Olympic cycling – why do men’s and women’s events differ?

Marianne Vos of the Netherlands takes gold in the London 2012 women’s road race. Ian Langsdon/EPA

You’ll have noticed the distances ridden by female and male elite cyclists differ in some Olympic events and are identical in others, which raises the obvious question: why?

If we really wanted to simplify things, we could say most of the differences between men’s and women’s sporting performances can be explained by discrepancies in body dimensions and body composition.

Because men are larger and have a higher muscle mass than women, they can produce more power during sprint but also endurance events.

Physiological differences between men and women (seriously, check out his quads!) are only part of the story. EPA/Ian Langsdon

As a result, we observe a systematic difference between the world records established by men and women in sports in which athletes have to fight against the clock, such as athletics, swimming or cycling.

It’s more difficult to compare the performances of men and women in cycling, as sometimes the race format varies between genders, even for the same event, as evidenced by the following competitions at the London Olympics:

The field in the women’s road race at the Olympics was considerably smaller than the men’s. EPA/Olaf Kraak

But race formats do not systematically vary between men and women. Indeed, the race format is identical, or almost identical, for the following events:

Women can maintain the same relative power (expressed as a percentage of their maximum) as men when competing over the same time durations. But the speeds reached by cyclists are significantly higher than those attained by runners or swimmers.

As a consequence, identical relative differences in speed (in percentage terms) result in absolute differences (in km/h) that are higher in male and female cyclists compared to those seen for runners and swimmers.

Race durations vary more in cycling than in other sports if men and women are competing over the same distance. And because the intensity an athlete can maintain, whether male or female, decreases with the duration of the effort, no adjustment of the race distance will increase the difference in absolute speed between men and women cycling races.

This seems to explain the discrepancy in the distances of the individual time trial in road cycling between the sexes.

The Kierin is virtually identical for men and women.

But it’s not only a question of distance. The number of cyclists taking part in Olympic and other major cycling events needs to be considered. Cycling is different from swimming and running events because of the high degree of interaction between a cyclist and his or her opponents and teammates.

Because the main resistance cyclists have to overcome is aerodynamic, the number of riders involved in a race and the way they interact is going to affect their power, their speed and the relationship between those two parameters.

The best way for a cyclist to reduce resistance is to use the drafting technique – sheltering behind another cyclist, teammate or otherwise. The fewer cyclists there are in a group, the more often each cyclist will have to ride at the front and face high aerodynamic resistance.

If you look at the Olympic road races that were held recently, you will notice 144 men were on the start list while only 67 women were listed.

The men’s team sprint is raced over three laps by teams of three … EPA/Ian Langsdon

Similarly, the women’s team sprint and team pursuit (both of which are shorter for women) are relatively new events in track cycling. And we can assume the size of the teams (two in the team sprint, versus three for the men and three in team pursuit versus four for the men) has been reduced to compensate for the lower numbers of female cyclists.

Reducing the distance of the events for women seems quite a logical decision. It means the relative intensity of the efforts produced by women and men is comparable for the same event while avoiding a big drop in the speed of women’s races.

As unfortunately illustrated by Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara’s crash during the Olympic road race, cycling events rely on speed for the suspense to be maximal.

Why? Because cyclists can only express their full repertoire of skills when riding at high speeds. Cyclists are not simply athletes able to push really hard on the pedals. To be successful, they need to have great technical and tactical capacities.

… while the women’s is raced over two laps by teams of two. EPA/Ian Langsdon

And for those skills to have a real impact on performance, the races need to be conducted at high speeds with some interactions with the other riders.

The technical skills consist in the ability of the cyclists to corner, change direction, or maintain their trajectory while looking at their opponents (who are sometimes behind).

The tactical skills of cyclists consist in deciding when to produce their effort in order to win the race, considering the strength and weaknesses of their opponents and team mates.

The technical and tactical skills of the riders are key determinants of performance in many cycling events: the road race (which was won at the Olympics by an experienced cyclist, 38-year-old Khazakhstan rider Alexandr Vinokourov), individual sprint and keirin (where the winner isn’t always the fastest cyclist in the flying 200m event), and also BMX (where avoiding crashes is a key factor of success).

In this way, the race formats of some cycling events are adjusted so that the results of women’s competition is determined by the same combination of physical, technical and tactical abilities observed in men’s cycling.