How did the Dutch get so good?

Dutch women rule the peloton and have done so for a long time. There seems to be an endless supply of young talent coming from the Netherlands but this requires investment, time and patience. José Been spoke to the team managers of the country’s three big development structures — Talent…

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Dutch women rule the peloton and have done so for a long time. There seems to be an endless supply of young talent coming from the Netherlands but this requires investment, time and patience. José Been spoke to the team managers of the country’s three big development structures — Talent Cycling, Pavé76 and the WV Schijndel — and with the national federation’s coach Loes Gunnewijk about the future of women’s cycling in a country where cycling is grounded in its people’s DNA.

Anna van der Breggen and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak have announced they will quit the sport in 2021 and 2022 respectively. Meanwhile, eight of the 12 Dutch riders in the UCI top 100 are now 30 years old or over (Marianne Vos, Annemiek Van Vleuten, Kirsten Wild, Ellen Van Dijk, Lucinda Brand, Amy Pieters, Van der Breggen and Van der Broek-Blaak). How will the Netherlands develop the new generation?

The Netherlands currently has a wealth of U17 and junior talent. No less than three dedicated junior women’s teams and many individual riders in regional club teams ride against each other in national and international competitions. The current junior European champions Shirin van Anrooij (time trial) and Ilse Pluimers (road) are both Dutch so the future seems good.

“There is enough U23 talent in this country,” says Servais Knaven, former pro and co-founder of the Pavé76 development program. “But they don’t always get the chance to show themselves. If you look at the teams and how they sign new riders for the few spots there are, they have to make a decision between an established older rider who can get results and a new, younger rider who might not even be able to finish the races she starts.”

Knaven and his wife Natascha, a multiple-time national champion herself, started Pavé76 three years ago with the APB Junior Women Development Team. The project was expanded with a cyclocross team, a club team and, since 2020, a UCI Women’s Team called NXTG Racing (with whom I do some volunteer work).

“The current 30+ generation grew up in a time where women’s cycling got more professional every year,” Knaven adds. “They had the opportunity to actually earn money and professionalize. This is a good development for women’s cycling in general. They made each other better but nothing really changed at the bottom for the junior and U23 women. This is how the gap between the top riders and the rest grew and grows bigger and bigger.”

Former pro (and Sky DS) Servais Knaven.

Development and guidance, both mental and sports-related, are key. If you look at the U23 category, the Netherlands is still leading the UCI ranking but of the 2,878 points the country holds, more than 80% come from one rider only: 21-year old Lorena Wiebes who also leads the UCI individual world ranking. Italy is about 600 points behind but has a far more even spread of points between Elisa Balsamo, Letizia Paternoster, Marta Cavalli and Chiara Consonni.

“Cycling is an endurance sport so older riders will always benefit from many years of experience,” explains Loes Gunnewijk, former pro and current national coach for the junior, U23 and elite women. “Due to the lack of an U23 category [for women], young riders have to compete with the world’s best athletes from the moment they enter the elite category. That has always been the case and it’s always been hard. The riders who win straight from the junior ranks are the exceptions.”

“The Netherlands have always been pioneers in the women’s cycling field and there are many roads that lead to success. It is pivotal, though, to take time.

“The future is always about development,” says Stefan van Klink, head coach of Talent Cycling. Just like Pavé76, Talent Cycling has a junior, club and women’s UCI team (Biehler-Krush Pro Cycling). Van Klink discovered Lorena Wiebes when she was an U17 rider and Demi Vollering when she was in her early 20s and still working as a florist.

“These two make me proud as a coach of course but it also shows there is not one straight road to the top,” he says. “It was clear to me Lorena was an all-round athlete the minute I saw her when she was around 15. Demi made the move when she was well into her 20s. Development is not a mold you can fit everyone in. You have to offer a base structure like we do but then look at the individual.”

The third big development structure for Dutch girls and women is WV Schijndel, a cycling club from the south of the country. Angelo van Melis leads it with former national champion Sissy van Alebeek.

“We are a club team contrary to the other two which means everyone is welcome to become a member,” Van Melis says. “However, a core team of talented junior riders will automatically happen and that works as a catalyst attracting more good riders from all over the country.

“We have a great generation now but that hasn’t always been the case. About four years ago a few talented girls came over from the youth categories and that kickstarted our junior project. We must also be realistic because the biggest talents will always find their way, whether we interfere or not. And we must be wary that we have to keep investing in the 13- and 14-year-olds too!”

Van Melis emphasizes that professional development structures at the club level help the new generation but that he wants to prevent riders from living as pros at such a young age. He admits that is not always easy with all the things they see on social media from the top riders in the women’s peloton now.

“Juniors are still teenagers and having fun with their sport is paramount for us,” Van Melis says. “We try to discourage them to live as pro riders already but that’s what they see on social media. They copy that behavior with their training and food. We teach them to ride as a team but they also must be given the opportunity to try and grab their own chances, to have fun and learn.

