, if I have just started cycling at 35, then if I believe I can beat the pro’s, then isn’t a sort of U23 category suitable?

  • 150 Watts Saturday, 25 September 2021, 1:07 am

    The scouting is so thorough these days I don’t think the U23 category serves any purpose … Luke Plato’s for example has already been signed by Ineos.
    But what I really wanted to talk about was the Vuelta and how the winner of the Giro could not even win the best young rider there. Most of the Giro winners in recent years are fairly underwhelming.

    • DaveRides Saturday, 25 September 2021, 5:17 am

      The main purpose it serves is to bring in extra cash for the UCI. They get to charge the host city/region more and charge more for broadcast rights.

      I agree about the Giro. It might be time for it to become a 2.Pro race so they can invite the teams they want and the WT teams which sandbag it can be more honest and just skip it.