The evolution of Women’s Cycling – Our role and place within the peloton

The evolution of Women’s Cycling – Our role and place within the peloton

From the inception of our Women’s program in 2011 as a UCI team, to where we are at now as one of the founding Women’s WorldTour teams, Team DSM have been forerunners in the ever-growing and exciting world of professional Women’s cycling. We chat to head coach Rudi Kemna, coach Albert Timmer, rider Leah Kirchmann and trainer Camiel Dénis about the progression of the sport, how we continue to develop as a team, and where we are at as we head into the next part of the season.

Why have a Women’s programme?

Alongside the running of the Men’s programme, the team set up a Women’s programme in 2011 that has since gone on to grow and develop year-on-year taking a total of 116 wins at the time of publication. In a period where the prevalence of women’s cycling in the wider public was much lower and the number of teams in general could be counted using just a few pairs of hands, we asked the question to head coach Rudi Kemna [RK] as to why we wanted to start a Women’s programme.

RK: “Cycling as a sport in general was growing and we saw the value in women’s cycling too. That’s why it was important for us to develop a topsport team for Women. We see that with our Men’s, Women’s and Development program, which several other teams too. We think it’s just a logical way to approach things across the board.”

As mentioned that logical way of approaching things has seen the women’s programme take 116 wins, with a first focus on classics and sprints but there has been a more recent focus in the years gone by on GC classifications too.

RK: “We want to have a topsports environment. We want to achieve the highest level that we can with our Women’s programme. We want to be best we can in the sprints, classics and GCs. Every year we work with the riders and help to guide them as best as possible and from that we go for our goals.” 

Every rider has the access to the same experts, no matter which programme they are in, and that gives them the chance to tap into the knowledge that’s within the team as everyone aims to get better. Furthermore, the Aqua-Step Keep Challenging Center is used as a base of activities for the Women’s and Development programme – but more on that later!

Finally, we asked Rudi what his highlight moment of the Women’s programme would be so far…

RK: “I think the World Championships TTT win in 2017 has to be up there. If we’re talking about a specific race though then I think it would be the Women’s WorldTour level Ronde van Drenthe. The past two seasons we have managed to win the race back-to-back but it is the way in which we did it that gives me most joy – everyone really committed to the plan and went all-in for it. To have five riders in the first eight in 2021 was just incredible!”

A home away from home 

In 2019 the team officially opened its doors at the Aqua-Step Keep Challenging Centre, a project and dream that had been many years in the making and something that takes our Women’s program to the next level. The Centre combines a living environment with a high-end support network to help optimise athlete development while helping them to have their independent living space – giving the riders room to grow as people too alongside each other. The Center is a home and base to the majority of the Women’s programme during the season when racing in Europe, so who best to ask about the facilities than rider Leah Kirchmann [LK] and Women’s programme coach Albert Timmer [AT].

LK: “I think for me as a foreign rider it’s really nice to have a base in Europe that really feels like home to me. The KCC is great because I’m surrounded by teammates every day.”

AT: “Everyone gets an apartment and their own space. We have a central gym that all the rider can use and do the power training that we get from the experts. We also have a main area for everyone where we can do meetings and race preparations – those kind of things. Training wise we have some great roads and routes nearby for if we want to go into the hills or stay on the flat, and the Tom Dumoulin bike park is close by, for when we want to train on a closed area. So there’s definitely a lot I would say.”

LK: “I also have access to a lot of performance services from the team. It’s also improving every year, with more experts and coaches coming to work with us at the Centre more often. Of course we also have the gym and bike park right next door for example. I also really like the training in the area and my favourite is to go direct south into the Limburg hills – which is really perfect for training in the types of races we compete in.”

Not only a great place to based for training, the Centre is also conveniently located close to airports and only a few hours drive away from many of the spring classics that the team take part in. Alongside its more obvious performance benefits such as the good training roads, access to experts and the gym; there is also a more hidden and subtle benefit that the riders get from being there and that is just simply socialising with each other and getting to know how each other tick.

LK: “Being with each other a lot offers a lot of value to our racing. We get to know each other really well which then helps on the bike and in the races. It also gives us lots of opportunity to prepare together for the races and talk about them in a relaxed environment such as a training ride. It’s nice also nice to mix the groups when training, it’s inspiring to train with the Devo guys too and then cheer each other on in the races.”

Cycling is often a sport where people live in different areas of the world, turn up to race, then go back home again and not see each other until the next event. It’s that on and off the bike interaction that the team believes helps push development even further and take our Women’s programme to the next level – and we love to see our Women’s programme and Development programme socialising together. Keep an eye out on the rider’s Instagram channels during summer and there’s a good chance you’ll see a group barbecue!

When not training Leah also takes advantage of the local area to relax her mind and refresh for the next goals, something that is important to compete at the highest level.

LK: “In my free time I like to check out the different cafes in the area with friends and teammates and you can even buy some of my banana bread in one of them. I also like to cook too, so it’s really nice that we have our own apartments and space to do that. It’s great to go to the farmer’s market in Sittard and get inspired by what they all have there and come up with some fresh food ideas.”

Continuing to build on success and preparing for what’s next

We’ve talked about the idea behind our Women’s program and the brilliant facilities they have on hand, but how do we help them get to that next level with training to then take results on the road. We spoke to trainer Camiel Dénis [CD] about our training approach and Albert Timmer [AT] to summarise where he thinks we are just now and what lies ahead for our Women’s programme.

CD: “We develop all riders continuously to their personal profiles, whether that be as a GC, Classics, or Sprint rider. Therefore for example, in spring a GC rider will still work on their GC attributes and during the classics will rely on the developments they make from training those GC qualities. Likewise, it goes the other way around too. A Classic rider works on their requirements for the classics during the winter and spring. After a short break they will again continue to work on them to aim for a higher level in any one-day race period in the future. We develop those requirements continuously rather than having a period of dropping that specific level and having to re-start later on.” 

Some really interesting insights on how we approach training and with that the results have certainly followed…

AT: “At the moment things are going really well for us. The sprints are going well with Lorena and Charlotte both taking wins and our lead out is in a really good place. Next to that we have Juliette who won GC in Burgos which is really a step forward too in her and our development. I think in general we can say that we’re on a good level all the time when we’re at races. We can be a part of things and race for the victory, so actually I’m more than happy.”

Looking to the coming period of racing, the prevalence of one-day races decreases as the number of stage races increases with a big month in July looming large that includes the Giro Donne and Tour de France Femmes, as the Women’s peloton continues to take on more and more races. Yet, the team’s approach with their three pillars will remain largely unchanged.

CD: “In the upcoming stage race period, our classics riders will use their qualities in the stage races where they can use them very well. It’s also important to note that with periodisation and needed variability in training stimuli, to keep on developing, training does not always look the same from period to period, but it always has the overall aim to develop the focus points of the profiles of the riders.”

AT: “We have some nice stage races coming up before the big month of July. At the Women’s Tour we want to focus on and fine-tune our lead out ahead of what’s coming, with us doing that well so far at RideLondon Classique. We also have some riders away preparing at altitude on the climbs so we aim to be in good shape for the more hilly and mountainous stage races that await us.”

From humble beginnings in 2011 to being consistently one of the top five Women’s teams in the world in the UCI rankings throughout the past five years, we have definitely found our place in the Women’s peloton – as we look to develop even further and aim even higher. We hope you all can join us on our journey!