It’s mid-February and we’ve already seen three races in the 2023 Women’s World Tour. We’re going to pretend that didn’t happen and consider this a preview anyway, not because we disrespect Down Under or the desert (although we do, kinda) but because those were really just appetizers and the real feast is yet to come. For sanity reasons we’ll split this into two parts, in this article I’ll focus on the teams and riders and later on we’ll do a bit of a presentation of the races and calendar because I’ve been told it’s very important that fans understand the narrative of the season. And I have every confidence that by the time we get to the second article I will definitely understand the narrative and will be able to explain it. Well, I have some confidence...... ok, realistically I have at least a small glimmer of hope that I will understand it by then*.
But first, on to the players and what has happened since we last played WWT.
(*I probably won’t)
What are WWT teams and why do they matter?
The Womens World Tour has been around since 2016 but the real start date is really 2020 when the registration of WWT teams started. With this came the big step up in demands both on teams, in terms of minimum wage and whole new levels of team organization, and on races to provide live video coverage and a host of other things. The expectation was that very few teams would be able to meet the financial demands but already the first year 8 teams got WWT licenses and as of 2023 all the 15 available licenses are filled, with the UCI even having more applicants than they had licenses to give. This means that if the trend holds then there will be the same relegation/promotion points fight among the women’s teams as we have just started seeing on the men’s side. In fact we may already have seen a taste of this with a handful of the teams in that uncomfortable zone finding it worth the sacrifice to make the trip down under for the two first legs of the WWT and the points available there.
A notable difference between the men’s and women’s WT is that participation in every event is not mandatory for the women teams. Races are obligated to invite all 15 but they are free to accept invites or not. Understandably most teams do attempt to do as much of the WWT calendar as possible but with smaller team size and an expanding calendar it will be intriguing to see how teams handle invites strategically in 2023. But more on the calendar and the mechanics surrounding licenses in the next article, lets get to the teams.
When it comes to powerhouses in the WWT it mainly comes down to two, SD Worx and Trek Segafredo. They come at things from opposite directions really, SD Worx is an old women-only team with quite a bit of history whereas Trek is the modern type of team that popped up as an offshoot to the men’s team once there was a World Tour and with big resources quickly established itself at the top. SD Worx though, apart from having strong financial backing, have that one thing that is better than anything in cycling, solid access to the best Dutch riders in the world. SD Worx, and their previous incarnation Boels Dolmans, are still the top ranked team but now it’s at least becoming a tight fight.
Both teams have made interesting moves in the off-season, SD Worx perhaps most spectacularly by adding the absolute dominant sprinter Lorena Wiebes who was free to move from DSM if she got an offer that they could not or would not match. So it’s probably a good guess that she is the best paid rider in the peloton now, or if she isn’t she can’t be far off at least. Also joining are Barbara Guarischi, primarily as a leadout for Wiebes, and a talented duo from Parkhotel in Femke Markus and Misha Bredewold. Meanwhile they lose Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Roxane Fournier, both strong riders but not irreplaceable ones.
How the dynamics with Wiebes on SD Worx work out will probably make a huge impact on what kind of season we get. On paper it’s the best sprinter joining the best team and 2+2 should equal 5, in which case it will be a barren year for many others. But the reality is that SD Worx has never really clicked with “pure” sprinters. Their style has mostly been based on a QuickStep style of multi-pronged aggressive attacking and when they have tried the more calculating sprinter approach with Jolien D’hoore for example it hasn’t really fired on all cylinders. And already on the team in that role is Lotte Kopecky who took the team’s biggest wins in 2022 in Strade Bianche and Flanders. The talk is that she will now be freed up to race in a more aggressive role as Wiebes slots in as the number one option if the race comes down to a sprint. If that works then it will be formidable but it won’t be an easy job to sort out the rules on the road for the DS. The assumption is also that Wiebes will be aiming to be a stronger allrounder as she so far hasn’t quite been able to get over hills well enough to stay in contention in the most prestigious classics. Moving in that direction could also be “interesting”, as it would bring her more into direct competition with Kopecky and Trek’s Elisa Balsamo but it also begs the question if it will lose her some dominance in the sprints and it also makes her more similar to the riders SD Worx already have.
