On the Desirability of a Women's Tour de France

All images: ©Conquista

Last week, at the Grand Départ of the Aviva Women’s Tour, in Southwold, a pretty little town on the Suffolk coast, I had an epiphany.

Women’s cycling is clearly having A Moment, particularly in the UK. Thousands of people turned out to see this race, and thousands more (including Conquista) braved the rain and wind of the North of England to see the Women’s Tour de Yorkshire earlier in the year. One reason, of course, is that the UK has produced a UCI Road World Champion in Lizzie Armitstead. But we have produced several such world champions before, and the success of Beryl Burton, Nicole Cooke and Yvonne MacGregor never translated into this kind of public appetite for the women’s sport.

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Strava has today released a report which shows that 75% of the UK’s female cyclists follow the women’s professional sport through social media, TV and news websites – despite the fact that the women get almost no mainstream live coverage whatsoever. This year’s Aviva Women’s Tour was broadcast by ITV4, but even they declined to show the race live, deciding to air instead repeats of Smokey and the Bandit and the Saint (neither of which shows is especially renowned for its enlightened approach to gender issues).

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But by no means all the support for women’s cycling comes from women. Indeed, the founder of Ella, the women’s cycling pages of cyclingtips.com, even suggested in a recent article that “[w]omen’s race coverage attracts a predominantly male audience”. 

So it is a very interesting question what has changed, and why this is happening now. But a different, and arguably more urgent question is: how should women’s cycling respond? What is to be done to build on this success?

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A common response to these questions runs as follows. While the roads are closed for a men’s race anyway, let’s have the organisers hold a women’s race on the same course before the men set off. All the infrastructure is there. All the cameras are on site. The roads are already closed. The punters are by the roadside. The schoolchildren have their little home-made flags ready. The tractors are lined up for the formation ploughing. So let the women race first, and get the coverage they deserve. What could be simpler? Indeed, exactly this approach was taken by the Tour de Yorkshire earlier this year.

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Then, in an article published today by our old friends at Rouleur magazine, Ian Cleverly raises the stakes yet higher. Firstly, he points out that the Amgen Tour of California ran a four-day race “in tandem” (Boom! Boom!) with the men’s race. Secondly, he acknowledges that there are numerous important women’s races, including Flanders, Strade Bianche and Gent-Wevelgem. 

And then he asks the million dollar question: where is the Women’s Tour de France? At present, the women get to race over a few laps of the Champs-Élysée at the end of La Grand Boucle, but that’s no substitute for the real thing. So why don’t we have a full Tour de France for the women?

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And for a long time, I felt the same way. Come on! I thought. The women have earned it! They deserve to ride the Tour as well! And the Giro! And Paris-Roubaix! Just like the men!

But then, as I stood there in Southwold, one of thousands watching the women sign on and take the start line, then stream up the seafront, through Adnam’s brewery yard, and out onto the flat roads of Suffolk, I began to suspect that I, and Rouleur, might be completely wrong.

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This is because I was struck by one simple question. Why should the women's sport be anything like the men's?

If women cyclists agree to race the same events and routes as the men, or at events run “in tandem” with, or parallel to, the men’s events, there is a very real risk that these women’s events would forever be seen as junior, inferior versions of the “real thing” - this is, of the long-established men’s races. They’d be no more than warm-up events, designed to keep the spectators happy while they wait for the main action.

But why should the women accept that? Why shouldn’t they be the headline event all the time?

And the more I thought about it, the more reasons I found to doubt that Cleverly’s question is the right one. And they all came down to this: why should the women continue to build their version of the sport on the model of the men’s – when the latter has so much wrong with it?

For one thing, the financial model of men’s cycling is a disaster, with teams consigned to what Jonathan Vaughters has famously and correctly described as “permanent start-up” status – without stable capital investment, without predictable cash flows of any kind, in particular from TV rights, unable to sell tickets or much by the way of merchandise to spectators, the teams are wholly reliant on sponsorship money, just to stay alive. Such money being pretty flighty, they therefore spend a huge percentage of their time chasing and holding onto it when they could - arguably should - be concentrating on sporting matters.

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Consequently, teams - even the very biggest teams - wink in and out of existence all the time. This year alone, at the very top level of the men’s sport, it seems we will see the demise of Tinkoff and IAM Cycling, with Orica Greenedge set to follow suit in 2017. (Indeed, any team which thinks itself immune is directed to the series of superb features written for Conquista by Suze Clemitson - long a vocal supporter of the women’s sport - which we refer to as the "Death of the Superteams” series. Thanks T-Mobile! You were great, but you couldn’t keep the lights on. Cheerio HTC-Highroad! The most successful team ever, but just not sustainable. And so on.)

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The reasons for this bizarre economic structure, and the consequent fragility of the teams and the sport itself, are largely historic (which is another way of saying “completely illogical”), and relate to the ownership and control of races by media companies rather than participants. And this brings us to a yet more relevant weakness of men’s cycling: the overwhelming and arguably unhealthy importance to the men's sport of the Tour de France, and its owner, ASO.

