Words: Suze Clemitson / Images: Cor Vos & Matthew Bailey
This is a story of inequality. Of opportunity and resources. Of participation and economics. The fact that there is no longer a women’s equivalent of the Tour de France is almost an irrelevance in the bigger picture of the way the sport has treated women since Lefèvre first cooked up the idea of a multi-stage bicycle race and persuaded Henri Desgrange along for the ride.
“There are so many layers of greed and sexism at play as to why there isn't a women's multi-stage race. But the more we call it out, the more we expose the inequity, the more we ask questions and peel back what's really beneath their answers, the more we can hold ASO accountable for inequality and strive for change.” These are the words of Kathryn Bertine, one of the powerful voices behind Le Tour Entier, the pressure group striving for a new women’s Tour de France.
Pro cyclist, triathlete, author, filmmaker and activist for equality in cycling, Bertine talks about never accepting the breadcrumbs of progress, of her disappointment at the way ASO have failed to keep their promise to grow the women’s race La Course incrementally over the years into a multi-stage event. Bertine doesn’t hold back when it comes to laying the blame.
“The cold hard truth is that ASO is sexist, lazy and apathetic. Also, greedy,” she says. “ASO's claim that ‘A women's race couldn't possibly be run at the same time as the men’s’ is false. In the 1950s and 1980s, when women were allowed to participate, distances and start times were altered so both the men's and women's race could exist.” Not only exist, but actively share media and television coverage and even the podium. When Marianne Martin stood alongside Laurent Fignon in Paris in 1984, both in their maillots jaunes, it looked like the future. But not for long.
“What's happening now is pure greed,” Bertine says. “Before the men's race starts, the roads to the race are closed off in the mornings. ASO and their sponsors profit here by permitting companies to ride on these roads for a cost. And that silly prerace caravan? Advertising costs! That's part of why they don't want a women's race on the course. There are so many layers of greed and sexism at play as to why there isn't a women's multi-stage race.”
The antediluvian attitudes of the men’s sport towards the monstrous regiment of women cyclists date back at least as far as the invention of the bicycle itself, from moral panics about women’s sexuality and the need for the hygiene saddle to fears that rational dress would create a breed of masculinised viragos ready to bite the dick off any man who wandered into their predatory path. So, when Bertine calls out ASO, she is calling out everyone down the years who has enabled inequality in the sport to exist and flourish.
So this is a story of inequality and missed opportunities. Of sexism and greed. Of the last women’s Tour de France, though it was staggering along under a different title by then. And why the hope of a proper women's Tour de France may be fast receding into the distance like a strange fever dream.
Not With A Bang But With A Whimper
Stage 1: Bressuire – Bressuire (18.3 km ITT)
It wasn’t supposed to start like this, or end like this. The grandly-titled Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale 2009 was destined to start in Canterbury in the UK before hitting French soil for the third stage, a twisty little time trial round the conks and bumps of Bressuire, a regular staging post in these last days of the race. Tucked away in the Deux-Sèvres, it’s a pretty if unremarkable place marked out by the ruins of the feudal castle that once dominated the town. But Canterbury got cold feet, and the first two stages collapsed, leaving the organisers Pierre and Anne Boué with no choice but to start mid-race with the short time trial that had been designed to shake up the GC.
Packed with technical descents, the parcours was made for Emma Pooley, a compact and punchy rider with the Cervélo TestTeam women’s squad, who sped round the course in 25:12, a full 24” ahead of a young Dutch rider called Marianne Vos and 39” ahead of her experienced Austrian teammate Christiane Soeder. Cervélo had 5 riders in the top 6, with only Vos spoiling the party.
All 66 riders would be on the start line for stage 2 of what Pooley jokingly called more of a Petite Boucle than Grande. In an interview with Cycling Weekly she spoke of the funding crisis underpinning the race, of the long transfers that saw the riders spend more time in a team car than on their bikes. But Pooley is sitting pretty in yellow as the race heads south.
Stage 2: Bressuire – Niort (67.5 km flat stage)
Keeping the Cervélo TestTeam’s stranglehold on the race and the GC, Soeder the defending champion solos to a beautiful victory and a 15” lead over Pooley. The stage winds through the strange and eerily beautiful flatlands of the Marais Poitevin, where monks once irrigated the marshes and the local people have been reclaiming the land from the sea since medieval times. Riddled with waterways and idyllic cream stone houses, it stands almost out of time – calm, serene and otherworldly.
