State of the Nation: Tracking the Historical Performance of U.S. Women In the WorldTour

U.S. women have out-performed their male counterparts at the top level over the last decade, but a lack of commercial investment threatens future success

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After my recent dive into the declining number of American men racing in the WorldTour, I was curious how the U.S. women would fare under the same stress test. At first glance, the U.S. women, 17 riders across the 14 top-tier UCI WorldTeams (each with an average of 14 rider slots), compared to 13 Men across 18 top-tier teams, (each with an average of 30 rider slots), feature far better representation than their U.S. male counterparts, and in turn, provide a far greater chance of international cycling success. 

List of Riders From United States In 2022 Women’s WorldTour:
Megan Jastrab- Team DSM
Chloe Dygert-Canyon//SRAM Racing
Ayesha McGowan-Liv Racing Xstra
Kristabel Doebel-Hickok-EF Education-TIBCO-SVB
Emma Langley-EF Education-TIBCO-SVB
Veronica Ewers-EF Education-TIBCO-SVB
Emily Newsom-EF Education-TIBCO-SVB
Lauren Stephens-EF Education-TIBCO-SVB
Clara Honsinger-EF Education-TIBCO-SVB
Kristen Faulkner-Team BikeExchange – Jayco
Kaia Schmid-Human Powered Health
Lily Williams-Human Powered Health
Makayla Macpherson-Human Powered Health
Katie Clouse-Human Powered Health
Leah Thomas-Trek – Segafredo
Tayler Wiles Trek – Segafredo
Coryn Labecki-Team Jumbo-Visma

However, due to the fairly chaotic and disjointed nature of the professional women’s cycling structure, tracking these trends over time isn’t a simple task. Prior to the 2020 season, women’s cycling lacked a tiered team system. This means that while we can track the total number of professional riders from the U.S. over a certain period of time, the data isn’t quite as targeted and useful as it is with the men.

For example, if we look at the total number of ‘professional’ women American riders since 2008, we can see a steep rise peaking in 2017, before a recent sharp fall. 

However, these numbers don’t reflect the drastic decrease in the total number of UCI WorldTeams (aka professional) outfits. In 2019, there were 46 total women’s UCI WorldTeams, but in 2020, after the UCI implemented far stricter requirements for prospective teams, the total number shrank to just nine (this has increased to 14 for 2022). Obviously, this drastic decrease in team slots is likely the cause for the decrease in the number of U.S. women in the professional ranks. 

If we balance this number by calculating the number of riders per available team, the general trend and curve remain, but the amplitude is lowered. 

And if we limit the chart to the creation of the UCI’s new, tighter WorldTeam tier in 2020, there is an undeniable trend upwards. Even as two U.S.-based teams, EF-Tibco and Human Powered Health entered the top-tier in 2022, the number of U.S. riders increased on a per-team basis from less than one in 2021 (0.8) to 1.2 per team for 2022.

If we look at the total number of professional wins by U.S. women throughout the same time period, we see a very similar trend upwards, with a ‘bulging’ occurring between 2015-2018.

Interestingly, while both the raw and per team number of riders had decreased significantly by 2019, the number of wins held somewhat steady. This is mainly due to the rise of Chloe Dygert, who won 13 races and swept the entire Tour of Colorado throughout the season.

While Dygert’s success buoyed the country’s win total in 2019, her extremely national-team-focused racing schedule has limited success since. Despite being one of the most talented riders in the world and being on one of the sport’s top teams in Canyon-Sram, Dygert has never raced a professional-level road race in Europe. Some of this was due to a knee injury stemming from a crash at the 2020 World Championships, but Dygert failed to race a single European event prior to the 2020 World Championships or 2021 Olympic Games. As long as a major talent like Dygert continues this sparse racing strategy, U.S. pro win totals likely won’t match their highs of the mid-2010s.

What Does This Mean?

These data points highlight the ‘wave’ trend that has propelled the success of women’s cycling. The mid-2010s saw the rise of the golden generation of riders (including but not limited to Evelyn Stevens, Megan Guarnier, Mara Abbot, Kristen Armstrong, Carmen Small, and Amber Neben) who were all regularly winning international races.

All of this information combines to show us that the U.S. women’s presence at the top end of professional road cycling is almost the complete antithesis of the men. While the men’s numbers and wins have been trending downward since 2008, the U.S. women have generally been increasing both their quantity and quality.

Most impressive is that outside of Dygert’s dominance in 2019 and Kristin Armstrong in 2009, wins from the U.S. women have been fairly evenly dispersed throughout the years.

While overall success took a hit after the retirement and/or regression of the ‘golden generation’, this dispersion has created an on-road success that is durable and somewhat retirement resistant. As stars like Stevens, Armstrong, and Guarnier have retired, a wave of younger riders like Kristen Faulkner, Ruth Winder, Coryn Labecki (née Rivera), and Chloe Dygert has risen through the ranks to replace their success.

Potential Issues On The Horizon

While U.S. women have enjoyed both representation and success at the top level of road cycling, future success is obviously not guaranteed. As recently as 10 years ago, a major source of commercial investment in women’s cycling came from North America, but as exposure has grown and the talent level has risen, the power of balance has shifted towards Europe. Just like the men, the U.S. women have been forced to join European-based top-tier teams to continue to have access to the strongest teams.

Just like the men, top U.S. female talent is being spread across a growing number of elite teams. For example, in 2013, there were 35 U.S. riders spread over 7 teams, which means there were 5 U.S. riders per pro team that had at least one U.S. rider. Flash forward to 2022, and there are 17 U.S. riders spread over 14 WT teams, which means there is an average of 2.1 U.S. riders per WT team that has at least one U.S. rider.

This metric is significant because it highlights a potential barrier to entry for top U.S. women. Back in 2011, the US-backed HTC team, which later became Specialized-Lululemon, was the sport’s strongest team with nearly 30 percent of their roster coming from the U.S. At the same time, they gave unproven Americans like Evelyn Stevens an entry point onto a world-class team.

But as that team lost U.S.-based Specialized Bikes as a sponsor and embraced a more international roster after bringing on the German-based Canyon as their bike partner, it has employed fewer and fewer American riders. Similarly, the Trek-Segafredo team may be a U.S. organization in name and registration, but, heading into 2022, it only features two U.S. riders (Leah Thomas and Taylor Wiles). And while U.S. teams EF-Tibco and Human Powered Health feature more U.S.-centric rosters, neither are top-class teams, which means that for top U.S. talents to operate in the most sophisticated squads, they have to go break into foreign teams. These teams might provide an important entry point for U.S. riders, it will be difficult for them to ever rise to the top since their best riders tend to flee to the major European squads after standouts seasons.

This means that just like their male counterparts, U.S. women face a similar uphill battle to success at the top level. To make it on a top European team, they have to prove themselves more skilled and talented than a potential European replacement to make them worth the extra financial and cultural hurdles. With world-class talent spread across eight top-level teams in 2022, the sky’s the limit for U.S. women, but, unlike cycling-mad nations like Holland, they don’t own the platform they perform on and have to start from near-zero at the beginning of every season.

While an inordinate amount of attention and funds from USA Cycling has gone towards the development of top male riders with mixed success, the above data begs the question of what impact the U.S. women could have with just slightly more funding from USA Cycling and their corporate partners.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.