Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by SWpix.com
Hopefully it’s au revoir not farewell to the race that wanted to change the world
The cancellation of the Women’s Tour – hopefully for only a one year hiatus – was sad but not surprising news. To raise half a million pounds sponsorship in a few weeks to cover the race’s shortfall was a desperate hope in the current UK economic climate. The race’s original economic model was also reliant on councils providing funding for individual stages, and given the massive constraints on local authority funding in recent years, something was going to give.
It is desperately sad for this particular race to be in such straits, because the Women’s Tour was a race with a difference. When we set out in convoy from Oundle for stage one of the first race in 2014, there was a palpable sense of mission that I had never felt on any of the many bike races I had been on in the previous quarter century. The Women’s Tour, under the inspiring impetus of businessman Guy Elliott, was a race that wanted to change the sporting world.
On its launch in autumn 2013, I wrote, “most critically it will attempt to become the first women’s cycling event to offer absolute parity between men and women in terms of prize money and backup.” Elliott made no bones that the target was for it to be, “The only cycling event in the world where women are not second best.” The disparities which he described as “catastrophic” covered prize money, team budgets and accommodation at races.
Elliott told me: “We will finish in town centres and pay the same prize money that Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish would get. The goal is to wrap a social agenda for change in health and social terms around a sports event, to send a strong message to women that they don’t have to be second best. It’s a game changer. It cannot carry on, that we discriminate against women in sport from the age of 15.”
What of the mission? In terms of equality, as I wrote in October 2021 when the Women’s Tour returned after a break due to Covid, much has changed in the wake of the race’s first edition in 2014. Spurred by an on-line petition in 2013, ASO launched La Course that summer, although it then took a further nine years for them to inaugurate the Tour de France Femmes. Led by Flanders Classics across their spring races, equal prize money is seen as the norm. The 58-mile stage that opened the Women’s Tour would now seem weirdly brief.
This is the most rapid progress cycling’s equality agenda has seen, even if the UCI and IOC’s dilatory progress towards parity at world and Olympic level over half a century isn’t hard to improve on. From where I’m sitting, right now the biggest issue faced by women’s racing is how to handle rapid growth, with the demands a denser and tougher race calendar makes as teams and riders are left playing catch up; it’s a thorny one, but 10 years ago, it wasn’t where the agenda looked to be headed.
The Women’s Tour has given us some memorable moments, beginning with Marianne Vos’s 2014 hat-trick of stage wins. After which came, Lizzie Deignan’s stage win and instantaneous crash at Aldeburgh in 2015; Deignan’s attack in the Peak District to give the coveted home win a year later; the inaugural London circuit finish in 2017; Elisa Longo-Borghini’s stage win on the daunting Black Mountain last year. But it was never just about the racing. By making the case early for parity in prize money and race environment, the Women’s Tour was definitely the gamechanger it set out to be. Let’s hope this is au revoir and not goodbye.