Just how good are female pro road cyclists?

Vargarda - Sweden - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Fahlin Emilia (Sweden / Ale - Cipollini) - Pieters Amy (Netherlands / Wiggle High5) - Blaak Chantal (Netherlands / Boels Dolmans Cycling Team) - Lepisto Lotta (Finland / Cervelo Bigla) pictured during Crescent Women World Tour Vargarda roadrace 2016 - photo Davy Rietbergen/Cor Vos © 2016

Just how hard is it to win a Women’s WorldTour race? What about an elite time trial? And what about holding on in the pro peloton — is that something a strong amateur rider could do?

With the growing popularity of power meters it has become possible to quantify the differences in strength between amateur and professional cyclists. Using power files from various professional races, we have been able to measure just how good the pros are and demonstrate how strong you’d need to be to compete.

Before hitting you with power numbers and other data though, here’s a refresher on a few key terms.

Average power is simply the average amount of power (in watts) that was produced for a given effort.

Normalised power is a more realistic way of representing a rider’s workload than average power and can be expressed as “the power a rider could have maintained for the same physiological ‘cost’ if their power had been perfectly constant.” Normalised power adjusts average power to take into account how frequently and by how much a rider lifted their power above their threshold power — a particularly useful measure for hiller races. Click here to learn more about normalised power.

TSS: Training Stress Score is a measure of the intensity and duration of a ride. A TSS of 100 represents a 100%, hour-long effort, but since most rides aren’t completed at 100% intensity, most efforts will accumulate less than 100 TSS per hour. Click here to learn more about TSS.

Watts-per-kilo (W/kg) is a rider’s power output for a given effort divided by their weight. This gives a useful measurement to compare riders of different abilities and weights.

For example, a rider that weighs 60kg might be able to push out 150 watts for 10 minutes, while a rider who weighs 50kg could hold 140 watts for the same time, yet go faster. This is because the 60kg rider is holding 2.5 W/kg whilst the 50kg rider is pushing out 2.8 W/kg and a higher power-to-weight ratio corresponds to a greater speed, particularly uphill.

The following table from Training Peaks shows the power-to-weight ratios you’re likely to see for efforts of different durations, at different levels of competition.

So with all that in mind, what would it take to compete with the professionals? Here are a few different scenarios:

Winning a one-day Women’s WorldTour race in a sprint

Emilia Fahlin won the Crescent Women World Cup Vargarda race in 2016 in a sprint from a small, but elite group of nine riders. Looking at the raw data from the last minute of the race shows how impressive her win was.

Fahlin averaged 490W (7.66 W/kg) with a max of 822W (12.84 W/kg) which already puts her in the ‘excellent’ category (domestic professional level). After looking at the final kilometres video and the power numbers more closely, we can see why Fahlin had to work so hard for the win (and why she hit an impressive max heartrate of 190bpm!)

There were two tight corners in the final minute, which meant Fahlin didn’t just have to sprint once for the win. Rather, she had to produce three maximum kicks, each peaking at over 800W (12.5 W/kg).

This was after a tough race, which included more than 1,000m of climbing across 140km. The race difficulty can be highlighted by the fact that Fahlin actually hit her max power in the middle of the race, in order to stay with the front group, and not in the final sprint where most riders push out the most power.

Fahlin’s normalised power for the day was 230W (3.59 W/kg) over almost four hours of racing. Most female A-graders would be able to hold this power-to-weight ratio for an hour, which shows just how hard the race was.

Winning a Women’s WorldTour race solo

Lucinda Brand won the 2017 edition of Omloop Het Niewsblad after launching a number of devastating attacks, the last of which saw her solo to victory 15 seconds clear of the chasing pack.

In the five minutes straight after Brand launched her winning attack, she averaged 296W (5.19 W/kg) with a maximum of 727W (12.75 W/kg), allowing her to finally get the gap she needed. Her five-minute power puts her well into the ‘exceptional’ range for maximum power output on the Training Peaks chart.

According to this chart, domestic professionals would be able to hold this power output for five-minutes when fresh. Doing so at the end of a 120km cobbled classic is another matter entirely.

Winning the Australian Road National Championships road race

Gracie Elvin won back-to-back Australian road titles in 2013 and 2014. We can see exactly what it takes to win the Australian National Road title through Elvin’s 2014 power file.

Elvin’s race had everything: a solo attack, a hard chase back on and then a sprint finish from a small group. In only three hours she produced an incredible TSS of 258 (the equivalent of two and a half hours of full-gas riding), which shows she held 92% of her threshold power for the duration of the race.

Her normalised power of 248W (3.82 W/kg) across the 102km road race is impressive but once you cut it down to sections of the race it becomes clearer exactly what it took to win.

