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Canadian cyclocrossers on why the new junior women’s category will improve competition

Switzerland will host the first ever cyclocross world championships for jr. women Saturday

On Saturday, Canadian cyclocross racers Emilly Johnston and Claire Steciuk will make history. The two riders, one from B.C. and one from Ontario, have travelled to Dübendorf, Switzerland for 2020 cylocross world championships. Both are racing in the junior women’s category, which has been added to the program for the first time ever this year.

No matter how the race plays out on Saturday, Steciuk and Johnston, along with the 48 other junior women on the startlist, will have been part of an important step toward gender equality in cyclocross.

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Over email, I caught up with Johnston and Steciuk about what the addition of a junior women’s category means to them, and why it is more than just the addition of another race category. Both athletes were in Europe already, racing the final World Cup events leading into Dübendorf worlds. The UCI has not made separate junior women’s categories mandatory at all events until the 2022 season. That means Johnston and Steciuk, as well as Canada’s under-23 women, raced against the elite women’s field at Hoogerheide.

New category, new opportunities

Racing against older riders, and professional riders is an experience the two juniors are familiar with. 2019 was the first time junior women had their own, separate race at national championships. The previous year, junior women raced against the under-23 and elite women. Both Stuciuk and Johnston rose to the challenge, but also found the experience frustrating.

“During my first year of cyclocross I was trying to learn a lot and grow as a racer, but I was constantly finding myself overwhelmed and intimidated by racing against people up to five years older than me. I got pulled from a lot of races, which certainly limited my racing experience,” said Stuciuk, who races with the Hardwood NextWave program. “I think it’s very important, especially for developing athletes, to have a category limited to their age, because it allows for more laps on course, a less intimidating racing environment, and an overall healthier learning atmosphere.”

Johnston agrees. The Comox, B.C. racer won the junior women’s race at Canadian cyclocross national championships in November. Like Stuciuk, she had to take on the elite and under-23’s the year before.

“The junior women’s category is so important for getting more girls interested in cycling. Racing with the under-23 women can be challenging and if you are getting destroyed every race by girls much older it can be hard mentally to stay motivated,” says Johnston. “When racing girls similar in age and ability who can still push each other its way more fun and keeps girls wanting to come back for more! It is also so essential to make things equal! It is really unfair that the junior men have their own category when the girls don’t.”

Taking on the the challenge

With Saturday’s race being the first ever junior women’s world championships, there’s plenty of unknowns. Both Stuciuk and Johnston are looking forward to the new opportunity.

“This is my first world championships and I am super excited to represent my country,” says Stuciuk. “I’m ready to give it everything I have to finish off an amazing season. I’m excited to see the show of junior women in Switzerland and prove, together, that we deserve our own category just as much as men.”

Johnston has experience racing internationally already. In August, she represented Canada at Mont-Saint-Anne in mountain bike world championships. Racing in the junior women’s cross country event, Johnston finished ninth. Going into this weekend’s race in Switzerland, the Comox, B.C.-based rider is enthusiastic about returning to the international race scene.

“I’m most looking forward to getting to compete for my country on the world stage,” Johnston said about her upcoming race. “I am so pumped to race some of the fastest junior girls in the world and push myself in such a cool environment.”

For Stuciuk, 2020 worlds are also a chance to prove those who doubt the need for a junior women’s category wrong. One argument against adding the under-19 category was that there were not enough women to make a separate category competitive.

“I believe this is extremely untrue” argues Stuciuk. “In my opinion, much of the reason that there was not a large show of junior women in the past was because there was no separate junior category and it is very expensive and not very much fun to travel to races just to get pulled after 3 or 4 laps.” She is looking forward to having the opportunity to show the world that there is the numbers and depth to support a separate category. “I am super excited to have a junior women’s CX world championships because I believe there is a huge depth of girls out there who have never had the chance to race at the world level before this season”

The Canadian already has the experience to back that up. When given a fair opportunity to race, junior women are showing up to races in big numbers, as Stuciuk saw as part of Cycling Canada’s Christmas Cross Program.

