Big fields vs small fields: advantages and disadvantages of both
By: Heather Nielson
I recently attended a backyard evening BBQ with many other cyclists, bike racers and retired professional cyclists. I got into a conversation with a cycling couple who are both vocal advocates of women’s sports in general. They asked me about my racing season, and I briefly said that it’s been disappointing by my standards on the road but surprisingly positive on the track but that I’ve been racing with men the last two weeks on the road and track but it’s still so hard to compare. Neither of them had a response; then at the EXACT same time she said ‘so that must be easier’ and he said ‘that must be harder’. We all laughed but they brought up a great point that most people don’t know about women’s bike racing. I said ‘you’re BOTH right AND wrong!’ I said that the overall speeds and consistency is higher (particularly if you’re racing with pro 1/2/3 men, which I have been) and so is great for speed work & pack handling skills but in some ways a pro women’s field is actually harder than racing with the men, whatever category; and here are some reasons why:
There’s no place to hide
I asked the gentleman if he’d ever raced a men’s race in a field of 10 or less? Even down to 5? He said ‘never!’ I said, that happens all the time in women’s racing. That may sound easier but in a lot of ways it’s harder. When you’re in a field that small, every move counts, every and any mistake could be fatal, and you have to use a lot more energy than when you’re in a big field. Men’s fields are generally a lot larger and at a lot faster pace; which by many standards DOES make the racing harder; but it also means you have a lot more places to hide, if you make a mistake you will probably have time to get back in and recover and there’s a lot more overlap in general fitness and ability in a men’s field than in a women’s field, so it’s ‘easier’ to stay with the pack.
One of the most frustrating things about local (in general) women’s racing compared to men’s racing is the frequent phenomenon of ‘negative racing’. Negative racing is basically when the overall speed of the pack is a lot slower than we would ALL like but because we all want to win/podium and it’s rare that there’s enough teams with enough numbers to work hard enough to keep the pace high. We are ALL trying to conserve our energy until it really counts. That also means that women’s racing can be a lot more unpredictable than men’s racing. A break could go when you least expect it and because the field isn’t big enough, it gets away that much easier and your race is over. However, if you use too much energy answering every single attack then the one attack or break that goes that you can’t answer because you’re having to recover from the last response, could be the winning move, and your race is over. In men’s racing, there are more numbers, more people to attack and more people to answer attacks and so any one rider has a greater chance of recovering, getting in the right move and getting a better result.
After explaining all this to the couple I finally said “Really, you can’t compare men’s and women’s racing. They’re both so different not just physiologically but tactically and logistically. They both deserve credit in their own respects. For a man to win in a field of 80 riders is impressive indeed; but that doesn’t mean that a woman winning among a field of 15 was ‘easy’ or that much less difficult.”
If you’re interested in hearing about another topic, feel free to reach out! I’m also available for coaching and guest posts on training, racing and women’s cycling. Twitter & Instagram @ridempowered