Women cyclists?

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Reader Paul Hoffman writes:
Women athletes are supposed to compare more favorably against men in sports that do not require as much upper-body strength. Women also face barriers in team sports where there is expected to be lots of locker-room camaraderie. So why are there essentially no professional women bicyclists?

There are actually several issues here. Women do compare more favorably against men in sports that don't require upper body strength. For example, the gap between men and women in the clean and jerk, even for comparable weight classes, is order 20-25% (see the figure below):

By contrast, the world record gap for running hovers around 10%. But more favorably doesn't mean favorably and the 10% gap in endurance sports is fairly persistent. Cycling actually is mostly a team sport so it's fairly hard to get individual performance numbers, but if you look at the cycling part of triathlons it becomes clear that the gender gap is fairly persistent there as well. The best men's bike time at Ironman Hawaii 2006 was 4:18:23. The best women's time was 4.52:11 by a woman who dropped out on the run. The best woman's time by a finisher was 4:59:04.1. So, it should be clear that there's no practical way that women cyclists can compete along with elite men. That said, there are professional women bicyclists. They just compete in their the own races, which (of course) get less money and less press attention so you don't hear about them.

1 It's actually surprising that the gap is larger here because wind resistance is such an important factor in cycling performance and power goes up as a cubic function of speed, whereas in running power goes up much more linearly with speed. I don't have a great explanation here. Perhaps that body mass is a more important factor in running and that women tend to have lower power/mass ratios?

5 Comments

Additionally, wherease Tennis has tournaments which cover both sexes, many of the high profile races are men only.

EG, the Tour of California doen't also have a women's peloton, just men.

And there ARE women pro bicycle racers and pro-womens stage races. My sister is one, in fact. ( www.brookecycling.com www.teamtibco.com )

ERR, redundant comment on my part.

Whats interesting is that the Crits, however, usually have both women and mens races on the same course. Likewise, the Sea Otter Classic and Cougar mountain classic (held on racetracks)

Two sports I can think of where women are/or are on the verge of competing with men: golf and auto racing. Michelle Wie, who's not even out of high school yet, appears to have a realistic chance of competiting in PGA events. Danica Patrick is the canonical example in auto racing.

Motorcycle racing is another possibility, because light weight makes such a difference. One of the big new MotoGP riders, Danny Pedrosa, is practically a midget (5'2" and about 120 lbs or so), and this will be magnified on the smaller 800cc MotoGP bikes which weigh even less.

Women cyclists can't compete on the same level as men for two reasons- they don't make as much power, and they have more body fat so they have a lower power/weight ratio. There are world-class women racers who ride with the men in local races (Inga Thompson, olympic road champion, used to race in local pro/1/2 races) but they just aren't fast enough to race with equivalent men. They're not much slower, but it's enough that they'd be off the back pretty quick.

There are a lot of professional women cyclists though. Not as many as men but not an insignificant amount. But the only pro race most people in the USA hear about is the Tour de France, which no longer runs a women's race.

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