Features Interviews

Under-23 Men’s National Road Series: the team managers’ view

The managers of Cycling Sheffield, Embark-Bikestrong, Richardsons-Trek DAS and Spirit BSS share their views on the new Under-23 Men’s National Road Series, how it will play out tactically and what more needs to be done to support rider development in the UK

The new Under-23 Men’s National Road Series begins this Sunday with the Yorkshire Under-23 Classic. The pilot Series has been hailed by British Cycling as an opportunity to help address the limited opportunities that under-23 riders – males ones at least – have to race amongst their peer group.

But what do the teams themselves think about the Series? How will they approach it, and how will it help riders to develop? We canvassed a number of team managers to find out…

The Series is not before time and has the potential to provide some invaluable experience

Andy Lyons, Richardsons-Trek DAS

What the new Series means to elite team managers

Dave Coulson, team manager of Cycling Sheffield, knows a thing or two about rider development, having run a development team for many years now, mentoring riders such as Connor Swift, among others. From his perspective, the Series represents “an opportunity for our riders to compete against the best UK under-23 riders, and better learn how to race.” This emphasis on using the Series to support rider learning was echoed by Mitch Wilcox, manager of Embark-Bikestrong.

“As a British Cycling Elite Development Team with an emphasis on developing under-23 riders as well as more senior riders this series enables those younger riders, especially the first and second-year under-23s, the opportunity to have a graduated step up where they can be competitive, as well as allowing them to gain experience in National Series races without the pressure to have to gain National A results,” Wilcox told us.

“This step means they are able to learn and take on team roles without feeling they have to prove something with a big result enabling the team to assist them in developing at a more manageable rate.”

The 2022 Embark-Bikestrong squad. Photo: Isla Blain

In his own inimitable way, Russell Rowles, who runs the Spirit BSS team, also highlighted the importance of the Series as a less-pressured environment to learn race craft, where his younger riders will not be “constantly worked over by Conti teams in the bigger races who invariably have a lot of experienced professional riders in their roster.”

Richardsons-Trek DAS manager Andy Lyons concurs, saying the Series “is not before time and has the potential to provide some invaluable experience”.

Team goals

What about the teams’ goals for the Series? Each manager we spoke to emphasised the importance of gaining experience for their riders as well as notching up results.

“We are going into this to win, that’s our mindset always and it does not change for the Series. It will certainly improve the confidence and team race-day tactics,” Rowles told us, for example.

We would love to pick up excellent results, podiums, and even wins, but the key is continuing the development of our riders and their learning and improvement

Mitch Wilcox, Embark-Bikestrong

Wilcox also highlighted that the Series was an opportunity for the team to showcase itself to under-23 race organisers in Europe.

“In terms of Embark-Bikestrong our goals are to be involved at the leading edge of all the races, highlighting the opportunities the team offers and showing other U23 race organisers in Europe the depth of talent we have to continue building our race calendar year on year,” he told us.

“Clearly, we would love to pick up excellent results, podiums, and even wins, but the key is continuing the development of our riders and their learning and improvement and building further opportunities for the team at all levels.”

Race tactics

The Series limits teams to six riders, two fewer than the National Road Series allows, and the startlist for the first race, the Yorkshire Under-23 Classic, suggests that the British UCI Continental teams will have a relatively minor presence in terms of the numbers of riders they field. Team managers think this will make for a more open, less controlled, style of racing compared with the National Road Series.

Andy Lyons (Richardsons-Trek DAS) at the Jock Wadley Memorial. Photo: HPSource Media / The British Continental

“I don’t see any big teams dominating them so hopefully they will be very open races where anyone on a good day can get a result. It depends on the quality of the field the races attract”, said Lyons.

In the early rounds, the consensus was that the races would be raced like individual events, but there was an expectation among the managers that things will become more tactical as the Series evolves and riders have one eye on the overall competition standings.

I expect the series to become more tactical with each race, much like a stage race

Dave Coulson, Cycling Sheffield

“I expect the series to become more tactical with each race, much like a stage race,” Coulson observed.

“The races will initially be akin to any one day race but as the series develops and an overall standing starts to develop there is likely to be some riders watching their overall competitors,” Lyons concurred.

That said, managers were unsure if any team would have sufficient numbers or strength to control the races.

“With regards to team tactics I’m not sure there are any teams with sufficient under-23 numbers to dictate the races, but it will be interesting to see,” Lyons reflected.  

This contrasts with the National Road Series, or even National B races this season, where the UCI Continental teams tend to dominate.

“I think the field will be more open as the big teams like WiV, Ribble, and Saint Piran won’t be dominating in the same way as they have looked to so far in the National B races,” Wilcox observes.

This will be a much more level playing field with very few teams able to call the shots on the road

Russell Rowles, Spirit BSS

Rowles agrees: “The National Road Series is dominated with riders not quite at the Pro Conti or WorldTour level and always has maybe one or two riders with WorldTour potential each round. Therefore, to get into the final selection is very tough against riders who are essentially riding as full-time pros. So this will be a much more level playing field with very few teams able to call the shots on the road.”

Wilcox also highlighted that there could be a difference in tactics between teams with a numerical advantage and those with only one or two riders.

“I think we will see dedicated under-23 teams taking a tactical approach while solo riders, or those from smaller teams, will try to make the races hard and force them to work for it,” he said.

