Women and the Tour de France

September 2, 2020

When I was in Aspremont for the first stage of the 2020 Tour de France I had the opportunity to see the women’s race (La Course) come through a few hours before the men’s race. I published a photo on Facebook of the women racers zooming through the village and got some surprised responses. “A women’s Tour de France? Who knew!” Well, it wasn’t really a women’s “Tour de France” it was just a single, one day race. But, it does show some progress being made on the issue of why women are not included in the Tour de France.

Will there ever be a true Women’s Tour de France? For well over a century now the Tour de France has been an all male event (except for a few short years in the 1980s). In fact, the vast majority of cycling clubs around the world are centered around the men. Today only 10% of riders registered with the French Cycling Federation are women. The best we can probably hope for is a separate Women’s Tour de France, comparable and equal to the current men’s Tour de France.

In breaking news, David Lappartient, the president of the International Cyclist Union (UCI) just announced last week that a women’s Tour de France will be held in 2022. What exactly that means is a bit unclear at this point. Initial plans call for it to last for eight days and begin in Paris the same day that the men finish their Tour de France on the Champs-Elysées. It’s a start!

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Tour de France Feminin

It hasn’t always been this way.

In 1955 Jean Leuilliot, a sports journalist, created a five stage women’s Tour de France. Alas, no one took it seriously, the cycling world laughed at the idea and it only lasted for one year.

“Common sense has triumphed (…) They will have to be content with existing events and cycle touring, which corresponds much more to their muscular possibilities,” proclaimed the sports newspaper L’Equipe, in 1957.

From 1984 to 1989 the Tour de France Féminine provided an opportunity for women to participate in the Tour de France. Kind of. Sort of. Organized by the Tour de France Society (an early version of the Amaury Sports Organization, or ASO, which runs the Tour), this was what we might kindly call an “opening act.” Each day the women would ride the same route (sometimes a few kilometers less) that the men would ride later. After only five years the tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc abruptly decided to end the women’s Tour with no real justification other than it was costing too much money. So, in 1990 the event changed its name and format, becoming the Tour of the EEC Women, but this too ended in 1993.

Another race, created in 1992 by journalist Pierre Boué was called the Tour Cycliste Féminine but when the official Tour de France organizers objected to the name (they owned the rights to “Tour”) the race was forced to change its name to the Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale. Due to financial hardships, lack of sponsorships and low media coverage the race was discontinued after 2009.

La Course

Tour organizers have included a women’s race called La Course by Le Tour de France since 2014. It’s usually just a one day race held sometime during the Tour de France. This is what I saw come through Aspremont this year. It’s something, but it is a far cry from what many in the community want. What they really long for is a true stage race.

“It’s a race of one day, but that’s not an equivalent,” Anna Barrero said recently. Barrero, one of the 13 women to complete the “unofficial Women’s Tour de France” in 2018 with the Donnons des elles au Vélo continued, “It’s unfair. We want to show the rest of the world, that women are perfectly capable of doing and finishing the Tour de France. We want to have exactly the same opportunities as men.”

The 2020 version of La Course followed the first 96 kilometers of the men’s race making two large loops into the hills behind Nice coming through Aspremont two times. They came through the village around 10:30AM and then again an hour later. There was a good crowd out to see them, not as big as the men’s tour would draw later, but still quite impressive. The spectators were very loud and vocal cheering the women on with screams of “Allez!” and “Bravo!” Even when a small group of two or three, or just lone straggler, came through they received the same attention, applause and encouragement. It was great to see the fans paying attention to the women and giving them such respect and validity.

Donnons des elles au Vélo

Created in 2014, Donnons des elles au Vélo (a play on words that loosely translates to “give women or wings to cycling”) is a women’s cycling club that was created with the intent to organize cycling projects, races and events for women throughout France. These events are open to all levels of cyclists from the beginners to the top level competitors.