Soeder gets into an early breakaway and holds her lead all the way to the line, attacking from 15 km out to solo home 37” ahead of teammate Kirsten Wild. The threat of Vos for the GC is neutralised again and Cervélo continue to demonstrate their might, with Soeder now in the driving seat.
Stage 3: Hagetmau – Pau (92.7 km Vallonée)
After a long transfer south, the race resumes in the Landes, where the pine trees of the coastal plain start to wrinkle up into the folds of the Pyrenees. With the stages getting longer and building to the climax of the finish deep in the Basque Country, it’s Pooley’s turn to get in on the action as she and Soeder get into the break of the day, 53 km into the stage.
Pooley, sensing the danger from having Vos on board as a passenger, forces the pace with 43 km left to ride and she and Germany’s Tina Liebig and Italy’s Elena Berlato ride clear of the rest. It’s a strong move that really sticks when crack sprinters Giorgia Bronzini and Kirsten Wild join the party.
Under the 5 km to go banner, and Liebig chances her arm attacking all out for the stage win. But the Cervélo-led peloton barrels down on her and it looks like a bunch sprint for the line when Pooley shoots out of the pack under the red kite and charges across the line for an audacious victory. It’s a coup double that bags her the yellow jersey again and a 28” lead over Soeder with the last and longest stage remaining.
Stage 4: Irun – Anglet (128 km mountain stage)
With the climbs of the Jaizibel and Erlaitz early on in the stage, the race is on from the gun with the Cervélo team super-dominant and determined to harden the course at the expense of their rivals. On a challenging and bucolic route through the heart of the Basque Country Vos repeatedly attacks in the pink jersey of best young rider, but Soeder, Pooley and their teammate Regina Bruins are able to contain and neutralise the young Dutch rider. Poland’s Maja Włoszczowska adds extra firepower and defends her Queen of the Mountains jersey.
Vos wins the bunch sprint at a canter from Soeder, Bruins and Włoszczowska with Pooley just dropping off the pace to finish a further 3” off the winning move. But after 7h 24’ 36” of racing the smart and savvy Pooley wears the final yellow jersey of the race. It turns out to be the final yellow jersey of the final Grande Boucle, become Petite, and now finally buckled firmly closed after four days of hard-fought and exciting racing through south-west France.
Now that equal prize money is routinely offered and the exploits of the women’s peloton are breathlessly reported by the male dominated cycling press, it seems bizarre to imagine the cream of the women’s peloton trundling around a truncated stage race, changing in car parks and climbing onto a makeshift podium on the back of a lorry to claim their prize. Take the case of Nicole Cooke, who came into the sport riding in a women’s Tour that looped the Pyrenees and the Alps and went out of it seeing the loop inextricably tightening on women’s cycling in a stage race that hardly merited the name.
Other races were planned and then abandoned. Pierre Boué had had big plans for the Grande Boucle, even securing live Eurosport coverage for the Tourmalet stage of the 2000 race. Race director since its rebirth in 1992, Boué had long struggled to establish parity for the women’s sport even while the Société du Tour de France forbade him to call the race the Women’s Tour de France because of ‘copyright infringement’. But his race organisation was not without its critics – Meredith Miller, who rode the Grande Boucle in 2003 bemoaned the “substandard accommodations, excessively long transfers, unnecessarily long neutral starts and unpaid prize money.”
But those criticisms were perhaps more symptomatic of the desperate state of the sport in general and the fallout from the Festina affair and the UXBs waiting to detonate in the near future – Operación Puerto and the Armstrong scandal among them. Whilst women’s cycling wasn’t without its alleged dopers – Jeannie Longo had long carried the whiff of sulphur about her – the women’s sport suffered disproportionate collateral damage. In 2003, the Grand Boucle was dropped from its place on the UCI calendar.
Overlaps with other more important races – or at least those that delivered the all-important UCI ranking points - and the systematic under-resourcing of women’s teams stretched the perilously over-extended elastic still further. It was no surprise that it snapped, the loose ends flapping aimlessly before being gathered up and stuffed in the back of a dusty drawer.
Pierre Boué has not disappeared from the scene. In 2018 he announced the creation of the Tour d’Occitanie, the new super-region that encompasses the Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées. He deliberately dropped the appellation ‘feminine’ in his latest attempt to address the crisis affecting women’s cycling in France, where women’s races are disappearing at an alarming rate. The eight-stage race promises daily live coverage, a flash mob for breast cancer and a health and wellness village. But google it and you’ll find barely a trace, crowded out by news of the long-established men’s race the Route d’Occitanie.
