A Chronicle of Persistence: The Women’s Tour de France

Can we just let these women race, already? – Jen See

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The Tour de France is a sprawling pandemonium of bike racing, product launches, and roadside parties. But the sport’s biggest event, the Tour itself, has largely left women riders out of the festivities. This year, they’ll participate for just two days, in a race called La Course, which runs ahead of the men’s race.

Why is there no Tour de France for women? Ask 12-time World Champion Marianne Vos, and she’ll laugh and say in her distinctive, Dutch-inflected English, “Well, that’s going to be a very long answer.”

She recalled a surprised bystander telling her that she “descended like a man.” “Of course, I could make my bike go 90km/h on a descent,” she remembered thinking.

The question lands squarely in the crosshairs of some of the sport’s most intractable dilemmas, including cultural attitudes and financial hurdles. Despite having strong membership and performances on the world stage; coverage, prize money, and funding for women’s pro cycling has always been dwarfed by that of men. Yet women’s racing has persisted against steep odds, even in the long shadow of the Tour de France. Here’s how the women’s peloton has made comeback after comeback.

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1903 to 1984: The Early Years of the Tour de France

There was no place for women. For the majority of its history, the Tour de France kept women squarely on the sidelines, with the only female roles being played by a loyal wife or fresh-faced girlfriend. According to historian Christopher S. Thomas, the practice of hiring podium hostesses began after World War I as French culture reinforced traditional gender roles after the upheaval of the war years. Over the years, podium hostesses remain one of the most visible roles for women at the Tour.

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Though women were prohibited from racing, that didn’t stop Alfonsina Strada from riding the 1924 Giro d’Italia, Italy’s grand tour. Registered as Alfosin, she fooled the race organisers long enough to start, and rode the first two stages with the men before crashing in a rain storm on the road to Naples. Though she missed the time cut on that day’s stage, Strada continued the race and made it to the Giro’s finish in Milan, beating two men in the process.

Strada has become a legend, but cycling’s biggest races remained closed to women for another 60 years.

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1984 to 1989: The Tour de France Féminin

Finally, a grand tour for women. So few records of the 1984 Tour de France féminin remain that some present-day professional riders and fans don’t realise that it happened at all. The Tour de France féminin spanned three weeks and ran coincident with the men’s race. The women rode similar courses, though shortened, and finished each stage around two hours before the men.

Her team only had a few 23 cogs, and those went to the sprinters.

One stage included the relentlessly steep Joux Plane, which American Marianne Martin, who went on to win the Yellow Jersey, climbed in a massive 42×21 gear. (Her team only had a few 23 cogs, and those went to the sprinters).

She traveled in a French delivery truck filled with chocolate sandwiches.

“As soon as we were done with each stage we would beeline for the team car, cram ourselves in the Peugeot and book it to the motel,” recalled Martin’s teammate Deborah Shumway, who finished third that year. On one particularly long transfer, Shumway said she traveled in a French delivery truck filled with chocolate sandwiches.

There wasn’t enough budget to bring an American director over to France with the U.S. women’s national team’s riders. Instead they were assigned a French director, who spoke almost no English. In Paris, Martin received $1000 in prize money for her overall victory – which she split with her teammates. To put that in perspective, Anna van der Bruggen won $1300 at this year’s Giro Rosa.

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The three-week version of the Tour de France féminin lasted only two years, due to a largely uninterested media and public. Though fans cheered for the women along the roadsides, few people knew about the race outside of its participants. Media coverage was sparse, even in cycling publications, which remained focused on the men’s events.

American Susan Elias, who raced professionally in the 1980’s, described cycling as a “secret sport,” so low-profile as to be almost underground in the U.S.

By the time Elias made her first trip to France in 1986, organisers had reduced the women’s Tour to two weeks. She recalled a surprised bystander telling her that she “descended like a man.” “Of course, I could make my bike go 90km/h on a descent,” she remembered thinking. When Elias won the points classification in 1989, it was the last year a women’s stage race ran during the men’s Tour de France.

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1992 to 2009: La Grande Boucle

Epic racing and financial uncertainty. After their five-year experiment with women’s cycling, the ASO bowed out and a new organiser stepped in to create the Tour Cyclist Féminin in 1992. Though it took place in August and no longer had a direct tie to the men’s race, the new Tour took on the role of a “Women’s Tour de France.”  Because the new women’s Tour had no official tie to the Tour de France, it was renamed La Grande Boucle in 1998, after the ASO objected on trademark grounds.

This new version of the women’s Tour featured long, difficult stages and tackled some of France’s signature climbs, much as the original Tour de France féminin had. The 1995 edition, for example, concluded with a mountaintop finish on the Alpe d’Huez. “It was such a thrill to get to race a lot of the same mountains that the men raced,” said Canadian Linda Jackson, who finished second that day.