Elvin bridged across to the lone breakaway rider, Lisa Jacobs, with four laps to go. She produced her best five-minute (309W at 4.75 W/kg) and 10-minute (290W at 4.46 W/kg) efforts at this time, which already puts her in the excellent/very good category of the Training Peaks graph. Remember this was not a full-gas effort by Elvin but rather a calculated move to give her the best shot of winning.

Elvin was eventually caught on the penultimate climb and then subsequently dropped on the final climb. She managed to catch back on just in time for the final sprint however.

Elvin produced her best five-second, 10-second, 20-second and 30-second efforts when it came to the sprint. To win the sprint, Elvin had to hit a huge maximum of 1,016W (15.63 W/kg).

All of Elvin’s numbers were in the “exceptional/very good” range. This means that while most A-grade female riders could keep up with her in different parts of the race, none of them would be able to repeat these efforts across a race.

When looking at the results from the Nationals road race that day, it is interesting to note that four of the top 10 were National Road Series (domestic pro/A-grade level) riders. The Nationals road race is one of the few opportunities that the top-level local cyclists get to challenge the best in the world. It is therefore a major chance for them to prove they can make the step-up to professional and hence why many of them will produce extraordinary rides.

Sitting in the bunch

So now we know how hard it is to win a race, how hard is it to sit in the bunch of a professional women’s race? How tough is it? Could A-graders manage to hold on?

To answer these questions we go back to Lucinda Brand and look at her power file from La Course by Le Tour de France on the famous Champs-Élysées circuit.

While Brand had an aggressive race and got in a number of moves, she sat tight in the bunch for the first lap. That first lap around the 6.4km circuit took the peloton 9:25 and Brand averaged 198W (3.47W/kg) in that time. Brand did have to hit out at 640W (11.23 W/kg) at one point to keep up with the peloton but how hard was the first lap?

Looking at the Training Peaks chart, Brand falls into the “very good” category. This is interesting as Brand ended up averaging only four watts higher (202W, 3.54 W/kg) for the entire race. So was the race easier than we might have thought? And could most A/B-graders hold on like the Training Peaks chart suggests?

In a race like La Course, the bunch is rarely riding at a consistent pace, much like in a criterium. The pace and a rider’s power are always fluctuating with some sections being very hard and some very easy.

Brand either sat in the bunch or was off the front all day. While sitting in the peloton on a flat course, her power was very low because she made the most of the draft.

So if we’re judging just by power, most A- and B-grade female riders would be able to hold onto the La Course bunch. But you have to consider the fluctuations in difficulty over the day and whether those riders could hold onto the many attacks that came from the bunch.

Winning a time trial

Amber Neben won the La Route de France Feminine Internationale in 2016, a win that was set up by a strong ride in the stage 4, 16.4km individual time trial. The course was pancake flat, which doesn’t suit the 51kg Neben, but she managed to produce the winning time by averaging an incredible 293W (5.8 W/kg) for 18:07.

This puts Nebens power-to-weight ratio literally off the charts and shows why the then-41-year-old was able to become the individual time trial world champion later that year.

To be competitive in a pro women’s time trial you would need to average above 5.2W/kg, which only a few of the top professionals can do. Aerodynamics play a big role in helping riders save as many watts as possible, as do the tactics you approach the time trial with. But the underlining factor is you need to be producing huge numbers to compete with the best.

Most National Road Series time trials would be won with roughly 4.8 W/kg which shows that while the NRS is a very high level, the jump to the WorldTour is considerable.

Winning on a mountain-top finish

To see how hard it is to win uphill in the pro ranks, we will again look to Amber Neben’s 2016 Route de France data, this time from Stage 5. Neben won the mountain-top finish by 18 seconds, ahead of Janneke Ensing and Carlee Taylor.

Neben’s winning move saw her average 292W (5.7 W/kg) for 18 minutes, almost exactly the same as her time trial average in the example above.

This again places Neben off the charts and shows how tough it is to win hilltop finishes. There is no drafting and very little aero advantage to be had when riding uphill — it’s almost all about watts-per-kilo. Having to back up her effort the day after a hard time trial is what stage winners need to do and Neben certainly showed how to do this.

Summary

Using both power files from pro riders and the Training Peaks chart above, it’s possible to get a grasp of just how good professional riders are. From winning time trials and WorldTour road races, to simply sitting in the bunch, it is easy to see why the pros are a step above. The Training Peaks graph gives the average rider the knowledge to know what they need to do to improve and how close they are to the top riders in the world.

Follow the link for a corresponding article about professional male cyclists.

About the author

Matt de Vroet joined CyclingTips as an editorial intern in April 2017. He is a third-year journalism student at Monash University in Melbourne and currently races for Van D’am Racing in Australia’s National Road Series.