The Cervélo TestTeam, so dominant in the 2009 race, ended the season as the number one team in the world, nearly 800 points clear of their nearest rivals Team Columbia-High Road. They were nearly as dominant the following season, topping the world rankings again with over 2,300 points. By 2011 they had disappeared, a victim of the never-ending funding crises that seem to hit the women’s sport disproportionately. Where the men’s team merged with Garmin and eventually morphed into EF Education First and are still present in the men’s pro peloton, Cervélo bit the dust. There would be no more Cervélo and no more Grand Boucle, both victims of the vicious circle rolling ever onwards.
Lever Le Rideau
What should a woman bike rider look like? Aesthetics, beauty, grace, femininity – the performative aspects of being a female on a bike were all invoked once Félix Lévitan announced his Tour de France féminin in 1984. Better that the fairer sex concentrate on the gentler pursuits of tennis and figure skating than developing muscles and getting dirt on her face. But the Parisian’s faith in the ability of women to tackle the rigours of the men’s race was unshakeable, decrying the men in charge of women’s cycling as “backward, and not in harmony with the evolution of women’s cycling.” Lévitan called his riders ‘pioneers’ and L’Équipe derided the misogyny at the heart of the sport. Even the more conservative newspapers like Le Figaro were forced to admit the “exceptional physical and moral capacities” of the women who tackled the 1984 race.
Although Lévitan wasn’t the first to organise a women’s Tour de France – that honour goes to Jean Leulliot – he was the first to throw the full clout of the Tour organisation behind it. It was the punchy little Parisian who had brought the race to the Champs-Élysées and created the King of the Mountains competition, its distinctive jersey based on one he had admired at the Vel d’Hiv, where he started his journalism career picking up tidbits of gossip from the stars of the track.
He’d already used the Tour de l’Avenir, the youth race that was the traditional proving ground of future Tour winners, as a curtain-raiser to the men’s race throughout the 70s. But the stars aligned in 1984 to create the perfect conditions to showcase the women’s sport on the biggest stage that exists in cycling, the Tour de France. That year the Los Angeles Olympics saw the introduction of a women’s marathon and a women’s bicycle road race. In May Betsy King had covered the monstrous parcours of Bordeaux-Paris, finishing just over an hour behind the winner Hubert Linard. Her participation wasn’t official, but in an age when professional male cyclists no longer wanted to prove themselves over 600 km, it was a statement of intent. The world was changing, and women endurance athletes were ready to take on the toughest challenges – just as they had been since the dawn of competitive cycling.
There were still barriers to overcome – although the 1984 women’s Tour covered 18 stages for a total of 1,080 km, still a fraction of the men’s route, the UCI had strict rules and regulations governing the length of a women’s race. These were set aside, and an observer was sent to make recommendations for amending the regulations. In 2019 women’s stage races are still restricted to 6 days in length, time trials are capped at half the length of the men’s and elite women’s CX races are the same length as the U23 men’s.
1984 was in some senses Ground Zero for women’s cycling. Following in the wake of the Olympic road race and the Tour de France féminin, the Ore-Ida Women’s Challenge in the US became the richest prize in the sport, attracting a field stuffed with talent – Jeannie Longo, Judith Arndt, Rebecca Twigg and Clara Hughes all count the race in their palmarès. In 1990 it was won by Inge Thompson, reigning US time trial champion, but the race was not sanctioned by the UCI, who cited as their reasons "excessive climbing, stage distances, number of stages, and duration of event."
If the Olympics was a catalyst, it also overshadowed Lévitan’s race, with the top riders preferring to prepare for golden glory. Others were already contracted to race in Colorado. Then there were the financial considerations of committing to racing for nearly 3 weeks around France on a shoestring. Although the female membership of the FFC had exploded from 32 in 1960 to 1,500 in 1982, they were still only 2.6% of the total membership and the budget attributed to women’s cycling was tiny. The Tour agreed to foot the bill but only 36 riders were on the start line, organised into 6 national teams – two from France and one each from the US, Canada, the Netherlands and the UK.
Marianne Martin, an American rider who had missed Olympic selection and was on the start line as a domestique, ran out the winner and stood on the podium in Paris alongside Laurent Fignon, winner of the men’s race. In terms of visibility for the women’s sport the impact was incalculable. And there was a delicious irony in seeing the Frenchman – who had declared “I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else” – having to smile for the camera alongside the radiant yellow-clad American.