Trek on their part have clearly looked to strengthen their stage racing side where they still are a step behind the best. They have Elisa Longo Borghini who is the most formidable allrounder in the peloton along with Demi Vollering, capable of both winning Roubaix and being on the podium in major stage races, but she is still an unlikely winner when there is major mountain climbing on the menu. So in comes veteran Amanda Spratt and Italian climbing talent Gaia Realini. Clealy these aren’t moves that will make them dominant in 2023 but Spratt adds a solid second threat and Realini with time might be the most interesting prospect on the market as more and more races include actual high mountains. Combined it should lift some weight off Longo Borghini’s shoulders over the season. In Brodie Chapman and Lisa Klein they’ve added some of the best support and time trialing available too and both of them are very capable of bringing in big results too if we see them at their best. All in all it’s hard to overestimate what a good transfer market Trek had (on paper that is, it has to work irl too).
The general feeling is that unless the Wiebes move turns out to elevate her even one bit further and Vollering returns to a season like 2021 then Trek are going to seriously threaten to take over as the top team this year. SD Worx have the better top but right now Trek might beat them with a deeper team and stronger direction from the car.
The Nearly Bigs
Next in line we find three teams on a strong upwards trajectory, Movistar, FDJ-Suez and Team UAE. In each their own way they look poised to threaten the two bigs this year. Movistar have one last year with Annemiek van Vleuten, the human wrecking ball that can basically carry a whole team and to add to that they have brought in Liane Lippert from DSM to bolster the support, get results in hillier races AvV sits out and hopefully take a step up and maybe be a full replacement for her in the seasons to come. It’s not a sure thing in any sense but it is an awfully good gamble looking at what is available in the market. Along with Lippert comes Floortje Mackaij who will mainly reinforce the classics side where they already have 23 year old Emma Norsgaard poised to sprint for victory in the hardest races. Now they have even more dimensions to their team for the big one-day races
More dimensions is pretty much the motto for FDJ-Suez. They base their team around three leaders, Marta Cavalli, Cecilie Uttrup-Ludwig and aussie Grace Brown. The first two being in the classic women’s racer mold, lighter riders who can handle hillier one-day races as well as they can stage races with bigger climbs, while Grace Brown is the more powerful timetrialer whose sprint and ability to get over smaller climbs make her a formidable overall threat everywhere except the bigger mountains. Behind that they have perhaps the most solid block of talent and quality support of all teams in the likes of Muzic, Guazzini, Copponi, Fahlin etc. Add to that two solid signings in allrounder Loes Adegeest and sprint reenforcement Gladys Verhulst and you find a team that is well set to keep up their steady upwards trajectory. Cavalli had a massive breakthrough in 2022 and it will be interesting to see how that changes the team dynamics. Until now Uttrup-Ludwig has been seen as the top dog and her cooperation with Cavalli hasn’t worked that well when they’ve been in races together. It will be interesting to see if that improves when the roles are somewhat reversed. The juggling of opprtunities between their three stars worked superbly for them in 2022, perhaps aided by Cavalli’s unfortune of getting crashed into early at the Tour de France and missing the later part of the season. If FDJ continue to get it right, and maybe even improve it, then great things can happen. They themselves think their multipronged approach could maybe be the key to competing with Annemiek van Vleuten in the big races. The more cynical of us might turn our faces away as we snicker about the tactics of “tridents” because we do appreciate the spirit of it and we dearly want to see teams trying whatever to avoid too much single-sided domination.
