Features Insight

U23s: ten women to watch in 2021

Our selection of ten British female U23s to keep an eye on this season

Last month we published our list of ten British male under-23s to watch this season. In this post, we turn our attention to the young British female riders we think are particularly worth keeping an eye on in 2021.

There is no official under-23 category for female riders – unlike the men – so we’ve come up with our criteria. Any female riders who will be 22 or under on 31st December 2021 were in scope. And, after dithering for a while, we decided to include riders already on Women’s WorldTour teams, the rationale being that some of them still have plenty of room for development or are still a little under-the-radar.

The usual caveats apply. Yes, we’re rather late in naming our top ten, but as this is a backloaded season, there is still plenty of racing left, especially in the UK. And no, this list isn’t definitive or comprehensive. There were other riders that could just have easily have made this list: see our ‘honourable mentions’ for some examples.

With our excuses out of the way, let’s reveal who we’ve gone for…

Elynor Backstedt at the 2019 UCI Road World Championships. Photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

Our first pick is Elynor Bäckstedt. The Trek-Segadredo rider is now in her second year as a senior but has barely yet had the chance to prove herself. A traumatic leg break in May last year put her professional career on hold after just two races. She only made her return in April this year at De Brabantse Pijl. If she can rediscover the phenomenal form from her junior years, however, the 19-year-old should be a force to be reckoned with in the years to come.

Her first junior season, in 2018, included 2nd place in the national junior road race, a win in the youth competition at the Watersley Challenge and 3rd in the junior time trial at the world championships. A fine start. The following year she had a superb run. She won the junior Gent-Wevelgem, won two stages and the overall at the Omloop Borsele Juniors, was 2nd overall at the Healthy Ageing Junior Tour, finished 2nd again at the national junior road race, got another 3rd at the junior time trial at the world championships in Yorkshire and was 5th in the road race in the same event.

Lizzy Bennett at the 2021 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Photo: Rhode Van Elsen

Our journal contributor Lizzy Bennett has had a busy season already. Whilst her results have not yet been spectacular, her return to racing after a year on the sidelines has underlined her talent as a strong classics rider. She’s made regular appearances in the break in big races such Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and bagged a top 20 at the Ronde de Mouscron.

Lizzy started her last full race season (2019) in the blue of Campinense-Velo Performance and had an incredible run of form from May to July. In May, she finished in the top ten in all seven rounds at the Tour Series and was 14th in the Lincoln GP. The run continued in June. It started with a win in the Welsh road race championships road race, and was followed by 3rd at the Women’s CiCLE Classic, 2nd in the Bristol Crit, 5th in the national under-23 time trial, and 13th in the national road race championship. 

July was even better. It began with 3rd at the Otley GP. And then came her biggest result yet: winning the prestigious Curlew Cup. Finishing 2nd a week later in another National Road Series race, the Stockton GP, confirmed Lizzy as one of the top domestic performers of the season. She was rewarded with a stagiaire contract at Drops. A full contract with Drops followed and, while her season was severely curtailed, she still managed to shine, finishing 13th in tough Belgian UCI race, Le Samyn des Dames, at the beginning of March.

Pfeiffer Georgi at the 2021 Healthy Ageing Tour. Photo: Team DSM

Like Elynor Bäckstedt, Team DSM’s Pfeiffer Georgi is another rider who shone as a junior and looks set to blossom into a top rider in the senior ranks too. she grew up racing at the famous Herne Hill velodrome, like so many of Britain’s brightest young talents. She also comes from a cycling family. She is the daughter of Peter Georgi, who raced internationally and is now a coach. Her brother, Etienne, raced for Team Wiggins and the rest of her immediate family cycle too.

Highlights as a junior included wins at Gent-Wevelgem, Trofeo Binda Juniors, the Healthy Ageing Junior Tour, and the Watersley Challenge, as well as numerous podiums and top ten placings.

She is now in her third senior year, each of which has been spent with Team DSM (formerly Team Sunweb). In her first season, she was third in the under-23 national time trial, 11th overall at the Tour de Feminin, and 8th in the under-23 European championships road race. Last year she got her first top 20 in a Women’s WorldTour event at the Cadel Road Race. And this year a battling performance at the Healthy Ageing Tour earned her 4th overall in the youth competition. We predict there is plenty more to come from Georgi.

