Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
There are, in truth, days when it seems easier to get Mark Cavendish a new contract than to organise a women’s Grand Tour, yet there have recently been positive signs that cycling is taking further steps away from the archaic environs of its testosterone-fuelled locker rooms and out into the fresh air.
It seems that, finally, we can expect the return of the women’s Tour de France.
The past week or so, the prospect of that long-awaited and long-debated event happening relatively soon has again been making news, a few months after UCI President David Lappartient said that he had been “assured” that ASO, promoters of the men’s Tour, would be ready to put the race on the calendar in 2022.
Momentum behind furthering the role of women in cycling, is, so it seems, also gathering.
Cherie Pridham has moved to Israel SUN to become the first female sports director in the men’s World Tour, the Drops cycling team has secured funding from Le Col, prize pot parity has moved forward a little with the SBT Gravel event in the USA splitting prize money equally between men and women, and the 2024 Paris Olympic road races will achieve full gender parity in athlete numbers.
“Gender parity at the Olympic Games sends out a strong message to our athletes and society as a whole,” Lappartient said. “The UCI is committed to a policy of equal representation of women and men, both on the field of play and in governance.”
Fine words as ever from the UCI President. Yet the old issues, the casual sexism of professional cycling and, in darker corners, the outright misogny, still remain. It’s hard not to feel that those issues, those archaic attitudes are behind the continued dragging of heels when it comes to a women’s Tour de France.
An example. I’m a member of the Velo d’Or jury, choosing the winner of the annual Velo d’Or prize, and run by Velo Magazine in France. It is an all male jury and there was, understandably, some accusation of gender bias when Primoz Roglic got the nod as 2020 winner, instead of the equally decorated Anna van der Breggen.
Both would have been deserving winners, but on the basis that Roglic was so consistent, suffered a body blow at the Tour, and then recovered to win the Vuelta, I chose him. At the same time, I don’t have the same depth of knowledge of women’s racing. I haven’t seen Anna van der Breggen race this year, apart from on TV. I wasn’t at the Giro Rosa, or Flèche Wallonne, or the World Championships.
There are some great women journalists covering professional cycling — La Course en Tete’s own Sophie Smith and Sadhbh O’Shea, plus several others including Laura Winter, Orla Chennaoui, Rose Manley, Laura Meseguer, Claire Bricogne, Kristen Frattini, Bonnie Ford, Ann Braeckman, as well as many others. None of these journalists are on the jury for the Velo d’Or prize, but of course, they should be. That bias needs to be addressed before next year’s award.
Another example. During this year’s delayed Tour de France, L’Humanite published a cartoon of former French champion Marion Rousse, now a presenter on French TV’s cycling coverage, topless in bed, interviewing her partner, Julian Alaphilippe. It was quickly removed after a storm of protest from many working within cycling and beyond.
“L’Humanité lives up to its name less and less,” Rousse said on social media. “You have to have no respect for women, to reduce six years of sports reporting on television to this level.”
Meanwhile, many continue, understandably, to berate ASO’s slow progress with organising a women’s Tour and to argue that it can simply be run concurrently with the men’s race. They are right to be impatient but at the same time, my feeling has long been that a far better model is that of British promoters Sweetspot, who run a women’s and men’s Tour of Britain at different times of the year.
There are good reasons for this.
Logistics, funding and sustainability, media coverage, public interest and support, and profile are all critical to the success of any race, men’s or women’s. Then factor in the business pragmatism of a promoter, ASO, not renowned for its altruism, alongside the aspiration to create a women’s race that has longevity and grandeur, and that builds in cultural significance, just as the men’s race has done.
Assuming that the men’s Tour de France remains the all-consuming behemoth that it has been since the start of this century if not before, a bolted-on women’s Tour run concurrently, would prove unsustainable on several levels and would also suffer from inadequate coverage, profile and logistical support.
And what about TV coverage, the single biggest influence on securing funding for the sport? Every stage of the men’s Tour is now shown live in it’s entirety, so where would the women’s race be screened? Where will the advertising revenues move to? Which race will the global audience gravitate towards? A mountain stage in the men’s race or in the women’s race?
“TV is even more important than the minimum wage,” Sunweb’s Coryn Rivera told journalist Owen Rogers during this year’s untelevised Giro Rosa. “You need to create value before you get value, but TV is the biggest thing to put us out there.” Those comments proved prescient and the 2021 Giro Rosa will not be part of the women’s World Tour.
Now the rumour is that ASO will avoid some of these conflicts by planning an eight day women’s race that would start in Paris on the date that the men’s Tour ends. Convenient for ASO perhaps, but is it entirely practical?
Will the same infrastructure hit the road again, the same media corps, the same TV motos, helicopter crews, press officers? Or will further budgets be found to parachute in a whole new staff — logistics, TV, media — to fuel the progress of the women’s race? What’s more, hot on the heels of three weeks saturation coverage of the men’s race, will it attract the audience and profile? Ultimately, isn’t this just another bolt-on?
And what of the scheduling? The men’s Tour de France, the women’s Tour de France, the Giro Rosa, all run at a similar time of the year? Surely this will split a global audience for women’s cycling, rather than build it.
These are all harsh realities that need to be faced. Disputing the need to accept those realities will only harm the prospects of a women’s race becoming a sustainable popular success. Yet a women’s race is, belatedly, finally, surely, coming. After all, Lappartient promised a women’s Tour de France “within the term of my presidency,” soon after he was elected in late 2017, so it needs to happen soon.
Running a one-day race, La Course, is a very different thing from taking both men’s and women’s races through rural France, over several days, effectively competing against each other. Bolting on a women’s race whether it’s onto the men’s Tour, or onto the end of the men’s Tour, is still an after-thought. Neither of these options will step out of the shadow of the men’s race. If either option is seen as a long-term solution, there is likely to be only one winner — and it won’t be women’s racing.
After such a long hiatus, the revived women’s Tour needs to work both culturally and financially and to become fully installed — a permanent fixture, not an afterthought — in the racing calendar. It needs a stand alone date, its own sponsors, TV slots, bespoke media corps and professional and ethical management.
It also needs the full support of a male-dominated clique that clings doggedly to its cosy and all-too familiar rituals. Leaving all of that baggage behind, and finally embracing real change, would demonstrate proper respect for women’s racing.
If you’ve enjoyed this, why not try La Course en Tête’s review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, which is on sale here.