World championships notebook: Debate over U23’s heats up, Óscar Freire says doping culture marred his career

Some say it's unfair to allow WorldTour-level riders to race in the U23 category, while three-time world champion Óscar Freire says the EPO Era undermined his career.

Photo: DIRK WAEM/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

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BRUGES, Belgium (VN) — One of the big talking points at these road world championships is what to do with the U23 category.

On the women’s side, many say the peloton is big enough to create one. And on the men’s side, there’s a growing debate about if it’s appropriate that WorldTour-level riders race in the category.

The U23 category was created in the 1990s to give something extra to younger riders after the UCI allowed pros to race in the Olympic Games, a decision that all but killed amateur racing.

Flash forward to 2021, and major WorldTour teams are signing teenagers to join the pro ranks, yet under current rules, riders can still race in the U23 category even if they’re racing in the WorldTour.

In fact, U23 time trial bronze medalist Florian Vermeersch raced 60 days this season with Lotto-Soudal, and recently finished the Vuelta a España.

Some say that’s a distinct advantage and insist it undermines the spirit of what the U23 category should be — a space for younger, emerging riders to compete against one another on a relatively even playing field.

“It’s not that big of an advantage anymore when you come from the WorldTour,” Vermeersch said. “Here, I am racing against riders who already have contracts for the WorldTour next year, and almost all of them are ready to go to the highest level.”

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Riders who qualify for the U23 category decide, along with their national federations, if they want to race in the U23 or in the elite pro category.

Many riders are turning pro very young, and bounce straight from the junior ranks to the WorldTour without ever having the chance to race in the U23 ranks.

Quinn Simmons turned pro after winning the junior world title in 2019, and will race in the elite road race Sunday. He was mulling over whether or not to race the U23 race instead, but decided it would be better to gain the experience at the elite level rather than try to win a U23 world title that wouldn’t have much value.

Australian pro Nathan Haas pushed the debate in a series of Twitter postings this week, comparing WorldTour riders who race the U23s as “sandbagging.”

Officials, however, insist it’s fair to allow riders even at the WorldTour-level to race at the U23 level because they’re often out-gunned in the top pro races, and the worlds give them a chance to race against their direct peers on equal footing.

“I understand in some people’s eyes that it should just be for inexperienced riders,” said time trial gold medalist Johan Price Pejtersen, who races on second-tier team Uno-X.  “A lot has changed, and now WorldTour teams are taking U23 and junior riders now. I don’t think there is this big advantage coming from the WorldTour, and I know it’s hard to see those differences when you’re not in the game. I think it’s still ‘pure’ and we have to see who is the best in the U23.”

Indeed, many say that many riders at the U23 level, and even in the junior ranks, are training and living like professionals even when still in their teens.

“Sometimes your forget the average level of the U23 in the past couple of years have increased massively,” Vermeersch said. “I was talking to Belgian teammates who were at the Tour de l’Avenir, and he was telling me that the watts they were pushing uphill were similar to a WorldTour stage race.”

If the top U23s are not in the WorldTour yet, it’s usually not long before they make the leap.

Silver medalist Luke Plapp and Magnus Sheffield, 10th on Monday, are both heading to Ineos Grenadiers for 2022.

BRUGES, BELGIUM - SEPTEMBER 20: Ellen Van Dijk of Netherlands with world champion jersey celebrates winning the gold medal on the podium ceremony after the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 - Women Elite a 30,30km Individual Time Trial race from Knokke-Heist to Bruges / #flanders2021 / ITT / on September 20, 2021 in Bruges, Belgium. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)
Ellen van Dijk says she will relish her latest world title. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Unstoppable Ellen van Dijk promises to enjoy this rainbow jersey

Ellen van Dijk promises to enjoy her world time trial title more than she did when she won in 2013.

“I really want to enjoy this one,” van Dijk said. “After 2013, I put a lot of pressure on myself and I wanted to prove that I am the world champion, and I couldn’t even wear the jersey in training because everyone was looking at me. I said to myself that I won again I would do it differently.”

Also read: Unstoppable van Dijk powers to rainbow jersey

The 34-year-0ld won her first stripes in 2013, but said the rainbow jersey became a bit of a burden with the pressure that came with it.

After falling ill with COVID-19 and missing the Tokyo Olympic Games, van Dijk put the worlds at the top of her agenda.

“I feel super happy. It feels like a dream has come true,” she said. “I knew I was in good form, but I knew Marlen [Reusser] and Annemiek [van Vleuten] are in great shape, I knew it would be really hard battle. Somehow I managed it, and it’s quite unbelievable that it worked out.”

