Can women ride a 3-week Tour de France?
Women cyclists were given a one-day race at this year’s Tour De France versus the men’s three week event. Juliet Elliott asks a giant WTF, then asks some clued-up folk in cycling what we can all to address the biggest arguments against women getting more…
Every year as July rolls around, cycling fans around the globe rejoice as the biggest, toughest, most prestigious bike race in the world begins.
Now in its 105th year, the 23-day Tour de France is a gruelling endurance fest designed to test the grit, skills and fitness of the world’s greatest cyclists. Offering a total prize purse of over €2,287,750, the event attracts millions of pounds of sponsorship and is followed by devoted followers in countries across the globe. To win is to become globally famous – and not just amongst cycling fans.
Yet, for me – and many others – while we love the time-honoured, three-week cycling bonanza, the Tour de France brings a certain irritation because the women's version, if you can even call it that, is so short that it’s a joke.
Let's take a look back...
After a five-year period in the eighties when women had a tour of their own, albeit with shorter distances and fewer days, the women’s race lost momentum due to a lack of funding and bad organisation, eventually petering out entirely after several missed editions.
In 2014, La Course, a one-day women’s race was launched amid great fanfare by ASO, the organisers of the Tour. Taking place at the same time as the Tour, it was much touted as a revival of the women’s event, the pledge being that the event would grow in size and length as it developed. Fast-forward to 2018 and women are still racing a single-day event.
Kathryn Bertine, ex-pro, activist and producer of women’s cycling documentary Half The Road, was involved in the process of lobbying for a women’s Tour de France and believes there is only one reason progress has stalled.
“The only thing preventing the Tour de France from happening is ASO. They simply don’t want to include women equally. It’s sexism!
"A one-day race was a victory in 2014, but ASO failed to uphold their promise of growing the stages incrementally each year.
"If they include women and offer equal opportunities for broadcast rights and exposure, then the entire sport will thrive for both the men and the women!"
The pedal pledge
This stalling hasn’t gone unnoticed by Donnons Des Elles Au Velos J-1, who rode the entire route of the Tour de France a day before the men to highlight the inequality women riders face. Now in their 4th year, the team's mission is to prove that women are more than capable of coping with multi-day stages, long days in the saddle and back-to-back alpine climbs.
The women are not professionals, instead holding down jobs in a diverse range of sectors, including biochemistry and sports science, and their efforts ably prove that the world’s top UCI teams would have no problem managing a women’s Tour de France.
With interest in their achievement from major sponsors such as ŠKODA, the BBC and numerous broadsheets, it seems the world is beginning to see women’s cycling as deserving of investment and exposure. But, we still only have a one-day event at the Tour de France for women...
What’s the difference?
Across the sporting world much progress has been made, and most major sporting events – Wimbledon, the World Cup, the Olympics – have competitions for both men and women. Other sports such as triathlon or athletics give women the same opportunity to compete as their male counterparts. However, the idea of women being 'less able' seems to persist in cycling. Why is that?
It’s not just the ASO that isn’t keen on giving women a Tour of their own. The attitude that women are somehow inferior to men or underserving of their own Tour is shockingly common, as comments on this article on the BBC Sport website reveal (read at your peril!).
To save your blood pressure, the main lines of argument are that there is no public interest; it’s boring; political correctness gone mad; and quite simply “because the girls are still sitting around waiting for the men to organise one for them…”
I put the argument that there is no appetite for watching women’s racing to Bob Varney, long-term supporter of women’s cycling and a man who has put his money where his mouth is as team director of Drops.
“To say there is no public interest in women’s cycling, and in particular multi-day stage races is simply wrong,” he tells me. “The superbly organised OVO Energy Women’s Tour and the long-standing Giro Rosa clearly demonstrate that there is a healthy appetite for these types of events. The quality of racing at the recent La Course led to a tsunami of positive comments from around the world.”
Other comments on both my recent video filmed with Donnons des Elles and the BBC piece argue that women should organise their own Tour de France if they want one, as if the men’s one has no female staff of any kind. It’s a pretty idiotic argument and one that Bob refutes, saying we need the expertise of established specialists.
“The future for women's cycling has to focus on high quality promotions organised by professional race organisers. The UK is clearly leading the way with the Women’s Tour and the Tour de Yorkshire. ASO can only have been impressed and inspired by the recent La Course and want to build on that success, but if not, there are other race organisers that clearly do and will.”
Bob believes the issue isn’t whether women could ride a Tour de France but whether they should.
“The Tour’s domination of male cycling is not entirely positive. Let women’s cycling ride the path to change and reform by embracing what’s good with our sport, and not get too wrapped up in chasing a three-week bike race around France.“
Journalist and presenter Orla Chennaoui agrees, arguing that the ASO, who organise the Tour, La Course and the women’s Tour de Yorkshire don’t put enough into promoting or developing women’s cycling…
“I don't think ASO really care about women's cycling and I feel it can hamper the development of the sport. Outsiders will believe whatever they offer is the best the sport has.
“They have been pressured for several years now to extend the women's racing at the Tour de France, and their reluctance to do so makes me wary of waiting for scraps from the Tour table.”
Kathryn Bertine tells me that if Great Britain could hold the equivalent of the Tour, the world would pay attention.
“Right now, ASO have a monopoly. If other tours (such as the OVO Energy Women’s Tour) stepped up and became the equivalent of the Tour de France for women, ASO would have to respond if they wanted to equal them and thrive economically.”
Riddle me ree
So, if women are physically capable of riding a three-week tour, as Donnons des Elles’s endeavour has again proven; if women’s racing isn’t boring and unexciting (did you see the finish of La Course?); and if it's truly worthy of sponsorship dollars, just what is the real barrier to gender parity in cycling?
It really seems like the lack of progress is attributable almost entirely to attitude and institutional sexism and the feeling among some that women are less important than men and shouldn’t dare to dream big or dream equal.
Cycling is just one aspect of a bigger problem, so it’s no surprise that we are lagging behind and struggling to make our voices heard and our stories known. What needs to be addressed is the underlying gender inequality across all aspects of life in the 21st century; the fact that women are held back, paid less and treated worse than men across the board. Comments like those on the BBC article make a sad point about society. And the lack of a women’s grand tour only reinforces them.
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