In 2015 three of the members of the club organized an “unofficial Women’s Tour de France” where they completed every stage of the official tour one day before the men. There was virtually no coverage during that first year but as each year has gone, and the race has been repeated, by more and more people have paid attention. It was mentioned now and then on French television. People began to come out a day early to see the women.

The 2018 race featured a group of 13 amateur female cyclists who completed the exact same 21 stage course of the Tour de France as the men. All 3,351 kilometers (2,080 miles) of it. Every mountain climb, every long stretch of highway. There was no podium waiting for them when they arrived in Paris. There was no prize money. In fact they were not paid at all. There were no huge crowds of adoring fans. They were hoping instead for some recognition and respect. Their goal was to draw some much needed attention to the gender inequality that continues to persist in the world of cycling. They wanted to show that women, even amateurs, with no doping and no special assistance could complete the same route as the men.

“We want a women’s stage race with the same media coverage and the same attention as men have,” Tetiana Kalachova told The Associated Press. “Not necessarily the same roads and not necessarily the same quantity of dates, but with the same appreciation.”

Unlike the men who ride on clear, safe roads where all vehicles are banned the women had to contend with normal traffic. They stopped at red lights and stop signs. They navigated around cars and congested roads. In short, they followed all the rules of the road which the men do not have to. Each day they posted their location publicly so that any women who wanted to join, even for that one stage, could do so, including a 10 year old girl from the U.K. who joined the first stage in Noirmoutier-en-L’ile.

The 2020 version of the race, the 6th incarnation, began in Nice on July 29th and lasted until August 20th where they finished in Paris with 14 cyclists. Their efforts have certainly brought a spotlight and some much needed attention to the cause and it seems likely that without their unofficial races the newly announced 2022 race might not have happened.

The 2020 Virtual Tour

The Tour de France traditionally begins each year at the very end of June or the beginning of July. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc throughout the world the 2020 tour was postponed until the end of August. The organizers of the tour, ASO, partnered with Zwift, an online training platform, to produce the first ever “virtual” Tour de France in July. There were only six stages (compared to the normal 21) but, for the first time ever, women were allowed to compete alongside the men. Some found it a bit gimmicky, but hey, a step in the right direction.

Legal, Moral, Financial and Media Issues

The Tour de France is the world’s largest, most well known bike race. Since its inception it has only been open to men. Does this prevent women from having equal access to equal opportunities and rights in sports? That’s definitely going to depend on who you ask. A group called Global Citizen campaigns to fight inequality in all areas of society, including sports. Gender equality is goal number 5 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Global Citizen works hard to help achieve these goals. It’s an uphill battle though when it comes to sports. All major sports around the world have always been divided into men’s and women’s teams, including the Olympics. It’s going to take some major changes in the way the world looks at sports for that to ever change.

So where does that leave us? With the old “separate but equal” approach of segregationists around the world who worked hard to keep races separate from one another but all the time trying to pretend that they weren’t racist? We don’t accept that for race, religion, creed, etc. so why do we still accept that for sports?

One of the biggest challenges women cyclists face is that of media exposure. It is practically non-existent. Media exposure is the key to growing any sport. Just look at women’s soccer. When a sport is elevated to the point that national and world-wide coverage exists it helps to create more interest, especially in younger participants. More media exposure means more interest. More interest means more media exposure. And on and on. Without that media exposure it is very hard to grow a sport.

Financial resources are another hurdle that women cyclists face. I don’t think many people are aware that men WorldTour and Pro Continental cyclists receive a minimum wage of almost $40,000 per year. There is currently no equivalent for women cyclists, though this is hopefully due to change very soon.

The bottom line is that women cyclists face an uphill battle in their quest to be taken seriously and gain the same respect and validation that the men do. With any luck the 2022 Women’s Tour will be a great success and things will gradually improve until we have an honest to god 21 stage Women’s Tour de France.

Juste les Faits:
What: The Women’s Tour de France
When: June & July (except for 2020)
Facebook: LaCoursebyLeTour

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