The UCI Is Supporting Young Riders From Around the World

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

When Biniam Girmay won last year’s one-day Gent–Wevelgem, becoming the first African to win a major UCI WorldTour race, it provoked celebrations not only in his home country of Eritrea, but also in the Swiss town of Aigle, home of the UCI World Cycling Centre (WCC). It focused attention on the Centre’s development program, which seeks out young cyclists of potential in countries without the means to provide them with optimal training opportunities and offers them the ideal conditions to realize their potential, in Aigle or at the UCI WCC African satellite in Paarl, South Africa.

Another ‘graduate’ of the program, Negasi Haylu Abreha (Team Q36.5) of Ethiopia, was prominent recently when he was part of a long breakaway in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo, won in spectacular fashion by Alpecin-Deceuninck’s Mathieu van der Poel.

UCI World Cycling Centre Performance Manager Liam Phillips said, via email, that since its inception in 2002 the Centre had supported 2,156 athletes, and this year was training athletes from Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Thailand, Ethiopia, South Africa, Colombia and Ukraine.

“The athletes will stay at the UCI WCC in Aigle for about 12 weeks, with some staying longer depending on discipline and individual plan,” he explained. “All Olympic – and soon to be Paralympic – cycling disciplines are supported at the UCI WCC, from traditional disciplines, such as Road and Track, to the newer Olympic disciplines, like BMX Racing and BMX Freestyle.”

Most of the funding for the training is provided by the UCI WCC, Phillips said.  And, depending on the athlete, the cyclist’s national federation also contributes, as does the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Solidarity Scholarship, a fund that offers financial support to facilitate training and athletic development.

It is obviously vital for the development program to be able to identify cyclists with potential and training needs, and Phillips said the UCI’s ability to spot talent has evolved since its beginning. “We continue to rely heavily on a global network of coaches who provide feedback to the UCI WCC regarding athletes with potential,” he added.

In addition, cyclists are often referred through the UCI’s Continental development satellites, a global network providing access points for cycling education and development, as well as other, national cycling programs. There are currently seven Continental development satellites around the globe, with two more to be launched in 2023 in Canada and Trinidad and Tobago.

“More recently,” Phillips noted, “the use of smart trainers has enabled the UCI WCC to establish a high-end testing protocol with Wahoo Fitness, its smart trainer partner, to detect future talent via testing data.”

In addition to developing successful cyclists such as Girmay – who last year also won one of the five races of the Tour of Mallorca (other winners included Alejandro Valverde and Brandon McNulty) and a stage of the Giro d’Italia – the program has contributed to the improvement of cycling around the world and, just as important, to its geographic expansion.

As an example, Phillips noted that the 2025 UCI Road World Championships will be held in Kigali, Rwanda, “marking a significant milestone in the globalization of cycling.” To support African cyclists for that event, the UCI WCC has initiated two programs focusing on Rwanda and, more generally, on the African continent. “The objective of these programs is to develop better and more sustainable systems that can unlock the athletic potential often witnessed in cyclists originating from the African continent,” he said.

But the primary objective of the program is to help individual athletes develop their talents and enjoy successful careers on the WorldTour circuit. As Phillips put it, “Our overall and main goals are for the road and mountain bike programs to identify and educate athletes with potential, and assist them in signing for a WorldTour team or professional mountain bike team. Seeing former UCI WCC athletes further their careers with teams in Europe and around the world is extremely satisfying.