On International Women’s Day, Natascha den Ouden, the woman behind AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step, looks back on the beginning, the present and the future of the team.
What started as an idea in 2018, has since grown into a professional structure with three cycling teams: juniors, U23 and elite only five years later.
“We once started small with six riders and now there are almost forty,” said General Manager Natascha. “The first victories at the highest level have already been achieved and that fills me with pride. Five years of puzzle pieces have fallen into place. Riders who fit together, but also personnel who have often been with the team for many years, or who are seamlessly integrating. It really is a team on all fronts. That was the case in the beginning and it is still the case now that we have grown so much bigger. That’s important to me.”
“In the first races of the year, I saw a team racing together,” she continued. “In Valencia it immediately leads to a lot of success, but not in a race like Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. In both cases I am proud of the unity. During the last stage of the Tour of Valencia, for example, the group app exploded. Everyone sympathised.”
“It also works the other way around when there’s bad luck like in Samyn with an unfortunate flat tyre and a nasty crash from Nicole. Even then there is that feeling of being together, even if it is not joy but rather disappointment and upset. That sense of belonging is not PR talk. That feeling is real. I am therefore happy if people from outside the team, such as sponsors or fans or anyone else, also notice that togetherness.”
During the winter period, a lot of work was done by Natascha and the team at AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step. In addition to her physiotherapy practice, Natascha was involved in the recruitment of new riders, staff and sponsors, as well as the design of clothing, organising training camps, new shoes, consultations with the cycling federations in Belgium and with the UCI, a team presentation, wrapping cars and so much more. The tasks she undertakes are very complex and she is a versatile manager. In addition, she is also a wife, mother of four daughters, there are some sons-in-law, a dog and a few cats around the house and everyone also needs to eat and have clean clothes. In short, it has been a rather busy few months.
“When we decided to create an extra team on top of the U19 and U23 structure we already had, I deliberately looked at riders who would fit into this structure. In addition, an all-new group of juniors had to be recruited and half a new team of U23. So that was a lot of new riders. I didn’t want riders who live in their own bubble and have no eye for others,” Natascha explained.
“I have also rejected riders who do not fit into the philosophy. We want to create connection. Lessons from the past show that a collection of the best riders does not make the best team. Of course, you need the finishers to get points but you also need those who connect and the pillars in a team sport. The base is the U19, the walls are the U23 and the roof is the elite. Within each of those three teams, those three sub groups also apply, because without those three, you don’t have a house. I really appreciated it when potential new riders have already studied our structure and consciously choose to be part of this. Riders who are aware that a team is only as strong as its weakest link and that they have an eye for this. Together they are the house under the name AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step and one cannot do without the other. All our riders are aware of that. I am very proud that the feeling during the building has been correct on every individual basis so far.”
In addition to the positive recruitment drive, the run-up to the new season was not easy due to regulations from the UCI. There has been a lot of discussion about the place that AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step can take as a unique project in the cycling peloton.
“One of the hardest things to accept this winter was that the UCI didn’t allow us to exchange riders. Ideally, we would allow one or two riders from the U23 to gain experience in the elite squad in certain races. Women’s WorldTour teams are allowed to do that with their development teams, but because we ultimately did not get a WorldTour license, we are not allowed to do that. After all, we have two teams at the same continental level now. However, I am convinced that we offer both teams a nice program. It’s just that the U23 riders can grow so much if they can race with experienced riders from time to time. Unfortunately, we are missing that now.”
AG Insurance-Soudal-Quick-Step is a multi-year project that started in 2018. In the short term, the ambition is to join the Women’s WorldTour. Natascha is very clear and ambitious about this. The long-term vision is about building a solid, sustainable structure in women’s cycling in general.
“We are on the right track with our project, but we are not there yet. You cannot yet compare the current level of women’s cycling with men’s pro cycling. The differences in budgets alone are huge. An attempt is being made to condense the development of forty years from the men’s sport into just five years for women. Of course, that’s not possible. I think a fair comparison is to compare today’s women’s sport with today’s U23 or men’s continental teams.”
“Our sport is in full development with riders who are already at WorldTour level and riders who are not yet, but who do have a WorldTour contract and corresponding salary. It’s the story of chicken and egg. Development costs money as in all industries. Cycling is no exception. Developing young riders costs money, but you can see that it works. The development in our sport is going so fast now. If you can let someone be a full-time rider, it is not only full-time training, but also full-time rest without the extra stress of getting food on the table.”
“I believe that there are currently riders in the Women’s WorldTour who don’t have the level yet and would be better off in an U23 setting like we have for example. On the other hand, you also have to sign them young or they are gone to another team. Money is a powerful incentive that sometimes threatens to go beyond individual development. I therefore believe in our model where we offer U23 riders the prospect of a professional contract but also offer them the safety to develop and make mistakes. And that applies to everyone, by the way. At AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step you are allowed to make mistakes as long as you learn afterwards, because that is the only way we grow together. This way we can enjoy this wonderful sport together, cheer each other on when we succeed and support each other when we have setbacks. That is teamwork worthy of a wolfpack.”