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While racing was in full swing these past few months in New Zealand, Australia and Qatar, all eyes were on Europe this weekend when the women’s road season “officially began” with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday.
Although more UCI-sanctioned races are appearing around the globe, for men’s and women’s pro cycling alike, Europe is still considered the pinnacle of bike racing, and athletes from around the globe do whatever it takes to become “Euro pro”.
“In order to become the best cyclist — which is always the goal — you have to perform where all the best cycling is, and that really is in Europe,” said American cyclist Tayler Wiles (Velocio-SRAM).
Fellow American Megan Guarnier agrees.
“In my head, a European team was the way to compete at the top level,” said Guarnier of Boels-Dolmans. “In every race in Europe, even a non-UCI race, you are racing the best in the world.”
In most countries, the progression from beginner to professional is based on categories and points. You start at the bottom, earn points as you gain experience and win races and ultimately, reach the elite level. Once a Category 1 or elite racer, you’ll likely race a national circuit of some sorts with the hopes of getting exposure and being picked up by a domestic pro team, an elite development team and maybe the national team. From there, the final tier (for some) is getting on a UCI-sanctioned team that competes internationally.
“You have to do well locally, then nationally and then take that step up to get results internationally. If you can compete in Europe and get top-fives in World Cups, then you could eventually get a medal at a World or Olympic road race. And that’s the ultimate goal,” said Wiles, who’s currently focusing on the latter herself.
It sort of looks like this:
- Beginner/Category 4 (D Grade)
- Category 3 (C Grade)
- Category 2 (B Grade)
- Category 1 (A Grade)
- development team/national race series
- Domestic pro
- International pro
- selection for the elite national team for World Championships and Olympic Games
Some countries — Australia included, at least until the national women’s development team was scrapped recently — have a very strong development program that shepherds and fast-track young athletes through this process.
The natural progression
“My pathway was through the National Race Series,” explained Australian rider Loren Rowney (Velocio-SRAM). “I never went through the system, which is actually quite rare in Australia, as most of our riders have gone through the AIS in some shape or form.”
After a successful season in the Australian NRS, the AIS head coach at the time, Marv Barras, put her name forward to the Australian owner of Specialized-lululemon (now Velocio-SRAM), Kirsty Scrymgeour, and Rowney got picked up by the team.
“I always say that I got pretty lucky, and the stars just aligned,” Rowney said.
Megan Guarnier meanwhile came up through the natural USA Cycling progression, starting as a Cat 4 and making her way to the pro level.
“At the end of my first 1/2/3 race I was crying, thinking I would never win a race again,” recalled Guarnier. But she did. She eventually won the US National Road Race Championship in 2012.
Guarnier wanted a bigger challenge, and that meant going to Europe. She’d already had a block of racing in Europe in the pring as part of Team USA and Team TIBCO but was yearning for more: a full season in Europe. Rabobank offered her a spot for the 2013 season.
“It was a great experience,” said Guarnier. “Being Marianne [Vos]’s teammate was humbling.” Three seasons later, Guarnier continues to race in Europe as part of the Boels-Dolmans squad.
The development route
Like many Australians, Tiffany Cromwell went the ‘institute route’.
“From the beginning of my career I came through the ‘institute’ program, being discovered for cycling through a talent identification program through my state sporting institute,” she explained. “From that I came through the national institute program as I moved from juniors into the senior ranks and had the opportunity to race stints in Europe with the national program.”
This was also combined with an American pathway as she was picked up by the US-based Colavita Sutter-Homes in her first year out of the juniors.
“In 2008 I spent the season racing the first half of the year with Colavita throughout America and then joining the national program in Europe for the second half of the year,” Cromwell said. “I did this for two seasons before moving full time to Europe in 2010 and the rest is history.”
Making the jump
The step up to being a “Euro pro” is one that normally takes riders some getting used to.
“It is a huge jump but I feel as though the gap is slowly reducing as the racing is getting stronger in both Australia and America,” said Cromwell. “The US was the perfect level up for me from Australia as it was a level up but not as tough as Europe. I was in a great team where I learnt the basics of team work and more importantly how to win bike races.
“With women’s cycling, if you go straight to Europe, it can be pretty daunting as you go from racing national level races to racing the best girls in the world in the biggest races in the world.”
“I went from Australia to the US for five months and it was honestly the best thing I could have done. The jump wasn’t as big. You had a greater depth of talent and larger fields, but there wasn’t any language barriers, and it was what you would call a comfortable and safe environment to get your feet wet,” Rowney said.
“Then I went to Europe from the US for two months and that was a bit of a change. I could handle myself in the bunch, but the level was just so much greater. Particularly when I lined up in a World Cup. I realised just how hard it was going to be to make it.”
The transition from the domestic US pro peloton to Europe was huge, said Guarnier, who first got her taste of European racing in 2008 as part of Team USA, which every year takes new talent to race the spring block in Europe for experience and exposure.
“I only finished maybe a handful of races. I was getting dropped,” she said. “I could have thrown up my hands and given up but instead it inspired me. After that block, I came home and just worked. I choose to take the next step to push myself and move outside of my comfort zone.”
While competing and living in Europe is the ultimate goal for many riders, it doesn’t come without difficulties and sacrifices.
“A lot of people don’t understand the sacrifice that girls from America or Australia have to make,” said Wiles. “ You literally have to live away from home for more than half the year.”
Guernier echoed Wiles’ sentiment.
“The biggest sacrifice is to be in Europe nine months out of the year,” said Guarnier. “Family is very important to me. I miss birthdays. I miss anniversaries. I miss weddings and graduations. It’s a huge sacrifice and I don’t easily forget. I’m in Europe for work but my family is in America.”
And then there are the job insecurities. Due to lack of sponsorship and wage gaps, there tends to be a lot of transition and job insecurity in women’s cycling.
Before Velocio-SRAM, Cromwell, for example, had been on a different team just about every season.
“It can be daunting,” said Cromwell. “For me personally though, it helped grow me as a complete bike rider. Now as my career is growing and I’m amongst the top riders in the world, I am looking for more stability.
“It isn’t fun when you’re faced with the possibility of not having a ride for the next season or knowing what your next paycheck could be.”
Cromwell, Guarnier, Rowney and Wiles all agree that women’s cycling is growing, especially in the US, which is now hosting three UCI races and a World Cup.
With growth we’ll surely see a more international peloton in Europe, with more Australian and American riders finding spots in Euro teams. Ultimately, we may even see higher competition outside of Europe as riders take treks across the waters to compete in America and Australia.
“American racing is getting a lot better,” commented Wiles. “I think American racing is awesome and hope more UCI races will come to America and that we are able to bring that whole pack [of European teams] over here because it really is good.
“American racing is hard. The girls are fit and the packs are good. We just need more races over here.”