By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
This weekend, female professional cyclists will finally–after 125 years–have the opportunity to race the “Hell of the North”, the legendary Paris-Roubaix cycling race that features sections of Napoleonic-era cobblestone roads and finishes with 1.5 laps of the famed Roubaix Velodrome. The past few years have been transformative for women’s professional cycling, and although there are still many disparities between the opportunities, salaries, and support infrastructures in men’s and women’s pro cycling, the Paris-Roubaix Femmes feels like–and will hopefully prove to be–an important tipping point for eliminating more of those differences.
Many sports fans underestimate the significance of recent changes in women’s professional sports, and unfortunately there are even people who misinterpret these changes as being motivated by political correctness, virtue signaling, or “woke” culture. As an endurance sports coach and business owner, I disagree. Rather, I think the changes in women’s professional sports will create a far-reaching and positive shift in the way we view, study, and advance sports science, competition, and coaching.
Cycling is one of the only sports with separate distances for female competitions
There is only one Ironman-distance triathlon. All marathon runners complete 26.2 miles. There are no separate distance or courses for male and female ultramarathon runners. Even in stick-and-ball sports, female and male soccer, rugby, and ice hockey players compete on the same-sized field/rink with same sized ball/puck for the same amount of time. In professional basketball, the game durations are the same between NBA and WNBA competitions, although female players use a smaller ball and have a slightly shorter three-point distance.
Cycling is one of the only endurance sports that features significant differences in the parameters of male and female competitions. Even in short events like the team pursuit on the velodrome, female athletes race for three kilometers and male athletes race for four. In timed cycling races like criteriums and cyclocross, races for female athletes are shorter. At the 2022 USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championship, Elite Women race for 50 minutes and Elite Men race for 60 minutes. Pro women also raced a shorter time trial (23 km vs. 35) and shorter road race (115 km vs. 191). The Paris-Roubaix Femme will be 116 kilometers compared to the men’s Paris-Roubaix distance of 259 kilometers.
Some of these differences are built into the rules governing the sport: The UCI still mandates that the maximum distance of a one-day race for Women’s World Tour riders can be 160 kilometers, whereas Men’s Under-23 one-day races–with teenagers one year older than juniors–can be as long 180 kilometers.
I don’t think it can be legitimately argued that female cyclists are incapable of competing at the same distances as male cyclists. Gravel races, for instance, feature the same courses for male and female cyclists. In 2018, Alex Hutchinson wrote a piece for Outside Magazine that examined a study comparing the physical stress of male and female professional road cycling. The short summary was that males raced longer but females raced harder, in that the average intensity level over the course of the races represented a higher percentage of their maximum. It is notable that Grand Tour stages have been getting shorter over the past two decades, too, and anecdotally we’ve seen an evolution to more aggressive, exciting, and unpredictable racing during that period as well.
That said, I don’t think the best solution is to increase the distance of all female cycling competitions. Rather, I think the female distances/durations should increase for the shorter events (track, criteriums, cyclocross, time trial, cross-country mountain bike) to be equidistant with male races. For road races, you can make the argument that shorter men’s races could be better for the athletes and the sport. With the professional cycling season starting earlier and ending later than it used to, along with the expectation that riders will be on top form multiple times per season, the physical and psychological demands of the training and racing volume have reached extreme–and perhaps unsustainable and unhealthy–levels. Don’t get me wrong, I love the 260-kilometer Classics and Monuments, but shorter road races are more open and competitive, and across the length of a season allow for more recovery and more manageable, humane stress levels for athletes.
Sports science is finally studying female athletes
According to a 2018 study, the differences between men’s and women’s world record performances have been stable at about 8-12% since the 1990s, but sports science research that specifically focuses on female athletes could start to narrow that gap. As has been widely talked about, as in here, here, here, and here, female athletes have been dramatically underrepresented in sports science research. As a result, most of the evidence-based practices in training, nutrition, and recovery for female athletes are derived from studies of male subjects. That doesn’t mean it has been all wrong, but as the number of studies focusing on female subjects increases, we are learning better ways to improve performance for female athletes.
Aligning training and nutrition with a female athlete’s menstrual cycle has been getting a lot of attention, but there’s more to it than that. Female athletes are better at pacing than male athletes, and investigating the reasons behind the difference can help both male and female athletes improve. There are also biomechanical differences between male and female athletes that affect injury risk.
It would be nice to think that sports science research is increasing its focus on female subjects purely because it’s the right thing to do, but there’s also money involved. As collegiate and professional sports for female athletes grow in popularity, participation, sponsorship revenue, and ticket sales, the level of competition increases. Equal prize money for male and female competitions factors into this as well. And it forms a positive feedback loop. The higher the level of competition, the greater the draw for participation, spectators, sponsors, television audiences, and yes… sports science research.
Next Step: More female endurance coaches
From where I sit, with 30 years of coaching experience and 21 years of experience running a coaching business, more female coaches are needed across the full spectrum of sports. And I’m not talking about more female coaches to exclusively coach female athletes. I don’t believe coaches and athletes necessarily need to share the same gender or sex to communicate or work together effectively. I’ve been working to act on the need for more female coaches since the beginning of CTS, and although we have not achieved a 50-50 balance, right now CTS employs 18 female coaches, which is 32% of the CTS Coaching Staff and includes two new hires in the past month. Earlier this year I also hired Chantelle Robitaille to be our new Director of Coaching Development.
Representation matters, because as conscientious as we try to be about looking at sports science, nutrition, and coaching with all athlete populations in mind, we each approach the world through our own lens. A strong representation of female coaches helps ensure that female athletes’ needs and perspectives are addressed in coaching education and practices. It should be said that more racial diversity is needed in the coaching profession as well. I have been making efforts to address this within the CTS Coaching Staff, but with less success so far.
There is still plenty of work to be done, but I’m confident that sports science, professional sports organizations, and the coaching industry are taking steps in the right direction.