For the majority of the world, the Tour de France is cycling. It is far and away the biggest event, attracts far and away the most attention, and therefore brings participants the most sponsorship dollars.

But the result is that, by virtue of their ownership of the Tour, ASO have de facto control of the sport of men’s road racing. Any team which crosses ASO can potentially be excluded from the main event, meaning exile from the world’s TV screens in July. No Tour coverage means no sponsors – which means no team. And when they fall out with the the UCI, ASO can simply pull the Tour, and all their other races, from the UCI's list of major events - making the sport's governing body look, frankly, ridiculous. Whether or not the UCI sanction ASO's races makes no difference whatsoever to the teams, who still have to race if they are to prosper. 

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This is not to suggest for a moment that ASO actually do exploit their power. It is simply to point out an obvious and gross power imbalance in the sport, which leaves competitors at a permanent, structural disadvantage.

It is unnecessary to explore the point in any more detail. The simple point is that there is no reason whatsoever why women’s cycling should volunteer to hand over control of their sport to ASO as the men have. But imploring ASO to create a Women’s Tour de France, as Cleverly does, would, I suggest, have exactly this result. 

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The greatest asset of the women’s sport is that it is more or less a blank canvas. And it’s a pretty clean canvas, too. The other huge issue which poisons men’s cycling is, of course, that of doping. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people complain that sponsors and broadcasters pulled out of, or never got into, men’s road cycling, simply because of the association with illegal chemical performance enhancement. But this simply doesn’t apply to women’s cycling. Of course there have been isolated cases. No sport is immune to the problem, even at an amateur level. But there has never been a Festina or a Puerto, or a Lance, in women’s cycling – there is no event, team or rider which casts a shadow over the whole enterprise in that way. And the present writer is willing to stick his neck out and suggest that this isn’t simply because the women haven’t been investigated properly. Rather, it's because doping just isn’t part of the sport’s history and culture like it is for the men.

Again – if the women shackle themselves to the men, by borrowing the structure and events of the men’s sport, don’t they run the risk of being deemed dopers by association? Worse still, could bringing the two together in the same locations at the same times even result in the women’s version actually becoming infected? 

One final thing. Women’s cycling is brilliant to watch. There are serious debates to be had about the UCI rules which limit, in particular, the length of stages that women can race. But whether by luck or design, the shorter format simply delivers some spectacular, close racing. Every stage of the Aviva Women’s Tour was riveting. The teams rode with tremendous aggression and skill – there were endless attacks, and every intermediate sprint seemed to be fought over by several well-drilled trains. And it is extremely competitive - the riders are there to win, and anyone who thinks otherwise should take a look at Marianne Vos's celebration as she won stage 4

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Best of all, however, the riders seemed to race in a fantastic spirit. The end of stage 1 was hotly contested and highly controversial, as Vos showed frustration, and made an official complaint, at Christine Majerus’s allegedly questionable line through the final corner. And I am sure there are rivalries and enmities within the peloton, just as there are in any group of people, male or female, in sport or beyond. But that didn’t stop congratulations – and plenty of hugs and smiles – being shared between the participants at the end, who also hung around to be seen, to be photographed, and to sign autographs for the spectators. Emma Pooley even conducted her intense post-race debrief of the young members of Team GB in public, like a sort of SAS mother hen.

The Aviva Women’s Tour wasn’t perfect. As mentioned above, live coverage would be better than late-night highlights. The route could go through some more scenic and hilly places – kudos to Kettering and Stoke-on-Trent for supporting the race, but (for example) the Lake District, Scotland and Wales are also available. The organisation was occasionally inept – it remains unclear how there could possibly have been a car and four motos (including, bizarrely, one of the far-too-many police motorcyclists) immediately behind lone breakaway Alison Tetrick at the moment when the peloton caught her, less than 200m from the line in Norwich.

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But all these issues can easily be addressed. With careful management & proper coverage the Aviva Women’s Tour (or whatever it is called in future, as the search for a new title sponsor is currently underway) has everything an event needs to be one of the high points of the women’s cycling calendar: great racing, great riders, great scenery and great public support. Other independent women’s events, like Italy’s Giro Rosa, have similar potential. 

Men’s road cycling is a navel-gazing, conservative sport. It is entirely typical of its adherents to assume that women cyclists would want nothing more than to copy its structure exactly, however dysfunctional.

But it isn’t obvious why this should be. Other approaches and structures are possible. Lessons can be learned from other sports, and possibly even from the world outside sport. It should not simply be assumed that the right model for women’s cycling is men’s cycling, or that the best interests of women’s cycling would be served by either ASO or a Women’s Tour de France. Why shouldn't the women simply do their own thing - as they have been doing for so long, and now, in the shape of the Aviva Women's Tour and the Women's Tour de Yorkshire, with such obvious success? 

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