van Erp and Lamberts (2022) Performance Characteristics of TOP5 Versus NOT-TOP5 Races in Female Professional Cycling. IJSPP.
TLDR: Successful female cyclists have higher short-duration MMPs (max mean powers), reach higher values compared with their season’s best, and can produce these efforts later and after more workload in the race (= race winning efforts).
There has been an increase the amount of research published on women’s cycling over the last few years. Researchers have looked at race demands and a recent paper published a large database of power data from 44 professional female cyclists which is a very useful tool for benchmarking.
In this study, they used maximal mean power outputs (MMPs – the best power outputs produced over different durations) to look at what separates TOP5 race finishers vs. NOT-TOP5 finishers. Essentially, what does it take to compete at the top of women’s racing?
They had three key questions they were trying to answer in the study…
1. Are there differences in the power profiles (MMPs) of TOP5 vs. NOT-TOP5 finishes?
2. Are TOP5 riders able to reach a higher % of their season’s best in races?
3. How are the power profiles influenced by the timing of the effort (e.g., late in races)?
Who did they study?
14 female World Tour cyclists (2013-19 seasons)
They collected 1304 power files and classified them as TOP5 finishes or NOT-TOP5 finishers – they did this as they felt a top 5 finish in a race would best highlight the ‘race winning efforts’ needed to be successful in women’s cycling.
What did they find?
TOP5 finishers produce more relative power (W/kg) over 1 second to 3-minute durations compared to NOT-TOP5 finishers. The biggest differences were seen between 5 to 60 seconds.
TOP5 finishes achieved a higher % of their season’s best power from 1 second to 3 minutes, compared to NOT-TOP5 finishers.
TOP-5 finishers produced their best efforts later in the races – generally after 2.5-3 hours of racing. NOT-TOP5 riders produce their best power after 1.5-2 hours of racing.
What can we learn from the study?
The study highlights the importance of sub-3-minute relative power in female professional racing and being able to produce this power after multiple hours of racing (i.e., fatigue resistance). This a broad range of durations (5 secs to 3 mins) which could suit a range of different rider types – a rider might win a race with a 30 second max effort in a bunch sprint or a different rider could win with a 3-minute effort up a short climb to finish. However, what the research can do is start to paint the picture of what high-performing female cyclists are able to do, and how we can develop and prepare riders with those abilities.
The research doesn’t replace the need to analyse specific races and prepare to meet the demands of those races. If a rider’s key race finishes up a 20-minute climb, developing their threshold power under fatigue is likely to be the key determinant of performance, even if that hasn’t been highlighted in this research.
Another interesting takeaway is that TOP5 finishers were able to produce a higher % of their season’s best power in their race winning efforts. What might be behind this finding? Did TOP5 finishers have more successful tapers, allowing them to access more of their potential in races? Or maybe the TOP5 finishers are more durable and fatigue resistant, meaning they experience less of a drop-off in their 5-second to 3-minute power at the end of races, meaning they access closer to 100% of their best power?
One caveat we must be aware of when interpreting research on big datasets such as the one in this study is that we lose the context of the power data. For example, many of the NOT-TOP5 finishers are likely to have tactical team roles during the race that don’t lend themselves to producing high 5 second to 3-minute power outputs – they might be asked to ride on the front of the bunch for long periods of time to pull back a break, which would lend itself to lots of tempo/threshold type efforts.
As with all research, one paper doesn't tell us everything we need to know on a topic - in this case women's cycling. What a paper can do is add to our understanding we have on a topic a guide contribute to our decision making as coaches and athletes.
Thanks for reading and feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about the article!