At the Tour de France Femmes, it’s a steep climb to equality

MEAUX, France – After winning Stage 2 of the Tour de France Femmes, Dutch cyclist Marianne Voss wore the Tour leader’s yellow jersey for the first time and explained that no, in fact, this special moment was not the one she had always dreamed of. for him.

As a child, Voss attended the Tour de France every summer, camping out on the course with his family for three whole weeks, shouting encouragement as the riders sped down flat roads, pedaled up mountain passes and flew down steep slopes. It was here that Voss, an Olympic gold medalist and winner of multiple world championships, fell in love with cycling. But the race was only for men, so winning it was never her goal.

However, as she became one of the most successful female cyclists in history, she was puzzled: Why should men get all the media attention, fan adoration and money that only the Tour de France can provide?

That was partly to understand how the Tour de France Femmes was resurrected this week after a 33-year absence. Vos was a major force in lobbying for the return of the women’s race, which was held once in 1955, then again from 1984 to 1989, before it disappeared again for a generation.

It wasn’t until Sunday, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and under the blazing summer sun, that the women – 144 riders from 24 teams – were back on their bikes for the race associated with the Tour, cycling’s most prestigious race.

“Of course you could say maybe it took too long, but yeah, but I’m just happy to be here,” said Voss, who retained the yellow jersey after finishing second in Stage 3 on Tuesday. It was his second run- to finish in three days. “I think it’s about time.”

For some cyclists and women’s rights activists like Voss, the time has come for at least a decade.

In 2013, Voss and three other cyclists—American Catherine Bertin, a women’s cycling advocate from Bronxville, New York; former British time trial champion Emma Poole; and four-time Ironman champion Chrissy Wellington—were so convinced the time was right for a women’s tour that they formed a group called Le Tour Entier (French for The Whole Tour) to rally public support for one.

Their efforts to convince the Amaury Sport Organisation, or ASO – the company that runs the Tour – worked, but only to an extent.

The ASO agreed to host a race in 2014 that was clearly not The Whole Tour, given that the first edition of the race was about 2 percent better than the men’s race. The event, called La Course by Le Tour de France, was a one-day circuit race held on the final day of the Men’s Tour in Paris. Voss won that day, and then won again in 2019.

The ASO was supposed to add three to five race days to those one-day races until the women’s race reached parity with the men’s 21-day race, Bertin said in a phone interview Monday, but that never happened. La Course has been completely changed this year to the eight-day Tour de France Femmes – longer than La Course, but not as long as the men’s Tour.

“I believe the social pressure on the ASO was the reason they finally, after eight years, decided to finally strengthen women’s racing,” said Bertin, who made a documentary called “Halfway,” which looked at gender inequality in cycling. . “My biggest fear is that this race will continue for eight days for another eight years because the ASO’s record on this is appalling. They are dinosaurs who resisted this for a long time. “

Bertin lamented that women’s cycling had gone backwards since the 1984 Women’s Tour.

Six women’s teams competed in this tour alongside the men, with the women starting 35 to 45 miles ahead each day. They completed 18 of the 21 stages, including the dangerous Alpe d’Huez, and all but one woman finished. Marian Martin, of Boulder, Colo., became the first American — male or female — to win the Tour de France.

In Paris on Sunday, Martin, 64, wore a sleeveless yellow dress as the Tour leader’s jersey to the cheers of female racers. He recalled walking past thousands of fans at the 1984 Tour just hours before the men’s race rolled into town and feeling the excitement the men have experienced every year since the race began in 1903.

People are shouting. Flags are flying. Cow bells are ringing. He had never seen anything like it. The atmosphere on Sunday felt the same — and it was exciting, he said.

One night on tour in 1984, she joined the men’s team for dinner and noticed that their hotel was much nicer and their food was much better than the women’s. However, he was uncertain.

“I didn’t care because we were on the Tour de France and I was getting massages every day, we were eating and we had a bike race every day in France,” Martin said. “I didn’t expect more.”

He recalled winning about $1,000 and a trophy. The men’s winner, Laurent Fignon of France, won more than $100,000. This year, there is also a stark disparity between men’s and women’s prize money.

The women will receive approximately $250,000, with the overall race winner receiving $50,000. The purse on the men’s side was over $2 million, with Denmark’s Jonas Wingegaard winning over $500,000 for first place.

There is still a long way to go to achieve equality for women in sports. For example, the International Cycling Federation limits how far they can ride in a day, a distance that is much shorter than the men’s maximum. (In another example, the women’s Olympic road course is 60 miles shorter than the men’s.) On the WorldTour, men’s minimum wages are higher than women’s, and women’s teams often have smaller budgets than men’s.

Linda Jackson, owner of the EF Education-TIBCO-SVB women’s cycling team, said the road to the top of the sport — and equality — will take time and a calculated plan for success, especially when something sustainable is built.

Jackson, a former investment banker, started his team in 2004 with the goal of someday racing in Europe. Her team is competing in the Women’s World Tour this year as well as the Women’s Tour de France.

There are many signs that the sport is on the rise for women, she said, including more races, more TV coverage and a higher minimum wage that helps riders focus solely on training (which means a higher level of competition).

It was also crucial that Zwift, a fitness technology company, signed a four-year deal as a sponsor of the Tour de France Femmes. In 2020, the company paired with ASO to host a virtual Tour de France during the pandemic, and viewership for the women’s events was so high that Zwift eventually committed to helping ASO bring the Women’s Tour to life.

“The ASO, in particular, isn’t doing this because, ‘Equality for women, wow, wouldn’t that be great?'” Jackson said. “They’re doing it because they see a growing momentum in the sport.”

He added: “They’re not going to do a women’s tour in 20 years if they lose money in three or four years. ASO should at least crack it.”

Media exposure is the most important component of racing success, Jackson said, and with 2 1/2 hours of live television coverage a day on this women’s tour, “this one race has the potential to change our sport forever.” Kathryn Hames, who rides for Jackson’s team, said: “People pay attention when they hear about the Tour de France. This is one race that everyone knows.”

Many of the women racing in the Tour said the eight-day event was a good start, but they are already hoping for more. Dutch rider Anemiek van Vleuten, the race’s favourite, said he was ready for the three-week challenge, as well as the test the men endure. She added that she would be “super excited” for an epic climb like Alpe d’Huez, as it would be another milestone for women’s cycling.

The racers are now days away from the final stage, which takes place in the Vosges Mountains and ends with the grueling climb of La Super Planche des Belles Filles, a peak sometimes included in the men’s Tour.

And Voss — who has done almost everything in cycling — has a few days left to look back and appreciate his roles as a racer and advocate in helping make the entire event possible.

Maybe he remembers the young girls cheering his name as they lined the course and watched the peloton take off on Stage 2. Or a group of men from a Brie-making community wearing creamy yellow cloaks and matching flat-top hats. for a selfie.

But at the start of the race, Voss said he couldn’t think about anything but the many miles ahead.

“I’m very grateful to everyone who puts their energy into making this race happen,” he said. “But now I’m also focused on racing. I’ll let it sink in and think about what happened, maybe at the end, after the season, or even in a couple of years.”

As he left, he said: “All I know now is that the Tour de France is bigger than sport.”

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