The biggest turnaround in any of the bigger teams has perhaps come at Team UAE. They have effectively taken over the strong development unit that was Valcar Travel&Service. The manager and best riders have moved to UAE and they are now also running a development team that essentially takes the place of old Valcar. That means that Marta Bastianelli, UAE’s star rider, will be joined in her retirement season by the likes of 2022 super-breakthrough star Silvia Persico and talented sprinter Chiara Consonni. Also joining are Mikaela Harvey and Olivia Baril, both riders who at their best have shown huge promise in stage races. They lose Mavi Garcia but overall it looks like a massive strengthening of UAE for the future. As with Cavalli (also a Valcar product initially) many eyes will be on Persico to see if she can continue to live up to the massive highs of 2022. If she does then there are very few areas where she can’t be a threat. She was up there with the best in the Giro and TdF and she was on the podium at Worlds, where she may well have sprinted for the win if she han’t been one of the many snoozers as Annemiek came flying past from behind.
The Middle of the pack
The biggest development in the midpack is probably happening at DSM. They’ve lost three signature stars in Wiebes, Lippert and Mackaij and like their men’s team are rebuilding with youth. They are bringing in huge junior talents in Nienke Vinke, Elena Ciabocco and Eglantine Rayer and also older Aussie track rider Maeve Plouffe who may well surprise if she has luck with her transition but these are all unlikely to make a huge impact in 2023. It will have to be riders like Charlotte Kool, Pfeiffer Georgi, Esme Peperkamp, and Megan Jastrab stepping up and taking results, now given opportunities, to keep DSM near where they have been. Juliette Labous is their most established star and 2022 looked really promising with her reaching a really dependable top level in the stage races. No doubt 2023 will be a challenging year for them though, there’s no getting around the fact that relying on a team so young may be a financial necessity but it really limits what you can expect in terms of results.
Liv Racing-TeqFind have had a quieter off-season and have mainly added Mavi Garcia to give them a real threat in the major stage races. Garcia is one of the top tier climbers in the group just behind superhuman Annemiek and she could well deliver podiums in Vuelta, Giro & TdF depending on her program. Results would be welcome on Liv who are always solid but rarely making a real mark and standing out in races. A winning rider would do them well.
Same could be said for Canyon/SRAM who continue to be a bit of a puzzle in their performances. Their slow slide into the doldrums since their Specialized days is a curious one, never lacking in quality riders but never quite winning in the way you would expect them to . They’ve added brilliant talents Ricarda Bauernfiend and Antonia Niedermayer from their devo team while losing some team stalwarts in Amialiyusik and Klein. Along with some other additions it looks like a welcome shake-up and combined with bringing in a new DS in Magnus Bäckstedt it could give the team the needed boost. There really is no reason a team with riders with the caliber of Niewiadoma, Chabbey, Bossuyt, Paladin and Rooijakkers shouldn’t be winning on a regular basis.
At Jumbo-Visma things are business as usual with the main news that Marianne Vos has signed on for a few more seasons. She’s the main focus on the team and bringing in the results mainly comes down to her. If the team is to go up a level in the hierarchy they will have to hope for some of their secondary riders to step-up a little more. They aren’t short of talents but apart from Vos there isn’t that many standout performances for whatever reason. The introduction of cyclocross phenom Fem van Empel on the road this season will be one of the most hotly anticipated storylines this year. What it will bring, who knows, but she is expected to make her debut in April sometime around the Ardennes races so we might get the first indications then.
Jayco-AlUla is another former top team now stuck in the middle a little, probably partly due to financial reasons. Their strategy is to load up on strong sprinters for every type of terrain and hope it pays off. To last year’s revelations Manly and Roseman-Gannon they’ve added Paternoster from Trek who has unfulfilled road potential but they also lost Fidanza and Georgia Williams. They have a team with riders in the right phase in the careers that could deliver a lot of wins if they get the team firing on all cylinders but they do need something extra behind the scenes compared to the last few years if that is to happen. Losing so many key “franchise riders” as they have they have to establish a new team identity and drive it feels like.
On the rise is perhaps the best way to describe EF Education-Tibco. Always an interesting team in finding talents outside the mainstream, Tibco always had a tough time on the periphery of the euro peloton with one foot still in the US and always having to survive on a shoestring budget. EF and the WWT license has given them a boost but they clearly remain on the struggling side when it comes to resources. Luckily they’re still good at finding ways to work around it though. Veronica Ewers is rapidly turning into a top stage racer and they’ve added Zoe Bäckstedt, Alison Jackson and Georgia Williams that all should be real re-enforcements. It’s a team that looks sharper than we’ve ever seen them but they perhaps lack that one star rider that can deliver consistent wins. Hopefully the second half of the season will see a strong return of eternally unlucky Lizzy Banks too.