Two years later Martin had retired due to ill health. She worked two jobs for two years to clear the debt she ran up paying her way to race in Europe. As she said later, “It cost me money to do the Tour de France. But even if I hadn’t won, so what? I got to race my bike every day, I was fed and got massages every day. And I was in France. To me, that was the greatest thing in the world.”
Lévitan already had a fully-fledged vision of a globalised race that would cross the Atlantic for a start in America. It was he that rapidly internationalised the race in the 1980s with the appearance of the Colombians and other riders from the developing cycling nations. By 1990 there were 19 nations represented on the start line at Futuroscope.
But the women’s Tour project seemed to spring from a different place. “Woman is the equal of man when she is not superior to him,” Lévitan said. “Biologically this is proven by the faculté and scientists. Therefore we thought about organising something greater than anything that had been done to this point in cycling for athletic women.” Lévitan, born to poor Jewish parents, never forgot the quiet strength and indomitable courage of his wife Geneviève, who fought against his deportation from the Cherche-Midi prison in Paris during the darkest days of world war two.
There is one last irony in his desire to bring les filles to the roads of France. As a disciple of the Henri Desgrange school of self-sacrifice and moral rigour, Lévitan banned male cyclists from seeing their partners during the race.
Ultimately the problem for Lévitan, the moderniser par excellence, was that he sold his assets too cheap. It was said he would even monetise the rider with the prettiest smile – Monoprix came close when they sponsored the Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale with the golden gloves for most elegant rider – but he never thought big enough, preferring penny investors to the big corporate sponsors. When his protector Émilien Amaury had a riding accident and died in 1977, Levitain turned up to work to find his office locked, accusations of fraud swirling around his head. He would return to the Tour once, in 1998, after Amaury had abandoned the long-running case against him, but he died with bitterness in his heart.
As for the race, it lasted for 6 editions attracting the biggest names of the day and boasting a rivalry for the ages in the powerful puncheur Longo and the elegant Italian climber Maria Canins who carved up 5 titles between them. But lack of credible coverage by the male-dominated sporting media dragged the women’s Tour into the vicious circle in which the women’s sport so often finds itself. And with the loss of its protector Lévitan, it was no surprise when the brave experiment failed.
A women’s Tour in some form continued until that last race in 2009. It became the catchily titled Tour of the EEC Women, then the Tour Cycliste Féminin and finally the Grand Boucle Féminine Internationale, shorn legally of any connection with the Tour de France. Its palmarès are inscribed with the names of the legends of the sport – Van Moorsel, Luperini, Somarriba, Cooke – but Vos would never get her chance to add the Grand Boucle to her palmarès. Instead she had to content herself with winning La Course, the grudgingly-offered one-day consolation prize that finally brought women back to the pressure cooker of the Tour de France in 2014.
Flattening The Mountains
The idea of a women’s Tour de France is almost as old as the Tour de France itself. In 1909 a female reader wrote to L’Auto to ask why there was no similar race for women. She was met with the scoffing reply that that would mean flattening the mountains of France. The Unione Velocipedistica Italiana was quick to ban women racing in 1894, scandalised by these competitive and unfeminine women who had once been a popular sight on the streets of Milan. By 1912 the Union vélocipédique de France had banned women’s races and in 1926 Sportive magazine could write dismissively that "sportswomen go on rides for fun; nobody can object to that, but that women speed like 'giants of the road', no, a hundred times no!" The absurdity of such antediluvian attitudes was neatly skewered by a Parisienne, who said of the 1947 Tour “Since women smoke and vote there’s no reason they can’t race in the Tour.”
Professional cycling is a sport created and mythologised by male journalists, bound up in ideas of sacrifice and suffering. Never mind that women traditionally bear the highest levels of physical pain when they give birth, the male cyclist’s pain is purely performative, written large across the face of mountains. To flatten those would be to admit that the playing field between women and men is far more level than some would like to admit.
And then there was the sex. Or the sexism. After all, women on bikes were dangerous, forcing themselves into public space with their bloomers and their untrammeled bodies, free of corsets and ready for action. Ready to challenge masculine dominance and superiority, like biracial Kittie Knox who challenged the colour bar of the League of American Wheelmen by scandalising its members and turning up for a whites-only race in male kit.