“I raced two junior women’s CX Helen 100 series races in Loenhout and Baal, Belgium over Christmas and there were around 50-60 women in each race. Comparatively, the elite men had around the same number of participants. If the UCI begins introducing more junior races for women, there is no doubt that the sport will grow tremendously and there could be just as many junior women to fill a race as there are men”

“We are pushing for the opportunity to show that we are just as prevalent in the sport as men,” Stuciuk adds, “and having a junior category at Worlds is a great start.”

 Students vs. Pro athletes

Switzerland will be the first cyclocross world championships to include a junior women’s category, but it won’t be the first time either Canadian has had the opportunity to race a junior women’s event. In the fall of 2019, they competed at Canadian cyclocross national championships in Peterborough, Ont. and Silver Goose Pan-American championships in Midland, Ont. A junior women’s category was included for the first time at both events. For Johnston and Stuciuk it was a very different racing experience this year than the same events, at the same venues, one year earlier.

Johnston, who has been racing Vancouver Island’s Cross on the Rock series since she was 11, was happy she had the opportunity to race the category before aging-up into under-23.

“I was definitely racing competitively before the announcement of the junior women’s category,” she says. “I found that it was super exciting and just made me even more excited to race!”

After racing against the elites and under-23’s in 2018, Johnston was thrilled by the opportunity to race in a separate junior women’s event this year.

“It was a pretty incredible feeling! I loved being able to race in my own category and have an even playing field!”

Emilly Johnston Canadian Cyclcocross nationl championships 2019 Junior Women
Emily Johnston crosses the line to win the first Canadian junior women’s cyclocross national championships. Photo: Aidas Odonelis

For Stuciuk, the contrast between the two years was stronger. Like many juniors, she was newer to the sport when she toed the line at nationals in 2018, but arrived to cycling with a strong athletic background. After swimming competitively for 10 years, she was at the end of her first season of racing mountain bikes and cyclocross.

Stuciuk’s experience is a typical one for cyclists her age, many of whom come in with a competitive background, are balancing high school studies with training demands, and are suddenly faced with racing against professional athletes that aren’t just older, but have far greater support and experience in the sport. Here’s her fantastic description of how different the two years were, and why having separate categories is so important:

“My experience racing in the junior category at Nationals and Pan Ams this year was quite different than my experience last year at the two races. Last year was my very first season racing bikes so I was quite a lot slower and less technical than I was at the races this year. I remember never having ridden a bike in the mud before, and lining up for Pan Ams to be on course at the same time as women like Ellen Noble and Maghalie Rochette who race their bikes professionally in Europe. I was so intimidated and overwhelmed by the start and all the mud. I ended up getting pulled after 3/5 laps and being really disappointed. As a first year junior and first year cyclist, I felt like a toddler being thrown into the deep end without my water wings on, struggling to figure out what to do. I didn’t even race the C1 the next day because I was scared to race as an Elite. At Nationals, I got pulled at both races and only got to do 6 laps of the course that weekend.”

“This year, I was able to be competitive in both races and got in 11 laps over the weekend, which totals out to be about fifty to sixty minutes more of race experience. If every girl was given that much more experience, I believe we would all progress remarkably overall. This year I had a much better experience at Pan Ams and Nationals. Not only had I progressed a lot as a racer over the year, I got to race against only the girls my age. It was really great to be able to be competitive and fight with girls who actually have the same lifestyle and body development as me. We’re all sort of in the same boat in terms of not being able to dedicate all of our lives to cycling (we still are in high school and, generally, juniors don’t get paid to race).”

“It’s pretty crazy that the year before we were forced to race against women who’s entire careers are training and racing. I think that having a junior category helps all of us to grow as racers and athletes before stepping up to U23 and Elite after high school. I find I’m able to give a lot more of a fight against girls my own age, instead of being intimidated by older riders, so I definitely got a lot more valuable racing experience out of this year’s Pan Ams and Nationals than last year’s. I hope that the push for equality in the sport will keep picking up momentum and soon we’ll have junior and U23 categories for women at the World Cups. ”

It looks like Stuciuk could partially get her wish sooner rather than later. Today the UCI announced the 2020-2021 cyclocross World Cup calendar. Seven events of the new 14-event World Cup format include junior women’s categories. Unfortunately, the lone North American stop in Wisconsin, does not.