Eluned King ahead of the 2019 UCI Road World Championships. Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

Eluned King is a highly-rated youngster who, because of Covid-19, hasn’t yet had the opportunity to test herself in the senior ranks (at the time of writing at least). The Welsh rider joined the GB Cycling Team Senior Academy this season after a very bright showing as a junior.

While 2020 was a bit of a write-off due to the pandemic, the results she had in just her first year at junior level – 2019 – suggest she has the potential to make a significant mark on road and track once racing gets fully underway. She made a good start to her junior years, finishing 15th at the Trofeo Da Moreno – Piccolo Trofeo Alfredo Binda and 16th at the Gent-Wevelgem Junior Women, her first junior-level international races. Things got even better from there. Riding against the best senior domestic women in the UK, she was 10th in the Lincoln Grand Prix, 6th in Women’s CiCLE Classic, and 5th in the National Circuit Championships.

She won the junior national road race championships that year, beating Elynor Bäckstedt amongst others, and then ended her road season with 20th at the junior road race at the world championships. All that for someone who only turned 17 in August that year. She’s still only 18 now; so we’re looking forward to seeing what she can do on the road this season.

Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com – 26/08/2020 – Cycling – 2020 UEC Road European Championships – Plouay, Brittany, France – Great Britain’s Jessica Roberts during the U23 Women’s Road Race.

At 22, Jessica Roberts is in her final year as a nominal under-23 and is arguably the most established of the riders in this list. The Team BikeExchange rider already has several UCI victories under her belt and is a former national road race champion to boot.

A strong track rider, Roberts has used her powerful turn of speed to good effect on the road. Like other riders in our top ten, she picked up top results as a junior, including the general classification at the Omloop Borsele Juniors and two stages of the Healthy Ageing Junior Tour. It was perhaps her win at the national road race championships in 2018, her first season as a senior, that really turned heads, however. Two stage wins at the Tour de Bretagne Feminin the following year reinforced her talent, so it was no surprise that she joined the Women’s WorldTour in 2020 with Mitchleton-Scott (now Team BikeExchange). She had a solid season, despite the disrupted year.

Her results sheet so far this year (3 DNFs and an 84th) suggests her season’s yet to get going but, hopefully, she’ll have the opportunities and form to contest for wins once again as the season unfolds.

2020 UEC Road European Championships – Plouay, Brittany, France – Great Britain’s Anna Shackley during the U23 Women’s Road Race. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com

Just 19-years-old and in her first year in the Women’s WorldTour, Anna Shackley has been quick to impress this season. She already seems to be an accomplished part of the SD Worx super-team, finishing every race she’s participated in. Her 17th place in the Amstel Gold Race was a particularly strong result, one that suggests that Shackley – a climber of all accounts – will be a contender in the Ardennes in the years ahead.

While her results as a junior weren’t as strong as some others on this list, her 13th place overall at the Tour of Scotland in 2019, aged just 18, indicated her potential. She rode for the GB Senior Academy last season but had little in the way of racing opportunities. She was thrown into the deep end, making her debut as a senior rider in Imola at the world championships. Riding in the service of Lizzie Deignan, she found herself in the leading group with just 20km to go, eventually finishing 25th. An outstanding result for a rider so young in just her first senior race.

She was reportedly signed by SD Worx based on her power numbers alone, but the way she’s settled in at the team already, the signing seems to have been no gamble. The rumour is that SD Worx are already considering offering her a two-year contract extension. It would be no surprise if true; if Shackley continues her progress, she may well become one of the stars of the peloton in a very short space of time.

Amelia Sharpe. Photo: Loetie Photography

Amelia Sharpe is another 19-year-old and another rider who has already made her mark this season. Sharpe hadn’t raced at the senior level at all until this year, but you’d never guess it from her performances. She’s looked accomplished on the cobbles and in the Ardennes, finishing 13th in the Ronde de Mouscron and then putting in an aggressive display of riding in the latter stages of the Amstel Gold Race where she ultimately came 40th.

