[Ed. note: This article by Elliott Caldwell got lost in the mix over the past week or so. But with today’s announcement of the British team for the Cyclocross World Championships, next week in Denmark, what happened at the British National Championships becomes once again relevant. If for nothing else, background.
Here are the picks:
- Nikki Brammeier
- Beth Crumpton
- Helen Wyman
- Ian Field
- Anna Flynn
- Harriet Harnden
- Anna Kay
- Maddie Wadsworth
- Cameron Mason
- Thomas Mein
- Tom Pidcock
- Dan Tulett
- Ben Turner
- Lewis Askey
- Oliver Draffan
- Rory McGuire
- Ben Tulett
- Simon Wylie
As you can see, the selection committee weighted the process towards development, choosing only one for the elite men’s race and not filling the elite women’s allotment. The closest to full field going is the men’s U23 (they had one extra spot as a result of Pidcock’s World Championship win in 2018). Regardless, looking at the talent and the potential for medals from that field, it’s tough to argue against the decision to send the most athletes from that category. Here is the announcement from GB Cycling. And here is Elliott’s analysis of the cyclocross nationals controversy.]
I am not at my sharpest before coffee in the morning, but jumping online two Sundays ago to watch the British women’s cyclocross championships (my main interest being the colossal Helen Wyman vs Nikki Brammier battle, a great rivalry 10+ years and counting at this level), I was a bit surprised to hear Martin Mcdonald on the Global Cycling Network (GCN) livestream reading a press release from British Cycling explaining details of the combined Elite/U23 fields at Nationals (read it here). From what was said on the stream, both men’s and women’s elites and U23 fields were combined to provide time for a Junior women’s race earlier in the day (along with the long standing Junior men’s race). In keeping with UCI regulations as a C1 event (which all national championships are), British Cycling could not award U23 national championship jerseys to the top placing U23 racers (other than a ceremonial jersey that would be considered a “medal”) in the combined field.
It was all a bit confusing before the caffeine kicked in, as the U23s racers are some of the strongest overall in the UK, especially on the men’s side. Why would British Cycling not want an out-and-out U23 champion to battle it out on the international stage at Worlds and beyond into next year? Did the combined schedule crunch with a junior women’s race added with the assumption of a victorious Thomas Pidock in the combined mens race lessen the importance of the U23 fields?
Helen Wyman, a former member of the UCI Cyclocross Commission, longtime professional, and the go-to authority on gender equity in cyclocross—regardless of country but certainly in the UK—said it succinctly in a post-race tweet:
I think the u23 women and men are good enough to compete with the elites in the UK right now. However I do believe they need their own jersey, that is for sure.Helen Wyman, Twitter
Let’s dive deeper into the numbers (culled from VeloUK.net, Cycling News, and our friends at Cyclocross 24) to get a better sense of how the decision to combine fields played out in the results.
On the women’s side, U23 racer Anna Kay placed 2nd in the elite race, sandwiched by previous champions Brammier and Wyman. Ffion James was 5th place overall as the 2nd U23 woman to cross the line, and Sophie Thackray finished a place behind James in each “contest,” 6th overall and 3rd U23.
There were 16 U23 women in the elite field of 49 total with 7 U23s finishing on the lead lap out of 18 total. The 19th and 20th riders, the first two off the lead lap, were both U23 riders, Elspeth Grace and Madeleine Gammons. Had they been scored separately as U23s, they would have been just inside the top 10. Interestingly enough, there were 16 U23 women on the start list (published here) but only 12 finishers; the sole DNF was an over 23 rider. Unclear if 4 U23 women registered and decided not to race or were sick but would be interesting to find out why they didn’t race. Anna Kay had an amazing race and very well might have made it two-for-two U23s winning the Elite races had she not had a mid-race mechanical.
On the men’s side, Thomas Pidcock, Ben Turner, and Thomas Mein (all U23) swept the elite men’s podium with former national champion and “over 23 racer” Ian Field finishing 4th. Astonishingly, 6 of top 7 men were U23 racers, something that has likely never happened at a national championship cyclocross race before.
To put it bluntly, it was the kids beating up on the old guys in epic fashion. There were 32 U23 men in a total field of 89, with only 13 lead lap finishers total; Pidcock and Turner ripped the field apart in a way rarely seen at this level, tossing elite level racers out of the race by 80% rule like pro wrestlers in King of the Ring tournament. A bit over a third of the field was U23 but 75% of the top eight were U23 – at the pointy end of the race, U23s absolutely dominated.
So what does this mean – other than that U23s acquitted themselves quite well in the combined races at British cross nationals. Did the high finishes of U23s in both fields and relative low U23 women’s numbers (16 registered and 12 starters) justify the combined fields and lack of a U23 jersey? Or does the lack of true national U23 champions and podiums take something away from the competitiveness of the entire U23 fields and ability of non-pro U23s (the mens podium and Anna Kay are professional riders) to compete in place in their rightful place.
