Road Cycling

History in the Making with First Ever Junior Women’s Road Race

Until now, UK girls have gone from racing as youths to being flung into senior road races. Times are changing.

Sunday marked a breakthrough in UK women’s road racing as Bourne Wheelers hosted the first ever event for juniors women only on the open road. TWC asked British Cycling coach Huw Williams, why the event was so important.

Words and pictures, Huw Willams 

Twelve months ago I was standing on top of the hill at the Cyclopark circuit in Kent, watching the cream of the South East and Eastern region’s youth girls going through their drills on the circuit below. With me was BCs then driver of all things youth racing orientated Tim Buckle. Our conversation was largely a diatribe against the lack of opportunities for girls when they matured from youth into juniors at age 16. The current system sees many girls at this age drop out of the sport as the only racing option available to them is going straight into the senior ranks while still on restricted [lower] gearing, often at the same time as experiencing open road conditions for the first time.

A year later, only around 20 of those riders have matured into the junior ranks…  the boys in the same age bracket get to do a very high quality junior road series

This has proven quite a deterrent for a high number of riders. A typical scenario over the past few seasons sees massive fields of up to 80 youth women competing at races like the Hillingdon Youth Circuit Series race, yet come the junior National Road Race Championships a year later, only around 20 of those riders have matured into the junior ranks, competing for the jersey. The boys in the same age bracket get to do a very high quality junior road series.

Massive fields are common in the U16s Youth Circuit Series races

Some of our top junior girls are able to compete and win against the seniors at the very highest domestic level. The recent Tour of the Reservoir, a grueling two-stage Women’s Road Series event saw a number of riders from the British Cycling academy programme fighting it out for podium positions. But the academy program is highly selective, and designed specifically to identify and develop the very best riders. It’s an effective if sometimes ruthless system that sees only a very few junior girls awarded academy places and the accompanying high levels of support that come with it.

But what about the rest? It’s well known that maturation rates at junior level are highly variable and one concern that Tim and I discussed on that day was the fact that if only one of those girls lost to the sport was a potential champion who simply hadn’t been identified yet, that was one too many. Also, we couldn’t weigh up why an National Governing Body who’s targets included getting so many extra women onto bikes was somehow missing the fact that we were losing so many girls to the sport from an age-range where all UK sports have long expressed the desire to retain them.

Most of the riders maturing from the youth circuit series are highly trained and technically capable riders, having come through BCs excellent Regional Schools of Racing programs, School Games and Inter-Regional road-race championships. All that training and ingrained standard of excellence simply coming to a stop for so many of them who don’t feel able to compete at the senior level directly from youths. Clearly we needed a stepping-stone series of races aimed at junior women only, getting them off the circuits and onto the open roads and giving them a level playing field.

Louise Surridge at the Dave Peck Women's Team Series race. Juniors have so far been forced to race exclusively with seniors on the open road.

So Tim and I spent an hour in the South East sunshine, watching the girls training and pouring over ways to make it happen considering everything from stand-alone events to piggybacking races onto the existing junior boys series of races. We considered the counter argument for a stand-alone junior girls’ series that the best way to develop young riders is to ride with a higher standard of racer, i.e. the seniors, and that any series with low numbers of entrants and little support would surely just identify the lack of interest that many against the idea believed there was for such a series?

In plain English organisers would have to be willing to take a leap of faith on it

Eventually we came up with some agreed and clearly defined targets of what success would look like, a short series of junior women only road races plus a stand-alone national championship event (the current unfathomable set-up sees a small number of juniors racing with the seniors in a National Road Series event) run by a handful of dedicated organisers interested more in the development of women’s racing than the income generated from the events. In plain English organisers would have to be willing to take a leap of faith on it. The series’ events would need to be aggressively promoted and most importantly of all, the girls would have to have a majority stake in the ownership of it.

A few key posts on social media put the idea out there and we sat back to wait for the responses and suggestions to come in. Jayati Hine, a stalwart of the youth scene with RST and this season a junior with Velosport issued a well argued plea for a stand alone junior’s series and created a petition to back it which was quickly signed with over 1000 names. You can read it here, its currently up at around 1620 signatures from a wide range of riders, parents, organisers and anybody concerned by the disparity in opportunities for junior women in road racing.

Posters showed who was racing each event, to encourage more riders to sign up

I set up a dedicated Facebook group page to discuss the possibilities and potential pitfalls, which has acted as a great sounding board for a potential series. London based rider Charlotte Cole Hossain of VCL posted a well worded argument as to why it was needed which you can read here, and a number of credible organizers stepped forward with offers to put on a race. As usual with anything to do with developing women’s cycling, Heather Bamforth of The Racing Chance Foundation got involved and set up a communications network between potential race organisers to avoid calendar clashes and an initial series of 4 races was targeted as a trial for what might be possible in the future.

The riders themselves, having raced through the Youth Circuit Series, going back in some cases for a number of years have built up huge social networks and the peer to peer support which they give each other through the various platforms is amazing so I quickly realised that if we started publishing the names and teams of the riders as they entered the events, other riders could instantly see who was racing and supporting the events and were more likely to want to be part of the action, I felt it was a much more positive way of getting the riders to enter than targeting individuals or groups of riders with the demand that “you should be in this race.”