Sharpe was no slouch as a junior. She’s a former junior national road race champion, and she picked her plenty of top results in international racing too.

She now rides for NXTG Racing, a Dutch team which, she explains in a forthcoming interview, has a good set-up for the riders, an excellent race programme and an approach to racing that has allowed her a lot of freedom. She’ll combine trade team duties with road and track racing with the GB Senior Academy this year, a combination that should give her access to excellent support and racing opportunities at her and abroad. We’re looking forward to seeing how she progresses.

Picture by Pauline Ballet/SWpix.com – 27/09/2019 – Cycling – 2019 UCI Road World Championships – Women’s Junior Road Race – Yorkshire, England – Abi Smith of Great Britain.

Another of our journal contributors, Abi Smith stepped up to the elite cycling ranks this year as one of the newest members of Great Britain Cycling Team’s Senior Academy.

One of the country’s most promising youngsters, Abi won the women’s Junior National Road Series in 2019 in her first year as a junior. On the international scene that year, she finished sixth overall at the  Watersley Challenge Juniors, a UCI stage race, and rounded out her season with 34th in the junior women’s road race at the road world championships in Yorkshire. 

Like most Brits, her road season was mostly a write-off in 2020 but that didn’t stop Abi from using her talents to seek out success, refocusing her goals to win both the junior National Hill Climb Championship and the junior National 10 mile Championship. At the time of writing, she is due to open her senior road racing account at the GP Eco-Struct. Once she finds her feet, we don’t think it will take Abi long to start making her mark.

April Tacey. Photo: Rhode Van Elsen

20-year-old April Tacey is rider we’ve already featured on The British Continental after she made a name for herself last year with some sensational e-racing performances, most notably when she beat some of the world’s best riders to win two stages of the virtual Tour de France. What made her success particularly noteworthy was that it was achieved after coming back from a fracturing her patella. It’s a story she recounted in our podcast interview with her last summer.

The Drops-Le Col s/b Tempur rider shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘just’ an e-racer, however. She was the first ever women’s national junior road race series winner in the UK and then, in her first year as a senior in 2019, she her highlights included an aggressive ride in the national championships, where she eventually finished 21st, and then second in the Curlew Cup, one of the premier women’s road racing events in the UK. 

This year has been her first opportunity to test herself in international racing and she’s adjusted well. A 15th place in the Ronde de Mouscron and 22nd at Scheldeprijs suggest she’s well-equipped to do well in the classics in future years if she continues her progression.

Alice Towers. Photo: Rhode Van Elsen

Alice Towers is a first-year senior rider, still only 18. Like April Tacey, she rides for Drops-Le Col s/b Tempur and has also appeared on our podcast.

She may have only stepped up to the senior ranks this year, but she was already no stranger to UCI racing, having rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s best riders last season at the La Périgord Ladies race when she was a stagiaire for the Spanish Eneicat -RBH Global team. She finished 32nd in that event, a very fine start to her UCI racing career. 

She’s been exposed to plenty more UCI racing this season, experiencing cobbled classics and Ardennes racing in Belgium, and is midway through the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana as we write. She picked up her first UCI top 20 at the Ronde de Mouscron and hinted at her future climbing ability when she finished 60th in Liège-Bastogne-Liège; not bad for the second youngest competitor in the race. There should be plenty more to come in future years.

Honourable mentions

These lists are always difficult to put together and involve a large helping of subjectivity. An obvious omission was Sophie Wright (Alé BTC Ljubljana), who is still only 22 and a Women’s WorldTour rider already. Like her sister Elynor, Zoe Bäckstedt (Tormans-ACROG) is undoubtedly a considerable talent too, but we ruled her out as she’s still just a junior. Anna Kay (StarCasino Team) is another rider with a bright future, but as her main focus appears to be cyclocross these days, we didn’t include her this time around. Other riders on our long list included Ella Barnwell (GB Senior Academy), Anna Docherty (Isorex NoAqua), Illi Gardner (CAMS-Tifosi), Sophie Lewis (GB Senior Academy), Josie Nelson (Isorex NoAqua), and Emily Wadsworth (NXTG Racing).