Tour de France Women: The race that can change women’s cycling

But – with the exception of a brief period between 1984 and 1989 – women were excluded from these festivities and, therefore, from a place at the pinnacle of the sport.

“And so every time I would tell people what I’m doing…they would always ask me, ‘Oh, like…are you doing the Tour de France? “And I should inform them that women don’t have a Tour de France currently. But now I don’t have to.

On Sunday, the very day the men’s race ended, the inaugural edition of the Tour de France Women kicked off next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris as the women’s peloton embarked on their own eight-day odyssey through France.

This week it winds east through the vineyards and gravel roads of Champagne, climbing mountains reaching altitudes of over 1000 meters and ending at the summit of La Planche des Belles Filles – a forested mountain with upper slopes rising upwards at a frighteningly steep 24%.

“A Rebirth”

The road to the Tour de France Women began in September 1955 when French sports journalist Jean Leulliot launched a five-day women’s race won by Millie Robinson of the Isle of Man.

A sequel did not take place until 1984, when it took on a different form, this time stamped with the official seal of the Tour de France.

“In France, they didn’t think we would finish,” Marianne Martin, the eventual winner of the 1984 Women’s Tour de France, told CNN Sport from the banks of the Seine in Paris.

“It was the word on the street or it was the general feeling. And of course we all knew we would do it.”

Six national teams, each consisting of six runners, started the race and Martin completed the fastest 18-day, 1,059-kilometre (658-mile) course — a feat for which she received $1,000 while Laurent Fignon — the winner of the men’s race that year — took home more than $225,000.

Marianne Martin takes the podium in Paris with Laurent Fignon in 1984.

The Women’s Tour de France survived until 1989 when it was discontinued and replaced by an unofficial race which over time shrank to four stages and was finally abandoned in 2009.

Four years later, professional cyclists Kathryn Bertine, Emma Pooley, Chrissie Wellington and Marianne Vos formed a pressure group to pressure race organizers ASO and distributed a petition which garnered nearly 97,000 signatures, calling in a women’s race “in conjunction with the men’s event”. .. over the same distances, on the same days.”

Responding to this growing pressure, ASO created La Course which started life as a one-day circuit race on the Champs Élysées, briefly became two stages, then returned to its original state as a race of ‘a day.

An eight-stage Women’s Tour de France, organized by ASO, emerging from this fractured history is “a whole new beginning”, says Martin.

“It’s like a rebirth. It’s so necessary.”

“Showing the strength of women in cycling”

The reintroduction of a women’s Tour de France marks a watershed moment for gender equality in cycling.

“Traditionally, women didn’t have access to the resources or even the ability to do many things that men could and were allowed to do,” McGowan observes.

“There’s been a huge push to show the strength and the ability of women in cycling…busting a lot of those myths about what women could and couldn’t do.”

A lack of funding, live television coverage and prize money hampered the growth of women’s cycling for many years.

“I self-funded, Martin recalls. “To make Team USA in America, you had to do certain errands all over the country. And I decided I’ve got my body now, I’ll have my money later.

“I just took out my credit card. And honestly, I was in deep debt when I stopped racing because there wasn’t the support that there is now.”

The financial cost of becoming a cyclist is starting to ease for women thanks to the efforts of organizations like The Cyclists Alliance – the professional federation for women cyclists – and cyclists like McGowan.

Ayesha McGowan rides for the women's World Tour team Liv Racing Xstra.
McGowan – the first African-American professional cyclist – created Thee Abundance Project to facilitate the participation of more ethnic minority women in cycling.

“For me, individually, my journey has never been to be the only person out there. I want to be the first, but not the only one,” she says.

The Thee Abundance Project’s 2022 Micro-Grants Program provides its recipients with entry fees, housing, transportation, food allowance and other resources, enabling them to compete in four major U.S. road races.

“I feel like it’s really important for people to create those structures. And if you’re able to try to create space and opportunities for women to get into running, or even to progress in the race, I think it’s a necessity,” said McGowan.

By gathering information and organizing the collective power of the professional peloton, The Cyclists Alliance has improved the working conditions of these cyclists.

In 2020, 33% of the female peloton worked a second job while 43% reimbursed their own team for services like mechanical assistance, medical tests or travel expenses for races, according to a survey of runners she distributed.
Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, mandated a year later that women’s WorldTour (WWT) teams – the sport’s top tier – must raise their minimum wage from $15,251 in 2020 to $27,961 in 2022 , rising to $32,638 in 2023.
The women's peloton of the Tour de France Women.

However, there is still a long way to go to achieve equality.

Although the Women’s Tour de France is the richest race on the women’s calendar with €250,000 in total prize money, it is only a fraction of the men’s €2.2 million pot, while insecurity financial worsens outside of the biggest races and WWT teams.

Ten of the 24 teams participating in this year’s Tour are Continental teams – the lower tier to WWT teams – and as such are not bound by the UCI’s minimum wage mandate.

Using data from its 2022 survey, The Cyclists Alliance told CNN Sport that only 10-15% of continental riders receive the equivalent of a WWT minimum wage, while around 60% of non-WWT professional cyclists do not. are not paid at all.

CNN has contacted the UCI for comment.

“An absolutely wonderful moment”

The visibility given to women’s cycling by the very existence of a Women’s Tour de France can accelerate these efforts to improve gender equality.

“We didn’t have the financial backing that we have now,” Martin says of his time in cycling.

“So you bring dedicated and enthusiastic sponsors … who are going to support it and support the event financially and technically, keep it going, keep the media involved and let people know about it. [then] everybody wins.”

The race’s main sponsor, Zwift – a virtual cycling training platform – has already signed a four-year contract, while another sponsor, exercise tracking app Strava, has launched a campaign called Strive for More which is committed to supporting fairness in professional sport.

Marianne Vos won Stage 2 of this year's race, taking the famous yellow jersey worn by the race leader in the process.
One team, Le Col Wahoo, and its sponsors have teamed up with one of the TV providers GCN+ to offer 10,000 subscriptions so fans can watch the race for free, increasing the visibility of the sport.

“The fact that [the Tour] is such a recognizable entity is going to do wonders because people from places that don’t even know about bike racing have heard of this race,” McGowan said.

As women embark on the Tour de France Women, it is also something that transcends cycling; every attack, every breakaway, every stage victory is magnified in importance because it’s not just any bike race – it’s the Tour de France.

“It’s going to be an absolutely beautiful time,” McGowan said of the event. “The women’s peloton is such a wonderful group.

“I loved being a part of it myself, just the respect everyone has for each other, knowing how much it means and how much it’s going to impact the future of women’s sport.”

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