Women do beat men in ultra-endurance sports

Men are seen as the physically superior gender in the sporting world. Yet, that gap is becoming almost non-existent in ultra-endurance events, where women are excelling and the world is starting to notice.

Adding to a growing list of female success in these mixed gender events, this month (August 2019) Fiona Kolbinger has become the first woman to win the Transcontinental Race. A feat of outstanding endurance, with competitors cycling across the width of Europe. Settling smoothly into a routine of riding for 19 hours and resting for 5, Fiona dominated the self-navigated race from Burgas, Bulgaria to Brest, France. She completed the 4000km route in just 10 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes, finishing before sunrise on Tuesday 6 August 2019. Riders contesting this endurance test must battle through sleep deprivation, while also climbing up to the high altitudes of notable climbs, including the 2645 metre Col du Galibier, as featured in stage 18 of the 2019 Tour de France.

The 24-year-old German athlete was one of 40 women competing against 225 men. Not only did she finish a considerable 200km ahead of the British runner-up, Ben Davies, she triumphed with style, having time to perform a piano rendition of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ to stunned race volunteers. Just to reiterate there is no time out, this occurred during the race with her competitors closing in. A victory of such class over the male sex is impressive enough, before you hear this was Fiona’s first ultra-endurance competition.

Putting Fiona’s demonstration of female strength into perspective, Association of British Cycling Coach, Tim Ramsden, nevertheless affirms: “In terms of absolute power, Watts, women don’t produce as many as their male counterparts at the same level.” Yet crucially he adds: “The ability to perform consistently at a high level in an ultra-event requires more than simple Watts. Elements involving sleep stops, nutrition and pacing strategy, all form part of the big picture.” Ramsden, albeit favouring the opinion this result is more reflective of “a fantastic individual performance from a superbly talented athlete”, rather than an overall trend, still comments on the positive aspects of the publicity surrounding a female victory: “I am all in favour if it leads to more women competing against men in this very tough type of event as it makes the racing much more exciting!”

Looking at how this result trickles down into the perceptions of those cycling in the amateur ranks, Josie Brett, a first year student and member of the University of Kent Cycling Club (UKC Cycling), expresses her delight: “It's so exciting to see that women can win against men!” She adds: “It’s a great result for women’s cycling, especially with there still not being a women’s Tour de France. Its great evidence that women can do it too.” Protesting the lack of Grand Tour in the women’s racing calendar, in July of this year (2019), 23 amateur women set off a day ahead of the men and completed the same 3,460km, 21-stage Tour de France route. They wanted to prove that professional female cyclists are unquestionably capable of competing in Grand Tour scale event, if a group of amateurs, holding down full time jobs, can also complete the route. Fiona’s victory, just weeks later, confirms the qualities of tenacity and toughness that women can hold over longer events. Studies exploring women’s comparative strength to men across various ultra-endurance sports has been explained by women’s greater resistance to muscle fatigue, women’s ability to obtain more energy from fat and, tactically, in women’s better judgement when pacing.

Even if competing at world class level against men is irrelevant to most women, this result will also provide the female sex with greater confidence in their own abilities when it comes to attempting extra miles. Speaking of her own experiences when cycling, university student Josie acknowledges: “I’ve found that endurance riding comes to me more naturally”. At just age 11 Josie rode from London to Paris on a tandem with her dad. She recalls: “The last days into Paris my dad still cites as some the hardest days of riding he's done.” Following this she has ridden the length of the Rhine and circumnavigated the Isle of Wight. Reminiscing of her two wheeled adventures, Josie testifies: “There is something so incredible about seeing the world by bike. You see things and meet people that you would not by any other mode of transport.” Along similar lines, President of UKC Cycling, Zoe Wible shares: “I find it very powerful that I can cycle through borders, while being powered by my own legs.” The enjoyment of endurance cycling can be captivating, even outside of competition.

However, the journey to success and satisfaction in cycling is still fraught with mental obstacles for many women. Before university, when building up her endurance on rides with a local cycling club, Josie notes all the riders she trained with were men and admits this was “hard and intimidating” at times. She acknowledges most were “very encouraging” and “made a real effort to include me”, but she was also subjected to sexist remarks by others. Often finding herself at the top of certain hills before all the men in the group, she recollects one male rider had the nerve to say, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you’re not bad for a woman”. Proceeding to educate him of the growing prevalence of women’s professional cycling, Josie adds: “It's great to have this transcontinental victory to cite in the future if this were to happen again.” This thought in itself displays the defensive attitude that has arisen in response to such recurrent comments.

Having a figurehead, whose name has reached beyond the niche following of the sport, will spread the word that being competitive against men in ultra-endurance is attainable and it will be a less surprising outcome when a woman does win again. Organisers recognise Fiona Kolbinger’s triumph is a “landmark moment” in the history of the Transcontinental Race. But more significantly, Fiona won the race when only 18% of the field were women. Therefore, there is still progress to be made. This heightened awareness of women’s endurance strength will inevitably encourage greater numbers of women to test their legs on longer miles, feeling inspired to follow in Fiona’s tyre tracks. 2020’s event will be even more exciting I’m sure.