Riders on lap one of the Bourne Wheelers Junior Women's Road Race

The race that made history

Skip forward 4 months and I’m on the side of the road at the first of those races, the Mark Botteley organized Bourne Wheelers event, the first ever junior only women’s road race held on the UK’s roads. It is 27degrees, there are almost 50 riders in the peloton (from an initial entry of 56) and the notion that these girls would be better off in their development racing solely with seniors is quite simply an insult to their capabilities. They are knocking seven kinds of hell out of each other in a display of attacking racing that makes the event look more like a continental classic than a UK women’s road race.

In a senior’s road race, on restricted gears, only the very strongest of juniors can influence the race, which is why a lot of them simply don’t enter. Some often feel too intimidated to actively attack the seniors by the very fact that they are juniors in a seniors’ event opting instead to sit in the wheels and get little more out of it than a kind of motor-paced effort getting dragged along by the bunch.

This they can do easily and it contributes little to their development. They have copious time and experience of bunch riding from their days on RSRs and their bunch handling skills and tactical nous would put many of their senior counterparts to shame. A junior only race gives them a level playing field to develop their race craft, somewhere they can practice those skills. A week ago a lot of the riders in today’s race quite comfortable sat in a bunch of seniors for all three days of the Bedford Women’s Team Series race. Here, after 2 laps of dizzying attack and counter attack half of them were off the back of the lead group as the stronger riders put the attacking moves in at the sharp end of the race.

The break extended their lead to over 3 minutes at one point

Out on the rolling roads around Castle Bytham, Charlotte initially makes a break and, quickly joined by Connie Hudson (RP Racing) and Rosie Walsh (High on bikes), the trio opens a gap of approaching a minute.

The realisation that this break might actually stay away with only half the race left ignites some activity in the chasing peloton with four riders Lizzie Bennett (Liv Epic), Anna Henderson (Lovello Cinelli) Louise Surridge (Team Ford Eco-Boost) and Savannah Morgan (Team 22) establishing a well organised chase group in pursuit. In the peloton, pre-race favourite Jess Roberts (Liv Epic) with a teammate in the chase ahead, was content to sit tight until the break fragmented and was caught by the chasing group resulting a lead group of 6 riders.

With the remains of the peloton starting to break up on the extended draggy climbs, Roberts made her move across the gap, first of all taking team-mate Lauren Murphy with her then going solo as Murphy fatigued on the tough finishing climb of the penultimate lap. Roberts makes the junction half way round the final lap and as the leaders realized they were away and clear and started to slow and size each other up for the final climb and finishing effort, Roberts was able to sufficiently recover to nail the sprint, winning from team mate Bennett by a few bike lengths with Henderson in third.

Jess Roberts takes the win

Where are we now?

The race proved a massive success, demonstrating that the interest is there and with the right organisers and promotion, well attended, credible road races for junior women can work. Feedback from the riders and parents has been very positive. In a way it’s not even about the risers who attended that first race, they are the ones we already know will support and continue to race. Rather, its about all the youth riders who attend the Circuit Series and regional races the length and breadth of the country feeling that they’ll have a credible junior series which allows them to continue racing when they turn 16.

It’ll live or die by the number of attendee… but it’s a start.

We’re under no illusions moving forward. This is purely a feasibility study into whether a junior women’s series can exist and grow in a way the junior men’s series has, and eventually be sanctioned by BC. It’ll live or die by the number of attendees and feeding into that we’ll need to develop and nurture strong supporting youth/junior programs locally, in the various regions, but it’s a start.

riving things forward, there are currently three more junior women's road races on the 2016 calendar

We came close to our other aim of organising a stand alone junior women’s national road race when Heather at Racing Chance had a tacit agreement with BC to run the event but it was withdrawn at the very last minute in favor of a sideways step which sees just 30 juniors racing amongst the seniors again for the national jersey. The hope is that if the trial series in 2016 turns out as well as race #1 did, that will happen in 2017.

The next junior women’s road race is the Green Jersey North West junior Girls Tour – a 3-day stage race on the 28th May. Details can be found here.

Results from the first junior women’s road race in the UK
1. Jess Roberts(Liv CC)
2. Lizzie Bennett (LivCC)
3. Anna Henderson (Lovelo Cinelli)
4. Savannah Morgan (Team 22)
5. Connie Hudson (RP Racing)
6. Charlotte Cole Hussain (VC Londres)
7. Louise Surridge (Team Ford Ecoboost)
8. Lauren Murphy (Liv CC)
9. Emily Tillett Liv CC)
10. Amy Garner (Welland Valley CC)
11. Maddie Gammons (RP Racing)
12. Megan Chard (PMR@Toachim House)
13. Sam Verrill (Team 22)
14. Jayati Hine (Velosport RT)
15. Anna Kaye (Nutcracker racing)
16. Lizzie Denby (Team 22)
17. Sophie Enever (Speedflex RT)
18. Sarah Bradford (Team Jadan)
19. Jade Mobbs (Welland valley CC)
20. Rosie Walsh (High on bikes)

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