She sat in the “hot seat” for nearly one hour after starting early, something she was worried about.

“I started one hour early, and when I saw the start list, I wasn’t so happy about that, because we had a tailwind and the wind was getting stronger,” she said. “I knew I had to completely die, and I had to think that the world would end at the finish, and I wanted to give everything in this time trial. I couldn’t go faster. It was nerve-wracking in the hot seat, and when I saw the time splits, so the finish was such an emotional moment.”

BRUGES, BELGIUM - SEPTEMBER 20: Johan Price-Pejtersen of Denmark catching breath and celebrates winning after the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 - Men Under 23 a 30,30km Individual Time Trial race from Knokke-Heist to Bruges / #flanders2021 / ITT / on September 20, 2021 in Bruges, Belgium. (Photo by Simon Wilkinson - Pool/Getty Images)
Johan Price-Pejtersen gave everything to win gold. (Photo: Simon Wilkinson – Pool/Getty Images)

U23 world champion dedicates victory to Chris Anker Sørensen

Newly crowned U23 world time trial champion Johan Price-Pejtersen choked up when he dedicated his victory Monday to ex-pro Chris Anker Sørensen, who died this weekend after colliding with a vehicle during a bike ride near Bruges.

“It was very emotional for me. We’ve all heard the tragic news about Chris and for me it was about showing and paying respect for his work. That is what I wanted to honor today,”  Price-Pejtersen said. “He’s been a big influence on everybody and not just in cycling, in the general public. It’s a big loss.”

Also read: Chris Anker Sørensen killed in crash

Sørensen, 38, retired in 2018, and worked as a pundit on Danish TV during bike races. His death on the eve of the worlds, where he was planning on covering the racing, is a big blow for the Danish worlds contingent.

“He’s so much more than a bike rider. He’s loved in the Danish population for it,” he said. “He’s been a huge influence for us young riders, leading the way in making cycling popular, so we can get inspired to start, or believe in the pro life.”

Óscar Freire on racing during EPO Era: ‘I wasn’t going to risk it for more wins’

Three-time world champion Óscar Freire said his career was overshadowed by the seemingly endless doping scandals and vowed he never cheated en route to three world road titles and 71 pro wins.

In a telling interview with a Spanish website, the 45-year-old said the doping scandals overwhelmed the news media, and that he raced during an era of suspicion throughout his career.

“It wasn’t easy to be racing during my era. Everyone suspected you, and you couldn’t do anything about it. A lot of my victories came against riders who later tested positive,” Freire told Sport. “You raced with this problem, and even yourself, you suspected everything. Doping news back then was valued, and now, almost no one speaks of it.”

Freire won three rainbow jerseys, with the first coming in 1999 when even the TV announcers of the day didn’t quite know who he was. Two more came in 2001 and 2004, along with wins at Milano-Sanremo, Gent-Wevelgem, and stages at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España.

Freire, who retired in 2012, insists he never doped, and said he resisted the temptation because he could win without cheating.

“No one ever offered me anything,” Freire said in the interview. “I was always on top-level teams. My own teams gave money to fight against doping. I wasn’t going to risk my sporting career for one more victory.

“I don’t know if I could have won another world title,” he said when asked if he would have won more if had doped. “But more races, for sure. What was most surprising is that they would speak more about doping than if you won a race, because that’s what the public wanted to read. It wasn’t fair. There were ‘clean’ cyclists who were very poorly treated.”

What’s next: Men’s and women’s junior time trials

After nearly two years without racing at the international level, the juniors are back in the spotlight Tuesday with the men’s and women’s junior races.

Last year, during the worst part of the COVID pandemic, the junior and U23 events were taken out of the rescheduled worlds. As a result, many juniors did not have many chances to race since 2019.

In fact, some riders graduated out of the juniors into the U23 ranks without really having a chance to show themselves at the world championships level.

“It’s great to race again,” said Matt Riccitello, the American U23 rider on Hagens Berman Axeon. “Without the racing, there’s no development.”

The 19-year-old Riccitello raced as a junior in the 2019 worlds, finishing 17th in Yorkshire. On Monday, he raced to 30th in a flat time trial course that was far from ideal for his 60kg build.

Like many young riders, 2020 was a bit of a wash, but he joined Hagens Berman Axeon, and raced 23 days in 2021 in a mix of European and U23 events.

“After last year, it’s really good to be back to racing, to be learning, and soaking it all in,” he said. “Everyone missed that last year.”

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