Paris-Roubaix Femmes

Why the First Paris-Roubaix Femmes Matters So Much

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.

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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.

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Comments 6

  1. Interesting article on women cyclists. I started off as a marathon runner back in the early 80s having competed in ’84 and 88′ Olympic Marathon Trials and placed top ten in three Boston Marathons. When I first started racing marathons there were very few women participating. Today, many of the major marathons have at least 50% or more of the field made up of women. This has been great for the sport and women distance athletes.

    I took up cycling and started competing in my mid-50s and met with success on the road and hill climbs. I still hold the 55-59 course record up Mt. Washington (almost ten years ago). I train mostly with men to this day or solo. I would love to train with more women but the numbers aren’t there. Running is much different… many women run and many women are also involved in triathlons. I hope you are right about more women involved in this sport. I don’t see the sport evolving the way distance running has with women. We shall see… Progress is being made for sure and now is a great time to be a young woman with talent and ambition in cycling or another professional endeavor. I remain hopeful and optimistic!

  2. Women competing in the same races as men and won such as Fiona Kolbinger at the transcontinental race in Europe is an excellent example of what women can achieve.

  3. This is an excellent article.

    But here’s another place where research is lacking: senior athletes, and in this case, I’m not talking about just people who are driven to compete. I’m talking about the much larger pool of people who want to remain at a relatively high level of fitness so that they can participate in physically demanding activities. From what little I’ve seen, there isn’t much to support previous statements on this site that senior athletes should lift heavy weight with fewer reps. AS I said in a comment elsewhere, this certainly doesn’t work for me. I’ve also seen nothing that addresses targeted heart rates during workouts and during riding (I’m a cyclist). Do the anaerobic and lactic thresholds change as we age, and even if they do, are our bodies self-regulating? In other words, do we face greater risks to injury (heart, joints, muscles) by pushing ourselves to these limits as we age? My maximum heart rate appears to be about the same (180 or so), but is it safe to continue doing intervals that take me to 95% of it? I’m not advocating that every workout should be low and slow (go to AARP for that), but there seems to be little research based guidance concerning how a senior should approach attempting to achieve a higher level of fitness. This goes beyond specific workouts and includes longer recovery times.

    There’s one book that I’ve read, “Fast After 50” by Joel Friel, but it was published in 2015 and is now likely out of date. In addition, it didn’t really address the issues I’ve raised, except the need for longer recovery time.

    The average age in the US is increasing, and I would think that the average age of people trying to maintain more than a moderate level of fitness is also increasing.

  4. Really good stuff, Chris. This is so very important and as a recognized leader in the field, your voice matters and has a huge impact. Well done and keep it up.

    I ride road and mountain with some incredible women, some can climb faster and sometimes they just tuck in behind me on the road to enjoy the ride when I put the hammer down. It is a blast to have more women athletes out there and motivates all of us to improve our performance. Even though we do not compete in formal events anymore, we definitely take our performance seriously. And now my adult daughter, an avid rock climber and skier, has taken up road riding and soon mountain biking. For her to see women athletes compete at the highest levels, and then to see them among the strongest performers on the road with us – this all sets the stage for her for a lifetime of dedication to performance. She in turn will set an example for her children and peers. We are continuing down the path of true revolution in women’s sports which will impact future generations and it will be tremendously positive for everyone.

    Please keep beating that drum, your credibility matters in this important message!

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