The first-ever Tour de l’Avenir Femmes takes place over the next few days. The best young talent in the women’s peloton have a prized opportunity to compete against their peers, hoping to prove themselves as the next stars of the sport.
It’s one of just a couple of opportunities that this group of riders will get to compete against each other this year. The other major event is the European Championships, which has had an under-23 women’s race since 1995, very much the outlier in women’s road cycling. The World Championships only recognised the under-23 women’s category for the first time in 2022, but this was as part of the elite women’s road race.
Compare that to the men’s under-23 category, which has a multitude of long-standing, high-level under-23-only races. These races are the backbone of talent development in men’s cycling – stars are born, mistakes are made, and lessons are learned. It’s an invaluable period of growth for most young bike racers.
But in the women’s peloton, most of the best junior riders have to jump straight up into the WorldTour. There is no prescribed development period in between.
“It’s just a bit of a shock coming from junior level and going straight into the elites,” Anna Shackley of SD Worx told Cyclingnews a few days out from racing the Tour de l’Avenir Femmes, only her second-ever under-23 race.
“They’re like small fish in a really, really big pond. It’s hard when you come from such a young age into those huge races. You’re going from winning as a junior to struggling to finish the next year, which is pretty hard mentally.”
For most, there are no steady steps of development. Unfortunately, many riders who showed promise as juniors leave the sport in their early twenties. They are forced to either sink or swim.
In 2021, the USA’s Kaia Schmid finished second in the junior women’s road race at the World Championships in Leuven. It was only Schmid’s second race in Europe. Her breakthrough result secured her a place in the World Tour for the next season with Human Powered Health.
The two seasons that followed have been difficult for the now 20-year-old. She has battled with illness and injury, most recently a knee problem after a crash at the Ronde de Mouscron, which kept her out of race action for three months.
The step from the junior ranks to the WorldTour has also been mentally difficult for Schmid due to the transition from winning races to merely fighting for survival.
“I haven’t been…