This was the first year of a Junior Women’s separate field in the UK, and Simon Burney, Mountain Bike Sport Coordinator for the UCI and longtime cyclocross national team manager and mechanic, stated on the GCN stream:
As Harriet (Harnden) mentioned in her interview, I think it shows the depth of the junior women’s race. I think having their own event now is absolutely the right thing. There are 25 starters for the first time, in previous years they had been a part of the U-23 race with separate results. But they absolutely deserve their own race…Flynn has won an international race on the Koppenburg, Harnden and Wadsworth are all names that are going to be at the front of international racing as these young women develop into U-23s and Elites. The current crop of British youngsters is world-beating.– Simon Burney on the GCN livestream
It seems pretty clear from both Simon Burney’s statement and Helen Wyman’s support for junior women’s racing that a separate Junior women’s event is necessary and needed at the domestic nationals and Worlds level. But U23s are worthy of continued development, right? Not every 19 year old is professional and some get into cyclocross (and bicycle racing) later in their teen lives. By not having a jersey and a podium are we taking something away from them?
To combine the U23 and Elite fields of not boils down to this question: Is the U23 category a pre-professional category or a development category at the national level? In Belgium and the Netherlands, it’s pretty clear the former. But in places like the United States or the UK, should it be focused more as the latter? Once you get to the World Cup and Championships, professionalism should clearly rein, but shouldn’t a Cat 2 (or UK equivalent) 19 or 20
In a way, the decision is a flip-side of the same coin of the “medal eligible” language that USAC used in their decision not to fill the U23 women’s roster for 2019 Worlds in Bogense. The focus of U23 racing shouldn’t just be on existing professionals and medals at Worlds – development is still happening at 20 years old, especially in a fairly niche sport like cyclocross and especially for women, who often aren’t afforded the same opportunities to get involved in bike racing at a young age.
Anna Kay is technically a national champion, it seems like a disservice to her (as well as 5th placed overall and 2nd place Ffion James and 3rd placed U23 Sophie Thackray) to not have her own jersey and place in the record books for all posterity. Kay, as a professional, should have the choice of opting out of the U23 race, but her competition for a Worlds title, say the amazing Ceylin Alvarado, has the advantage of a Dutch U23 national championship on her palmares and as a recognition within her cycling appreciative country. Should Kay, or James for that matter, have that same recognition of being the winner or on the podium of their nationals within their age group? A U23 racer should certainly have the option of racing up into the Elite category, but they shouldn’t have to.
From a scheduling perspective, it is really hard to have the six separate races on one day, but British cycling only runs nationals races on the weekend, which seems odd considering travel times from even the farthest reaches of the UK. Couldn’t they run the junior races at the end of Saturday as the finale of a day of younger age group races (looking at you, USA Cycling), run masters/veterans races on Friday, and save U23 and Elites for Sunday? Four races in one day on a course is not excessive unless you are the UCI and even then a rising Ohio River might change your mind.
There has only been a separate U23 women’s national champion for three years in the UK (2016-2018), with a Junior women’s national championship since 2006. U23 and Junior men in the UK have had national championships since 2000 and 2001 respectively. If we are truly interested in not just equality (everyone/category gets the same access and opportunity) but equity (taking into account historical and current inequalities among groups with what is fair being put into social context), perhaps British cycling should continue to combine the men’s U23/Elite fields while separating the women’s U23 and elite fields for another 15 years or so – about as long U23 men had their own opportunity to race on their own (2001-2018 minus the 3 years the U23 women had from 2016-2018), have their own jersey, and stand on their own podium.
[Ed. Note – British Cycling placing the blame on the condensed schedule on the shoulders of the junior women, from the outside, seems to send the wrong message. The rationale for not having U23 champions is because they were sacrificed so a junior women’s race could be held. This seems like blame shifting that is unnecessary and does not move forward the goal of equality in cycling.]
At the end of the day, who am I to argue with Helen Wyman and the above results. U23s can compete and win at the Elite level, British Nationals showed that. So, perhaps, it’s simply the pesky UCI regulations in the way more than anything else; changing provisions in C1s that are nationals to hand out a winner’s jerseys in U23 categories seems like an easy solution, but as we know from previous experience with the UCI, no change comes easy. Stay tuned to see how things shape up for cross nationals in the UK next year to see if the kids will continue to have their say.
38 combined U23/Elite women starters – 12 U23, 26 Elite – 18 lead lap finishers, 8 of which were U23
89 combined U23/Elite men starters – 32 U23, 57 Elite – 13 lead lap finishers, 7 of which were U23.
Start List and Results:
Replay on GCN: