We all know there are some wicked fast women bike racers. Watching the women’s races it can sometimes seem more explosive and aggressive than the men’s race. Similarly, as a cat 2-5, good luck holding to that Pro Women’s wheel when she really gets going. What is the real difference between men and women on the bike? If we have a man and a women, both the same weight and both have a 280 watt Functional Threshold Power are they essentially the same rider? Through some specific file analysis that’s what you are about to find out.
Okay, yeah, women are strong, and fun to watch race, but we do know that just like the difference between a Professional rider and a cat2, a Professional male rider will have a certain watt per Kilogram (w/kg) threshold and an “absolute” wattage sprint that is incrementally higher on average than that of a professional woman.
In the files below we see the power duration curve chart of a male elite cyclist classified as a Time Trial phenotype and a women’s pro cyclist also classified as a Time Trial specialist. The Time Trial designation is key in comparison as it means that in relation to that riders own ability they have a higher threshold power in relation to their sprint power. Being the same Time Trial specialist phenotype it’s more realistic to compare these two together as they have a similar fast twitch or type II muscle fiber make up to Type I slow twitch as each other. This is still a chosen acute example. To get an accurate percentage of male to female power or percentage difference we would need a much larger data set.
The male’s threshold is 73 watts higher. Despite them both being of the time trial phenotype the male has a higher difference in his sprint than in his threshold form the female rider.
In another format, if we look at the Gila time trial on Strava, comparing the top female riders recorded power on Strava to the top men’s we see a similar percentage difference between threshold abilities. The men have higher power which is to be expected but at threshold or subthreshold the percentage difference between men and women is pretty small. Sometimes we do see outliers and incredible rides. I have seen a few cases, especially in time trials with more elevation gain, where women would score in the top 10 in the men’s pro peloton results. Being so light and having the ability to produce power is key in climbing. Sometimes weight is more important than “absolute” wattage.
- Rob Britton – 365 watts
- Evan Huffman – 339 watts
- Jordan Kerby – 353 watts
- Nielson Powless – 336 watts
Average men’s power from top 4 Strava riders with power is 348watts
- Lauren Rowney – 243 watts
- Beth Hernandez – 220 watts
- Lindsay Myers – 239 watts
- Whitney Allison – 241 watts
Average Woman’s power from top 4 known power numbers is 236 watts. 112 watts difference between average top men’s and women’s wattage in the Gila TT. Incrementally higher than our previous example comparing an elite male not a pro male. There’s a known threshold difference between men and women and especially converting to watts per kilo, the power difference is not as high as you may think until we get into anaerobic power.
There is another issue, muscle. Men have different genetic makeup and hormones have more muscle. With this larger number of muscle fibers comes a higher max force than women produce. Force and Velocity together make Power. There are some amazing women’s sprinters out there with big numbers, but in general men will have a much higher max power. Even when a women is extremely efficient and highly trained, with the same FTP as a male counterpart rider, the male will still be able to produce power between 5 seconds and 1 minute at a higher wattage than most women riders could ever dream of much less produce, recover, and repeat.
With this in mind we would also expect to see higher normalized powers produced by a man than a women for a given effort. That is the major physiological difference between similar category male and female riders. What that extra muscle and ability to produce force does is create a very hard scenario for women on group rides and in men’s races. If you consider the file below of a men’s cat 2 criterium. This rider had 12 jumps over 450 watts usually for more than 8 seconds. Considering a women rider with the same threshold, her file for the same criteirum, the files look very similar, and they are, the biggest difference being in how many anaerobic jumps each rider can produce. The women can only produce 3-4 jumps at a similar wattage, the female rider will have to be crafty in order to not fall off the back with every single one of these efforts in a co-ed event.
In short, men and women are not that different on the bike especially at or below FTP. The biggest difference is the explosive power that comes with the difference between men and women physiologically from testosterone, hormones, and muscle structure.
In practice, a women on a group ride should be moving up when it’s easy or even during tempo and threshold sections in preparation to “hold on” for those jumps created by men in the field that would drop the female rider off the back of the group. Women focusing on skills can also mitigate those jumps the men produce. If you as a women are planted firmly on the wheel of a, likely larger, rider and can anticipate the male rider’s jump, his 1100 watt jump may be 680 watts for you to stay in the draft.
About the Author : Zack Allison’s affinity for cycling started when he was 14 racing on the East Coast and his enjoyment of the sport lead him to pursue his BSEd in Exercise Science from Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, Colorado. He currently races for Elevate Pro Cycling, a UCI continental men’s road team. Growing up in the sport with many great mentors, he loves to pay it forward, using a combination of education and race experience. You can often find him zooming around on Fort Collin’s many gravel roads or on its countless mountain bike trails.