The gender police have always been busy in sport, preferring that women crown the victor rather than competing for the laurels themselves. Hence the enduring presence of the podium girl, clutching the flowers, doling out kisses, always silent – at least in her public manifestation. She’s there to highlight the hypervirility and endurance of the male athlete. Even when allowed to ride she should do so with decorum, her bottom parked on a hygiene saddle so as not to become overstimulated. Even in the 1980s Marc Madiot, then riding in the pro peloton, advocated that women ride in pink and white shorts with frilly ankle socks.
Removing support from women’s racing wasn’t the only way of delegitimising female cyclists. Women riders were jeered at in the street, and had stones thrown at them for wearing rational dress to ride their bikes. Unflattering cartoons and editorials peppered the press. As women continued to challenge gender norms they were derided as sexual predators – the reporting in Le Figaro of the 1989 Women’s Tour de France embraced the opportunity to pun on the word coureuse, as if the riders were somehow on the pull even as they pedalled.
Yet there were women who leapt athletically from sporting challenge to sporting challenge, confronting the orthodoxy that told them to gracefully and gratefully accept their physiological lot. Marie Marvingt may not have ridden the route of the 1908 Tour de France at the same time as the men, but she did tackle the 4,488 km of that year’s race, between a series of punishing open water swims, including Lake Garda by moonlight serenaded by the local police band, and an arduous trek across the Gulf of Naples finishing in Capri’s famous Grotta Azzurra in a thunderstorm.
Marvingt was one of a tribe of women who swam, climbed, skied, boxed and flew in the early years of the 20th century. These were the years when American teenagers made the voyage from New York to London to tear up the track scene in Europe. When Hélène Dutrieu, ‘la flèche humaine’, looped the loop on a bicycle. In Russia, in 1909, a young rider competing in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was awarded the title ‘Best Italian Cyclist.’ She was Alfonsina Strada and in 1924 she would flatten the mountains for herself and ride the Giro d’Italia.
In fact Strada had already ridden against the men in the 1917 and 1918 editions of the Tour of Lombardy, making up the numbers in a peloton devastated by the first world war. Not that the opposition was too shabby with the likes of future Tour winners Philippe Thys and Henri Pélissier in the mix. She acquitted herself well, finishing in the same time as the last riders home in both races, proving that she had the grinta to compete with the big boys in her compact and athletic 5’ 2” frame.
By 1925 the doors were once again firmly barred against the courageous Strada, who had battled to complete every millimetre of the race despite being excluded from the official standings. The conditions that had allowed her to glide into the peloton – a dispute between riders and race organisers – were resolved. There was no longer any need for Strada, a rider so popular that a 50,000 lira prize was raised by public subscription to reward her efforts.
That the barriers that existed for Alfonsina Strada – a casual and toxic sexism, the misogynistic attitudes of a strongly gendered sport, artificially imposed physiological limits and the willed indifference to covering the women’s sport – are still identified as barriers to the creation of a viable women’s Tour de France is a mark of the limited distance we have travelled in the years since Alfonsina stood on the start line in Milan.
If She Can’t See It, She Can’t Be It
January 2013, and Nicole Cooke releases a retirement statement that ricochets around the world of cycling. With a blend of red hot rationalism and white hot rage she eviscerated the UCI with the stinging rebuke “are these girls that race for a living an underclass?” and spoke out about the parlous state of the women’s sport: “Every scandal on the men’s side has caused sponsors to leave on the women’s side. And with such thin budgets, the losses have a greater relative impact on what survives. The women’s road sport, that looked so promising in 2002 when I turned professional, has crumbled. Gone are the women’s Milan-Sanremo, the Amstel Gold Race, Tour de l’Aude, Tour Midi-Pyrénées, and Tour Castel de Leon. No HP Tour in America. With sponsors and support lost, the riders in the sport are exposed and vulnerable in so many ways.”
It’s the déclic that women’s cycling needs. By July a group calling themselves Le Tour Entier has released a petition stating “After a century, it is about time women are allowed to race the Tour de France too. We seek not to race against the men, but to have our own professional field running in conjunction with the men’s.” It races like wildfire round social media, gathering nearly 100,000 signatures. Then things move quickly – Labour MP Harriet Harman throws her weight behind the campaign, writing personally to Christian Prudhomme. Prudhomme’s Gallic shrug of indifference is overruled by Jean-Étienne Amaury, chairman of ASO, and by February 2014 La Course is a reality.