The newbies and the strugglers/stragglers
New to the WWT and filling the final available 15th license spot is Fenix-Deceuninck who last year raced as Plantura-Pura with a lot of success. Much like its men’s counterpart it is a team with strong cyclocross connections but if they are going to make a real mark in the WWT they are probably going to need more dedicated road riders like Julie De Wilde and newly added Swiss talent Petra Stiastny to bring home the bacon on a regular basis. Twenty year old De Wilde showed some promising signs last year that she really might be the next big Belgian thing along with Canyon’s sprinter Shari Bossuyt. Both of them are the essential Flemish type, classics riders with a strong sprint (or sprinters who can handle a hard classic, depending on which way you want to flip it) and could really ensure that the positive trend from Jolien D’hoore and Lotte Kopecky continues.
Uno-X were completely new last year and had their fair share of teething troubles. Their bigger international signings didn’t quite deliver and their home star Susanne Andersen started well but then had injury and illness problems that plagued her season meaning they scored very few points. They’ve strengthened further with two sprinters, Dideriksen and Confalonieri, and a powerful allrounder in Anouska Koster. Strong riders but no sure bets to add wins. Finding their legs as a team and honing their racing tactics might make a bigger difference in the end though. They wouldn’t be the first team in history to rebound after a crappy premiere season and the Uno-X organization overall is very serious and good at working step-by-step toward long-term goals.
Israel Premier Tech-Roland was also new in the WWT last year after many years as a revolving doors conti team for journeyman riders. Adding Israel as a sponsor gives the project some more weight but it still looks like a curious project where you can’t quite see where the results are supposed to come from. Tamara Dronova had a brilliant 2022 and they have added Olympic champ Anna Kiesenhofer who might win something from a long break as long as she never has to ride in the peloton but that’s about as optimistic I can get.
There’s a lot more reason for optimism when it comes to Human Powered Health who have added a lot of quality in riders like Daria Pikulik, Alice Barnes and Marjolein van´t Geloof. Pikulik has already shown she might be a very real sprint threat and Barnes is a solid veteran who maybe doesn’t win as much as we once thought she might but she is always in the mix and animating races. With an already decent base with allrounder Nina Buijsman and talented Kaia Schmidt there’s actually a lot to look forward to with HPH who initially looked like a bit of a curious addition to the WWT. It’s a team that will be fighting in the lower half of the table for sure but the trajectory is promising. They are also not shy about going with their plan and committing to it in races even when they might not have the biggest favorite and that kind of approach is often rewarded in one way or another.
Just in general what we’re seeing is teams more and more building teams with riders in more defined roles. With salaries comes a move toward more professional set-ups with riders able to survive and thrive in dedicated support roles which leads to better and better organized racing as well. The rule before was that even riders whose main job was to work for the teams stars had to chase their own results in order to secure a contract that gave them any kind of financial reward. This lead to almost everyone riding 50% dedicated to their team role and 50% with an eye on individual results and UCI points and the end result was often poor team tactics and anarchy in many races. Much of that is now fading and we’re seeing better racing for it. This has already been demonstrated in the early races, not least in the new UAE Tour where we saw organization and sprint leadouts on a level that at least I saw as clearly on a level I’ve never seen. It’s tempting to say that there is a massing of talent in the richest teams but that was really always the case and if anything we’re seeing a steadily deeper field of teams able to be really competitive in the big races in this new era. Yes, we will still have much focus on Annemiek van Vleuten vs. SD Worx vs. Trek-Segafredo but they are by no means unthreatened these days, all 15 WWT teams come competitive to most races now. That wasn’t really always the case back when we saw teams like HTC/Specialized, Cervelo and Rabobank dominate and everyone else coming a very distant third or fourth for a vast majority of the time. It very much feels like a golden era at the moment.