AG Insurance-NXTG: The team that wants to change women’s cycling

AG Insurance-NXTG will be Quick-Step's sister squad next year. Team boss Natascha Knaven-den Ouden wants its development program to be an example to others.

Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

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In-house development teams are commonplace in men’s cycling these days, and there are few big teams that doesn’t have its own U23 squad at least.

They are much rarer in women’s cycling with Canyon-SRAM becoming the first WorldTour team to have its own when it launched Canyon-SRAM Generation earlier this year.

Natascha Knaven-den Ouden wants to change that with her AG Insurance-NXTG squad. The team has been operating with a U23 and a U19 team but will add an elite roster to its setup from next season.

“We want the best version of what a team has to be. It’s not how much we win, but what we are as a team. I dream of having a women’s cycling that has a really wide broad, top level of riders with specialists like in men’s cycling, with the remark that women are not the same as men. We are not the same, but we can have the same opportunities and the same chances.”

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The NXTG team began racing in 2019, but the idea that sparked it came a couple of years earlier. Knaven-den Ouden, who used to race herself, is married to former rider, now Ineos Grenadiers DS, Servais Knaven. They have four daughters together, all of whom race.

As their children progressed through the cycling ranks, Knaven-den Ouden noticed the gaps in the development structures compared to what was available for the men. She didn’t like what she saw and wanted to help change it.

“In 2017, my husband and I were just talking about women’s cycling, and we were watching race,” she explained. “We have four daughters that cycle and one of them was a junior. What we saw is that on junior level, they don’t develop to make the step to the elite level, they don’t go to school anymore, and they train like a like an elite rider. Or they are too skinny, because teams look at watts per kilogram and I think that’s very wrong.

“And then I suddenly said, ‘why don’t we create a junior team and do it different than other club teams or with a with a junior team in it?’ My husband is also a bit like, ‘we’ll see,’ but I’m always, ‘no we’re going to do that.’

With some good backing behind it, the team was quickly entered into some of the top races on the calendar, but Knaven-den Ouden believes that it was a mistake to do that so early on. However, there was little option to race at a lower level either, an issue that many riders and teams find them

“Because of the philosophy and the vision that we had suddenly we could compete in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. But that was a stupid thing, because our riders weren’t ready for that. We saw that these kinds of races are too high a level for that age. We weren’t invited in the smaller races, but well, but in the big race, so we had no we had no choice to do that.”

Stepping up to WorldTour

The team announced earlier this year that it would like to move up to the WorldTour. It is one of several women’s set-ups that is aiming to claim the 15th and final spot. Whereas in previous seasons licenses have been handed out to every team that meets the criteria set down by the UCI, there will be eligible teams turned away for a place in the top tier for 2023.

Knaven-den Ouden knows that she is facing a tough fight for that spot as lincenses will be awarded on the basis of UCI ranking when there are more eligible teams than places available. The team is currently ranked 18th in the team standings with a couple of other teams ahead of them also searching for a WorldTour spot.

“Ceratizit obviously has the most points, and when you look at that they deserve to have that WorldTour license but I hope that UCI creates another one,” Knaven-den Ouden said. “After seeing what we are doing with this setup, because it’s an example of how it should be. Then you make a trigger for other teams to do the same. It makes a platform to give more women the chance to develop so you have, in five or six years’ time, a really broad top level of riders.”

Since its inception in 2019, the team has been operating as a development squad with separate u19 and u23 rosters. The attempt to go to the WorldTour has seen Knaven-den Ouden create another team on top of that, which has signed up several new riders including Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Maaike Boogaard.

With a wait until the 2023 licenses are issued, Knavan-den Ouden has had to stop signing riders at 16, which is the maximum number for Continental-level teams. If she can get that prized WorldTour place, she’d like to push her team to the limit of the UCI rules and sign 20.

If that happens, it would make the AG Insurance-NXTG team the biggest roster in the women’s WorldTour peloton. Most teams currently have a roster size of 13 to 15, but Knaven-den Ouden doesn’t believe that is enough with the WorldTour calendar getting even bigger for next season.

“I really think that 16 is not enough to ride the whole calendar, because the calendar next year is really big. And when you have one with a collarbone fracture or ill, or COVID you see then that they put in two young riders to complete the peloton,” she said.

The push towards the WorldTour for the NXTG squad has been aided by an intervention from the boss of the men’s team Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, Patrick Lefevere. The Belgian stepped in to sponsor the team through his recruitment agency Experza and has been involved in helping it find additional sponsors.

From next season, the two teams will become part of the same organization. The men’s team is already offering logistical support through the 2022 season.

The news that Lefevere was getting involved with a women’s team raised some eyebrows after he made some controversial comments about women’s racing last year. When asked during a podcast if he would run a women’s program, he responded by saying that he was not the social welfare program.

Knaven-den Ouden picked him up on his comments but says she was happy with his explanation.

“His vision is the same as our vision. You do nothing for women’s cycling, to put another WorldTour team in it,” she said.

“So what he said for ‘I’m not a social worker’ is it’s like I could put money into a team but there are not enough riders to make another WorldTour team and that’s what he meant. We have the same vision as he had, but it was a bit clumsy to say it like that. Women’s cycling needs something different and that’s why he stepped in with us.”

A holistic environment

For Knaven-den Ouden, it’s not just about creating the development pathways for riders to work their way up to the pro ranks. She wants to provide them with the tools to develop as a person and ensure that they have experiences that are not completely centered around life as a professional cyclist.

This has involved working with the team’s partners to help setup internships to give them experience in the regular working world, as well as creating an environment where it is possible to continue with education.

“I think the most important thing is that we, we want to develop the rising stars of give them a chance,” she said. “But also to make an environment where they can grow as a human being, and maybe work in a company that also puts money into the team. So, when you have a rider who is at the end of the career, but has a degree, and it’s potentially interesting for a company that you can put in a top sport-level human being, they really think different.

“I had a chat with the rider last week, and she’s a first-year junior for our junior project. I was talking with her parents because I think that’s important that the parents understand where we stand for… They were talking about school and the importance of it. Now that’s the main thing. I like to say, ‘don’t forget that you aren’t a cyclist. You do cycling and you are the person that you are, and cycling is a piece of what makes you as a human being.

“When you are 50, you have learned from cycling, about how to get along with circumstances, with your children, with other people, or in business. That’s what cycling gives you, and friendships also. It’s what we stand for.”

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