It’s impossible to overestimate the goodwill that carried the cream of the women’s peloton onto the Champs-Élysées that July. Marianne Vos ran out the winner on the cobbled criterium course, but what those circuits of the Champs-Élysées lacked in interest they more than made up for in visibility. Women were riding on the biggest stage and being showcased in cycling’s premier event like never before.
And that’s where it stopped. La Course, promised as a race that would exponentially grow into the much-longed-for women’s Tour de France on the same roads as the men’s race, seemed to fizzle into nothingness like a heat haze. Prudhomme doubled down on his intransigence and the women were stuck spinning round the Champs-Élysées like so many discarded finger spinners, the craze well and truly passed.
ASO have shuffled the pack a little, even tempted fans with a two-day challenge and most recently showcased the puncheurs on an Ardennes-Classics-style course following the route of the 2019 men’s time trial. The racing has been intense, characterised by balls-out attacking and a couple of finishes that are the stuff of legend – Annamiek van Vleuten’s dramatic pursuit of her countrywoman Anna van der Breggen on the slopes of Le Grand-Bornand to grasp victory at the last gasp, and Marianne Vos’s tactically-perfect second victory in Pau, blowing past Amanda Spratt on the steep ramp to the finish with the precision of a puncheur.
But La Course remains stubbornly a single-day race, tacked awkwardly onto the circus of the Tour. Even the name ‘La Course by Le Tour de France’ gives ownership and agency to the men’s race rather than the women’s.
Marianne Vos couldn’t have been a more symbolic winner of that first race. Lining up alongside her fellow agitator Kathryn Bertine, the public face of Le Tour Entier rode as if she refused to be beaten and flung her arm high at the finish in triumph, easily outsprinting Kirsten Wild. “This avenue is the world centre of the sport today,” Vos said. “For women’s cycling, it’s a very important step.” French rider Pauline Ferrand-Prévot echoed Vos’s sentiment when she opined “This degree of exposure is what women’s cycling needs so badly.”
But it was hardly challenging the limits of what women riders could achieve. In 2015 amateur rider Claire Floret decided enough was enough and set out to ride the entire route of the Tour de France with two of her teammates. Donnons des elles au Vélo, a neat pun on the idea of letting women ride and giving them wings, has grown exponentially – by 2019 a thirteen-strong team of riders set off from Brussels to complete the 3,480 km route billed as the ‘highest Tour ever’.
The project is set to keep challenging the stereotypes of women’s cycling, demonstrating the capabilities of women riders of all ages to meet and go beyond their edge. But to put the achievement in a sobering context, it’s worth remembering that until 2014 the UCI capped the maximum average age of a women’s team at 28 – no similar rule exists in the men’s sport – and the current maximum length for a women’s elite race is just 160 km for a one day race and 140 km for a stage, capped at the same level as the junior men.
We’re Equal, But Different
For Marianne Martin, winner of the 1989 race, “being the same is not the way to go.” In an interview with Anna Brones for the Women’s Wisdom Project the woman who stood in yellow alongside Laurent Fignon on the Champs-Élysées said “To bring women in to that same Tour is unrealistic and wrong.”
There is an argument that women’s cycling doesn’t need the crumbs from the men’s table. That the ten-stage Battle of the North race in Scandinavia is set to showcase the innovation that women’s cycling needs to push forward and away, in a final diversification from the men’s sport. That a women’s ‘Tour de France’ can as easily take place on the roads of Britain as l’Hexagone. That, above all, the women’s sport shouldn’t repeat the same stale old structures that have been in place in the men’s sport since 1903.
“Rather than repeating the same stale structures, the inclusion of equality could bring about a much better structure for both the men and women,” argues Kathryn Bertine. “UCI and race directors could collaborate to unveil an entirely new structure. For example: instead of a three-week Tour de France for men, why not a two-week TdF for both genders with some stages long and other stages shorter? And that ‘lost week’ of the TdF? Let’s take that and turn the one-week Tour of California into a two-week event. For men and women. And of course, adding women’s fields to all the Spring Classics.”
Bertine believes this should have been done decades ago. “It’s ridiculous the UCI hasn’t mandated equal opportunity and coverage there. It would be a financially lucrative investment all around.” The UCI is a body that has historically been slow to accommodate the new – ex-Vice President Tracey Gaudry likens effecting change to turning a supertanker – but its record on supporting women’s cycling continues to be woeful.