“I think the key for all the bigger teams will be getting a rider or two into the early break and therefore not having to work until later in the race; strength in depth for the bigger teams in the last hour of racing will pay dividends.” 

Cycling Sheffield at the 2022 team launch with Dave Coulson (centre). Photo: Olivia Coukham

Teams and riders to watch

Whilst the racing might the open, that’s not to say there won’t be individuals or teams that will dominate the Series. The managers were cautious about picking favourites before they’d seen the startlist (we quizzed them before the Yorkshire Under-23 startlist was published).

“This will be really hard to call without seeing the start sheets but it will be hard to ignore other Elite Development Teams like Spirit BSS and Cycling Sheffield if they have numbers in the race, and teams like the Wales Racing Academy will be hard to ignore'” said Wilcox. “I expect there to be some smaller teams that will be there in the mix too.”

The only riders I can think of who clearly are strong under-23s are Josh Whitehead, Sam Beckett and Joe Wilson, plus any of the Team Inspired riders should be solid

Russell Rowles, Spirit BSS

“We will be a strong team but I don’t really know much about the other teams or individuals,” Rowles told us. “Worrying about others is never a way we approach any race. We must beat whoever is there and if they are better in our perception or on the day that won’t change anything. The only riders I can think of who clearly are strong under-23s are Josh Whitehead, Sam Beckett and Joe Wilson, plus any of the Team Inspired riders should be solid.”

Can domestic riders progress to the professional ranks without heading overseas?

The new Series is clearly a welcome development for males under-23s. But with only one .2 UCI race in the UK, and no dedicated under-23 UCI races, we wanted to know with the managers felt it is still possible for U23 riders to progress to the professional ranks without heading overseas.

With British riders no longer being an oddity at the top level, I do think this gives credibility to the UK. Connor Swift is the obvious example

Dave Coulson, Cycling Sheffield

“A rider’s career path is rarely straightforward, and riders can never really predict what opportunities will or won’t come their way,” was Coulson’s considered response. “With British riders no longer being an oddity at the top level, I do think this gives credibility to the UK. Connor Swift is the obvious example; he went from UK elite team to UK UCI team to Arkéa Samsic.”

“There is a route to the pro ranks within the UK and many riders over the last few years have shown that,” Lyons agrees. “It’s a real shame we don’t have more UCI races on the UK calendar but the National Road Series does offer races of a similar calibre, even if the strength in depth isn’t necessarily there. Ultimately there are better races abroad but there is still a route within the UK system and a few riders have shown this over the last few years.”

Rowles is less positive, however. “In short, the only under-23 riders I see who make the leap are the ones on the British Cycling development squad.”

Photo: Spirit BSS

Nonetheless, the hope is that the Under-23 Series can begin to change things by creating an additional step in the development pathway.

The addition of an Under-23 Series places a step between the two levels

Mitch Wilcox, Embark-Bikestrong

“With a large step between junior racing and National A racing, the ability to develop as a rider is hard,” Wilcox explains. “That said National B racing in the UK is tough, with strong fields, so that is definitely a positive. These races need to be run, they are vital to progression. The addition of an Under-23 Series places a step between the two levels, much like the addition of Elite Development Teams is intended to bridge the gap between British club teams and UCI Continental squads.”  

What more needs to be done

The managers all emphasised that whilst the Under-23 Series might be a step in the right direction, there is still plenty to be done to provide a more supportive domestic pathway to the professional ranks in the UK.

“We do need more racing, particularly stage racing in my opinion,” said Coulson. “I do think there’s a new drive to improve the UK calendar, and fingers crossed this will lessen the need for teams to go to Europe to beef up their race programme.”

The ideal catalyst for the under-23 category would have been a separate Under-23 National Road Championships road race, as this would hopefully have drawn many of the European based riders over

Andy Lyons, Richardsons-Trek DAS

“Maybe the ideal catalyst for the under-23 category would have been a separate Under-23 National Road Championships road race, as this would hopefully have drawn many of the European based riders over,” posits Lyons. “The Under-23 Series might be hard for foreign-based riders to support with a busy calendar in Europe.”

“The biggest issue at the moment is that a lot of European race organisers are not accepting entry applications from Elite Development Teams as they are looking for UCI registered teams in their races,” says Wilcox. “Some of the Elite Nationale races in France are available, if space permits, but the leap to get into the UCI races is hard to make, especially for us as a relatively new team that hasn’t got an established name. This is something we are keen to work with British Cycling and other teams on to try to break down this glass ceiling and gain those entries for us and others without having to move up to the UCI level, even if becoming a UCI Continental outfit is a future ambition of the team.”

Finally, one manager, who wanted to remain anonymous, told us that a key test for the new Under-23 Series will be whether it attracts the best domestic under-23 riders.

“My worry is the Series doesn’t draw the best Under-23s, either home-based or European-based, as these riders will already be competitive at Nat A level. If this does turn out to be the case then the Series will tail off as riders do not see the benefit of a good result because the races will effectively be a Nat B with an average field.

“The races need to be recognised as attracting a quality field so those that get good results can use these to take the step up the ranks and the Conti teams recognise the races’ worth. If I was a pro team manager I’d be looking at the Under-23s getting up there in the Nat As as a better barometer of their ability. I hope I stand corrected!”

So do we.

The inaugural Under-23 Men’s National Road Series begins on Sunday 17 April with the Yorkshire Under-23 Classic.

Featured photo: James York. 2021 Ryedale Grand Prix.