“If they turn pro, there will be many more races where they will be a domestique. We try to keep that fun component going in order for them to stay motivated longer and not get disillusioned when they step up. Keeping the fun and motivation are key to us.”

Knaven is aware of that issue for the riders on his U23 team NXTG Racing when it comes to staying motivated after that difficult step-up. The riders aged 18 to 22 need to race to get better but they have to do so with the best of the elite riders which makes them struggle to even finish races. That can seriously blow apart the motivation of talented young women. There are not enough dedicated U23 races for them to ride to get better.

“It would be incredibly beneficial for our U23 riders to have a series for themselves of maybe only eight or 10 races,” he says. “Races that are not accessible to riders in the UCI top 100, like a cyclocross C2 race.

“It’s a paradox for us as a U23 team. We want to offer our riders big races but then they have to compete against the absolute best of the world. We know many of these races are incredibly hard and oftentimes too hard for them. They have trouble finishing and many U23 riders get discouraged and leave the sport. In a few years’ time the current top riders in the Netherlands have all retired and then what’s next?”

Everyone agrees it has to start with the junior women and those riders need to be given the opportunity to race against their peers once they turn elite.

“The global level has gone up considerably so we have to work harder to get to the top,” Van Klink continues. “There is enough talent here. We have three junior development teams and they are all full.

“The rivalry between the teams and the riders is good because it makes them all better. Ideally you offer a rider a pathway to a top team. We start at U17, then juniors, then a club team and the UCI team. Some riders can easily make the jump to a UCI team from the junior ranks like Wiebes did. You don’t keep riders like her happy in a club team for a year but for many that is a good solution.

“We offer these different trajectories in-house and that gives up the opportunity for long-term development.”

The UCI has divided women’s racing into four categories. The UCI Women’s WorldTour is the highest; 1.2 one-day and 2.2 stage races are the lowest. Knaven would love to see some of the races in the lowest category used for development purposes.

“The problem is that the top teams are also racing the .2 races, like for example Volta Valenciana,” he says. “Those .2 races would be very well suited to U23 riders. It can be done. There are enough riders for a peloton in the Netherlands alone.

“The Watersley Ladies Challenge is a 2.2 stage race and is one of the first races for U23 women. The UCI liked this initiative. If we can work with organizers to create a calendar for this category alone, it would be very helpful.”

Gunnewijk echoes this wish but warns that the step up from juniors to elite ranks will always remain a big one.

“You can’t create a ready-made system where the step up from juniors to elite will be easier,” she suggests. “That step-up is and always will be hard for almost everyone. I do encourage an U23 competition though, like the men have with the Nations Cup. As a cycling federation we actively engage in these plans and conversations too. We already have that category at the European Championships and I would love to see riders ride against their own age group at world championships too.”

Former pro Loes Gunnewijk.

Just like Van Klink and Knaven, Van Melis also offers a club team where riders can grow before moving on to the pros — WV Schijndel works with the Parkhotel Valkenburg team. He also calls for a more involved national cycling union.

“They now offer team camps to pro riders who don’t necessarily need those because their teams organize them already,” he says. “Give those opportunities to younger riders.”

Knaven agrees and also feels the sports needs more differentiation. This should start from the bottom up too.

“Riders need kilometres to get better,” he explains. “That was the case in my days as a rider and it’s still the case now. Building the women’s peloton from the bottom up will also allow certain riders to differentiate. That’s a good thing for organizers and for the sport in general.

“When there are more top riders, we don’t see the same faces all the time and that will make the sport more interesting too for sponsor and viewer engagement. Also, if you look at the other good U23 countries like Great Britain, Germany, France and Italy, they have one thing in common: track cycling. I feel the Dutch federation does far too little with that cycling discipline.”

Whatever structure you put in place with expert guidance, dedicated sponsors, a good race program and many volunteers, the motivation of the riders themselves is key. Gunnewijk urges young, talented riders to be patient and give themselves time.

“Riders need to be patient and they must allow themselves time to grow,” she says. “Their targets must be realistic. It’s not just the riders who have expectations. The people around them too: parents, family, coaches, sometimes an entire village. As national coach I help them with realistic goals. We talk during our training camps and I give feedback but most of it lies with the riders’ coaches and teams too.

“Motivation needs to come from within the rider. As coach — national, club or team coach — you can’t inject motivation into them. We will keep encouraging young girls to ride but we must also be realistic. Cycling is often not the number-one choice in sports in our country. Usually when they see family or friends ride, they join a club. We must keep the talent pool filled.

“Sports is great for all kids and if they choose cycling, they can benefit from the structure we have here. We have been the number-one on the world ranking since 2008 and we hope to stay there for a while. It’s up to the riders to become and stay motivated and get the best out of themselves. We are most happy to help but it has to come from the riders themselves first.”

An American in France

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