Women were only granted a UCI Road World Championships in 1958, a mere 31 years after the men. They ride over truncated courses that at least encourage full-gas racing from the start. As Bertine says, “instead of women lobbying to do the same distances and events as men, the men should lobby to have shorter distances and events because women’s racing is much more exciting. I wholeheartedly agree.” Yet in 2018, the ‘Hell Climb’ – with gradients hitting 28% – was left out of the women’s World Championship race. The delicate flower mentality continues to flourish, creating the kind of artificial segregation that saw the 2019 Omloop het Nieuwsblad women’s race neutralised because Nicole Hanselmann had come within touching distance of the men’s peloton.
When Britain’s Brian Cookson took over leadership of the UCI in 2013 on a manifesto promising much for women’s cycling, it was almost inevitable that he would deliver little, reneging on promises to ensure a minimum wage for women’s cycling. Interviewing him in 2014 I asked how he intended to ensure that women’s voices are actually listened to. “Let’s ask that you give us the benefit of the doubt about that and see how things work out,” he replied. “I think there probably are men who have a great deal of sympathy and support for women’s cycling. I don’t believe there are any men on any of the UCI commissions who are anti women’s cycling in any way. I’ll leave others to make that judgment and for us men to judge other men.” But unguarded comments about women’s relative weakness compared to men and their inability to ride a 21-stage race stuck in the craw.
La Course wasn’t Cookson’s doing – it was signed off by his predecessor Pat McQuaid – and the somewhat diffident Lancastrian seemed content to leave it at that, although he has announced plans for his own Women’s WorldTour team, currently on hold. His successor David Lappartient, a pugnacious Frenchman, has pushed ASO to extend La Course to the multi-stage race that was promised, only to be rebuffed with airy dismissals that it’s simply not logistically possible – women’s cycling once again ridden off the road by the more lucrative men’s sport.
ASO caused further uproar when they threatened the WorldTour status of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and La Flèche Wallonne by axing the required 45 minutes of TV coverage. The uproar forced their hand and they agreed a deal with the Belgian broadcaster RTBF for an hour’s coverage of each race. ASO have even announced plans to launch a major women’s race that would be the equivalent of the men’s Tour de France. But even if the tide turns, we’re unlikely to see women at the heart of the circus of the Tour, competing visibly with male riders.
Kathryn Bertine knows that a women’s Tour de France matters. “A TdF for women would matter because change must come from the top down, and if the TdF is at the top of cycling’s food chain, of course it matters. Calling out all inequity matters, always.” She’d like to see the Battle of the North turn the dial to 14 days, to demonstrate how comfortably women can cope with the rigours of multiple stages and longer distances. “There is so much potential for innovative thinking on how we can make cycling thrive, but when we have dinosaurs in power who solely rely on traditional methods, the whole sport remains stale. When women are treated as equals in cycling the whole sport – both men and women – will move forward.”
As the Donnons des elles au Vélo project demonstrates, visibility matters. In 2018 the project had impacted over 300 million people via TV, the web and print media with a staggering 7500% return on investment for the growing band of sponsors, including Tour stalwarts like Škoda. A film capturing the 2018 ride won a Silver Lion at the Cannes Lions International Festival for Diversity & Inclusion in Sport.
Women’s cycling has worked hard to develop a sporting model that is attractive for sponsors and entertaining for fans, underpinned with a sound professional foundation. It’s been a tough fight to break the cycle of being seen as beautiful ornaments enhancing the success of men. As Emma Pooley says: "I've heard a lot of people say that the best race they've ever seen was the women's race at the Olympics. A lot of our races are like that, but you don't get to see it."
When Egan Bernal became the youngest post-war winner of the men’s Tour de France in 2019 there were scenes of wide-eyed little boys astride their bikes watching their new hero on the big screen in faraway Colombia. The effect the lanky and affable rider has had is electric, his sheer visibility in yellow illuminating and inspiring a new generation of boys to dream of winning their own golden fleece one day.
And that’s why a women’s Tour de France ultimately matters. Because the Tour itself is full of symbolism, of holy places freighted with history that can’t yet be replicated on a windy northern shore. Little girls have a right to see their shining warrior goddesses clad in gold on the hairpins of the Alps and the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées, the ultimate reward for their endurance, determination and grit. The old arguments against a fully-fledged women’s Tour de France – physiology, femininity, endurance, economics – have long since been overturned by women who can, and will.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 23.