Power output demands of competitive women’s road cycle racing

Marianne Vos, who has drawn comparison to Eddy Merckx as being "the finest cyclist of [her] generation

Marianne Vos, who has drawn comparison to Eddy Merckx as being “the finest cyclist of [her] generation

With the welcomed news yesterday of the La Course by Le Tour de France – a one day women’s competition (July 27th) staged hours before Tour riders race on the same circuit to finish the three-week event on Paris’ Champs-Elysées – I wanted to talk today on the demands of competitive women’s road racing. There is many determined and very powerful female cyclists in my own ‘gym’ – Athlete Lab – and I hope this can provide even a small reference on where the ‘bar’ is for female competition.

Sarah Storey celebrates winning gold in the women's individual C4-5 road race at Brands HatchUnlike professional men’s road cycling, the physiological characteristics of internationally competitive female road cyclists and the demands of women’s cycling competition are poorly understood (if we are to quote the scientific literature). No doubt much of this has been a result of a number of professional women’s races collapsing over recent years (The ‘Tour Feminin’ event, kind of the female Tour de France, has not staged since 2009) because of financial difficulties – little media coverage, lack of sponsorship – and I suppose this translate into little funding being allocated in scientific studies. However although it appears little information exists in the research literature on the power output demands of competitive women’s road cycle racing, one highly cited investigation is ‘Power output during women’s World Cup road cycle racing‘ by Ebert TR et al in Eur J Appl Physiol 2005.

The study documented the power output generated by elite female road cyclists who achieved success in FLAT and HILLY World Cup races. Power output data were collected from 27 top-20 World Cup finishes (19 FLAT and 8 HILLY) achieved by 15 nationally ranked cyclists.  Bicycles were fitted with SRM powermeters, which recorded power (W), cadence (rpm), distance (km) and speed (km h(-1)). Subsequently racing data were analysed to establish time in power output and metabolic threshold bands and maximal mean power (MMP) over different durations. During FLAT races, riders spent significantly more time above 500 W….let’s take that in again 500W. The average power output for the FLAT stages was 192 W and the w/kg stats of these athletes is about 3.3 W/kg.

Have to find some figures for 4 x World Ironman Champion Chrissie Wellington

Have to find some figures for 4 x World Ironman Champion Chrissie Wellington

Of course alot of these power figures must be put in reference to physiological characteristics but a good reference article is found in Martin DT et al 2001 study –  Physiological characteristics of nationally competitive female road cyclists and demands of competition. Female cyclists who have become internationally competitive are generally between 21 to 28 years of age, 162 to 174 cm, 55.4 to 58.8 kg and 38 to 51 mm (sum of 7 skinfolds) corresponding to 7 to 12% body fat. Interestingly the parameters haven’t changed much better 1980 and 2000. As you would expect these women cyclists possess a slightly superior ability to produce a high absolute power output for a fixed time period and a noticeably greater ability to produce power output relative to BM. Women that place in the top 20 places at World Cup races spend more time at >7.5 W/Kg than the ‘other’ racers and typically have an average power of 3.6 W/kg (these numbers just keep going up don’t they?)

So female cyclists, next time you do an FTP test or even winning those local races, that’s the kind of numbers you need to be pushing if you want to compete with the best! Furthermore if any reader can point to some more recent papers on this topic, please let me know below, thank you.