The Netherlands’ Annemiek van Vleuten won this year’s Giro d'Italia Donne for the fourth time in six years, this in her 41st year. Her countrywoman, the now-retired Anna van der Breggen, won the other two at 30 and 31 years old, respectively. In the last five years, the average age of the Giro Donne winner ticks over at 34.8. On the men’s side, a positively prehistoric Jonas Vingegaard is at 26 the oldest winner of the Tour de France since 33-year-old Geraint Thomas won in 2018. That doesn’t mask the fact that, on the men’s side, the youngsters are excelling at the biggest Grand Tours with the average age atop the Parisian podium over the past five years just 23.2. It begs the question: why is there such a gender age gap between the stars of modern-day cycling?
Physiology of the gender divide
Those of you who keep tabs on ultra-endurance cycling will have heard of Leah Goldstein, for in 2022 the then 52-year-old became the first woman to take the overall win in the Race Across America (RAAM). The former elite commando instructor beat all the women and all the men as she conquered the 3,000-mile route in 11 days, three hours and three minutes.
Goldstein’s remarkable performance was arguably the standout in a series of ultra-cycling events where the women outperformed the men. It’s a similar tale in running where in 2019 Jasmin Paris famously became the first woman to win the 268-mie Montane Spine Race in northern England.
As event distance grows, the gender gap seemingly shrinks. This notion received support by recent research out of France where a team led by Guillaume Millet, professor of exercise physiology at Jean Monnet University in Saint-Etienne, analysed over 30 years’ worth of trail running results and discovered that while men’s speed decreased by 4.02% for every 10km effort increase, it decreased by just 3.25% for the women.
Why isn’t fully understood, but one theory that attracts plenty of support in physiological circles is down to women naturally having a greater percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibres than men. These are more fatigue-resistant than fast-twitch fibres, of which men naturally have more than women, which tire quickly but are capable of generating greater amounts of power. The theory goes that as the event stretches to days if not weeks, slow-twitch fibres become ever-more advantageous.
In turn, this leads to another physiological phenomenon: that women are more prolific fat-burners. If you have more slow-twitch fibres (or a greater surface area of slow-twitch fibres), you’ll have more mitochondria, which metabolise fat for fuel.
Some research suggests female athletes adapt more to high-intensity efforts as they get older (Thomas Maheux/ASO)
You might be thinking this is all relatively interesting under-the-bonnet stuff but what’s it got to do with this age-related discussion? That’s where Dr Stacy Sims comes in. Sims raced for Team Tibco in the early 2000s before forging a career that’s seen her grow into a leading expert on female physiology and training.
“We know there are inherent sex differences from birth that allow women to use more free fatty acids for energy,” Sims explains. “[As well as the slow-twitch fibres], part of this is down to having naturally high levels of a protein called CD36. This protein encourages mitochondrial development, which in turn fires up the fat and spares glycogen.” Men, on the other hand, generally have lower levels of CD36 so might not be as adept on the fat metabolism side but are more proficient on the carb-burning side.
Fat is nectar for long, slow-to-moderate efforts but is too slow to breakdown and use for hard efforts like sprinting or repeated efforts on a mountain. Thankfully, the female rider can slowly shift towards greater carbohydrate burning, though it takes consistent high-intensity work over many years. “It seems that the older you get, the more your body responds to this stimulus,” Sims adds. The passage of time, it seems, could sharpen the top end upon a strong aerobic foundation.
So, there might be a physiological reason behind the age-related gender skew. There also might be a resource one, according to Markel Irizar. Irizar was one of the most beloved riders in the men’s WorldTour peloton, overcoming testicular cancer in 2002 to ride professionally for Euskaltel-Euskadi, Team RadioShack and Trek-Segafredo between 2004 and 2019. The 43-year-old Basque is now a talent scout at Lidl-Trek and spends a great deal of time working with the likes of Elisa Longo Borghini and Lizzie Deignan on the women’s team.
“In general, the difference between junior men and junior women is pretty big and part of that is simply down to equipment and support,” Irizar explains. “There’s greater investment on the men’s side from an early age, meaning they might be doing things like training by power earlier and simply using better equipment. This gives them a head start.”
There’s certainly a school of thought that the likes of Tadej Pogačar and 20-year-old teammate at UAE Team Emirates, Juan Ayuso, who finished third at the 2022 Vuelta a España, benefitted from early professionalisation while many younger female riders, not blessed with the same opportunity, often complete their studies first. By tapping into the world’s best sport-science minds and using power software like TrainingPeaks from an early age, the argument goes, results in more specific training and a fast-tracking to the WorldTour.
The situation is improving, though, says Irizar with his team, Lidl-Trek, recently announcing a commitment to adding five under-23 riders to their roster in 2024 with “a carefully curated schedule of races to help them gradually acclimate to WorldTour racing”. It’s not the full-blown development team the men will enjoy but it’s a positive step nonetheless.
Sims agrees. “There’s still much greater resource available for talent identification on the men’s side but thankfully things have moved on from when I was racing. I had a job as well as competing and, if you ever won anything, it was miserly. You’d also give most of it to the mechanic as a bit of a boost.”