But while the racing was plenty epic, the race itself was held together by shoestrings and determination. Once again, “there was not much money behind the race,” Jackson said. Because the women’s Tour lagged significantly in popularity behind the men’s version, towns willing to bid on the race starts and finishes were few and far between, so transfers between stages were unusually long.

Growing up, Vos travelled every year to the Tour de France with her family. She never imagined she’d ride the race herself. “I never dreamed about it, because in my time, it was not there.”

“We’d finish the race, often not even have a chance to shower, and jump in the car right away for 5-7 hour transfers,” she said. Jackson remembered travelling five to a car, and grabbing food from gas stations along the way.

The race’s long-time title sponsor Monoprix withdrew amid controversy over unpaid prize money in 2003, which marked a temporary end of La Grande Boucle. In 2005 yet another organiser stepped in and introduced a smaller-scale race. In a call-back to the race’s history, the new organiser continued to call it La Grande Boucle, but it never achieved the same prominence. When Emma Pooley won the final edition of the Grand Boucle in 2009, it was more of a Petit Boucle, having dwindled to just four stages from the original two weeks.

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2013 to Present: A New Era in Women’s Cycling

Demand for a women’s Tour. It’d be easy to read doom in the tea leaves, but women’s racing has proven resilient, despite pervasive disparities. Though women haven’t competed in the Tour de France, the sport has grown in other, significant ways, such as better sponsorship for the top teams and higher standards required from race organisers by the UCI. The introduction of the Women’s World Tour in 2016, in particular, signaled a turn to a more professional women’s sport.

“I think the days are gone where an organiser can put on a race like the Tour Cycliste féminine on such a small budget,” said Jackson. “The sport has grown, thankfully.” Races such as the Ovo Energy Tour in the U.K. and the Amgen Tour of California in the U.S. provide competitive racing, social media coverage, and significant prize purses for women, raising the standard for the sport.

Better team support, meanwhile, has made women’s cycling more viable in recent seasons. Teams such as WM3, Canyon-SRAM, Boels-Dolman, and Sunweb, among others, offer riders sufficient salaries to race and train full time—conditions that male professional riders might take for granted.

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“You’ve seen the peloton get more and more competitive every year,” says Specialized product manager Stephanie Kaplan, whose brand sponsors Boels-Dolman and La Course. Deeper fields make for more competitive racing, which is good for spectators. The days when the same five women won every week are gone; teams have gotten strong enough to play the tactical games that make cycling so compelling.

In 2013 four women athletes circulated a petition that boldly called for a women’s Tour de France. Calling themselves Le Tour Entier, Chrissy Wellington, Emma Pooley, Katherine Bertine, and Vos spearheaded the effort. ”We want[ed] a new women’s Tour de France back on the calendar,” said Vos. “Of course that was, well, a big aim.”

The petition succeed in bringing the ASO to the table, and the following year, the women’s peloton competed in a circuit race on the Champ Élysées. Named La Course, the new women’s race coincided with the finale of the men’s Tour de France, paid out a purse equal to a men’s stage victory, and received live television coverage. It was the first appearance of women athletes at the Tour since 1989 and Vos won the sprint finish, wearing the jersey of World Champion.

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Build It and They Will Come

Growing up, Vos traveled every year to the Tour de France with her family. She never imagined she’d ride the race herself. “I never dreamed about it, because in my time, it was not there,” she said. “It was just guys riding up mountains. For me, when we first came on the Champs Élysées, it was a really heroic, iconic place in cycling history. And to be able to be part of that, and to race there, I really thought that day was something special.”

There’s not a lack of racing, there’s just a lack of coverage.

Vos still hopes to see a five-to-seven day women’s stage race at the Tour de France. She believes the UCI will need to step in to resolve conflicting events; the Giro Rosa and the Tour de Féminin both currently run during the Tour de France.

“Sometimes you have to start with a proper structure,” said Vos, and she points to the Women’s World Tour, created in 2016 as an example. “At this point, all organisations and all teams are working on their own island.”

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And of course, a successful race still requires sponsors to foot the bill and media to cover it. “No one prefers to listen to football on satellite radio,” said Kaplan, emphasising the importance of media coverage to a race’s success. Canyon-SRAM’s Alexis Ryan agrees: “There’s not a lack of racing, there’s just a lack of coverage.” Like many women’s sports, cycling continually battles for attention and against dismissive attitudes, often rooted in sexist assumptions about women’s capabilities.

Races like the Ovo Energy Tour in Britain have demonstrated that women’s cycling can stand on its own and draw an audience, if it’s promoted and funded well. Still, the magnetic pull of the Tour de France remains irresistible. The fans are roadside, the media is assembled. Why not have a women’s race?

“I’m a total Field of Dreams person,” said Kaplan. “Build it, and they will come.”

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