Markel Irizar works as a talent scout developing under 23 riders for Lidl-Trek (Thomas Maheux/ASO)
While we’re on matters fiscal, from this year the minimum salary for women’s WorldTour riders is at the same level as the men’s UCI ProTour teams for the first time, which when announced by the UCI in May 2021 stood at €32,100. According to a 2022 survey of the women’s peloton by The Cyclists’ Alliance, an advocacy group that’s been polling the peloton for five years, a record 13% of women’s WorldTour riders now earn more than €100,000 (11% increase year-on-year) while 24% earn between €60,000 and €100,000 (17% increase year-on-year).
So, a brighter picture at the top. It’s not quite as rosy further down the ladder, though, with only 15% of riders outside the women’s WorldTour receiving an annual salary of €20,000 or more and 23% on Continental teams not enjoying an income. So, like many aspects of the women’s peloton, improving but work to be done.
Too much, too soon
Then again, this greater resource and investment into not only the men’s sport as a whole but the talent ID part, too, isn’t the panacea many might think. Back to Irizar. “When I was racing, you would take things much more slowly. You might take a few years to race the Vuelta a España. Then it’d be the Giro d’Italia and maybe, eventually, the Tour de France. That was the norm. That’s been ripped apart with the emergence of [Egan] Bernal, Pogačar and, of course, Remco [Evenepoel] who leapt over the under-23s and graduated straight from junior to senior level. Now, every team is looking for the next Remco.
“And they might be discovered as I’ve seen some of the power data the youngsters are putting out and it’s incredible. Physiologically, many of them are ready to make the step to the WorldTour. But psychologically it’s too much. Let’s say you’re 18 years old and a manager pays you half-a-million Euros to join their team. Your new agent then says you should move to Monaco for tax reasons. You then buy a Porsche. All of this isn’t natural and is too much. I mean, a year before you didn’t even have a driver’s licence!
Everyone is looking for the next Evenepoel, who himself is still just 23 years old (Zac Williams/SWPix)
“There’s also the technical side that you need to learn, which is where the under-23s is a great place to do that. It might be something as seemingly simple as collecting a musette in a feed zone but it all matters. I feel the risk of burnout is very real and it’s all of our responsibilities to help the young riders. If on the women’s side they’re following our older model of gradual development, well, maybe that’s no big thing.”
Overcoming anxious beginnings
Despite Irizar’s concerns for the young male riders, studies into emotional well-being – examining anxiety and depression – suggest that it’s the young female riders who suffer most. A 2013 study in the journal School Mental Health investigated the symptoms of anxiety and depression in elite athletic students compared to non-athletes and by gender, concluding that not only did females exhibit higher scores but this was exacerbated if they were elite sporting juniors.
There’s also a school of thought that greater impulsivity is observed in female athletes than male athletes, especially younger females. This ties in with higher levels of anxiety and, in cycling terms, can mean not sticking to the day’s tactics or deviating from the nutritional plan; in other words, decision making is impaired. It’s been shown time and time again that athletes who retain emotional control and self-confidence in stressful situations enjoy the greater results. It’s also been shown that the greater the athlete’s experience, the fewer their impulsive decisions.
“I’ve definitely encountered emotional differences,” says Sims. “Young female riders often take criticism to heart and maybe don’t learn from what’s being said. As they grow older, they learn resilience. I’ve worked with Tour de France riders and the young men are different. They’re rather spoilt at times but have a confidence that many of the young women don’t.”
Physiological, investment and emotional – the Holy Trinity of performance that’s forging the age-related gender divide. Or are riders like Pogačar and Van Vleuten simply outliers? If Demi Vollering wins this year’s Tour de France Femmes, she’d have done so at 26 years old, the same age as Jonas Vingegaard. Which arguably could blow this hypothesis apart. Which we suppose is the joy of science. Hypothesise, disprove, hypothesise and so it goes on until you’ve realised evolution’s happened before your eyes.
Greater professionalism in women's cycling could be helping younger riders like Demi Vollering to success earlier in their careers (Zac Williams/SWPix)
Which brings us to the future. With the increasing professionalism of women’s road cycling, what will tomorrow’s Grand Tour world look like? Back to Sims. “My tagline is women are not small men. So much research is on men, specifically university students. But it’s really not robust for women. The menstrual cycle, for instance, impacts things like metabolism, power output, muscle contraction, recovery, oxidative capacity and inflammation. But not enough people have wrapped it up and said, ‘hey, we really need to look at how we’re training women’. That’s my goal and is the focus of the paper I’m halfway through writing.”
“One example of a coach who’s going a good job is Canadian Trent Stellingwerf,” Sims adds. “He’s a coach but his wife, Hilary, is a 1,500m Olympian so it’s easy for him to play around with new ideas. But on a general level, coaching is way behind. Take heart rate variability. A coach might look at your figures and wonder why you’re not recovering. What he doesn’t know is that there’s an autonomic nervous system change halfway through the menstrual cycle, so your heart rate variability is going to look like you’re not recovered. As a coach, you’ll feel your athlete’s nearly overtrained so will ease off when in fact they might be able to cope with more stress because they have better oxidative capacities in a high hormone phase.
“To me, it raises a much bigger question than why a Grand Tour victor in the women’s field might be older than the men’s. For me, it raises the question of when will women reach their performance potential? All of the technology and coaching has been geared towards men. I’m really interested to see what evolves over the next five years with women’s-specific training and gear. Watch this space…”
Cover picture by Bill Ceusters/ASO