Words by Amy Jones | Photo by CorVos/SWpix.com
The end of this season marks a pivotal moment for women’s cycling. Steady growth has been building since the introduction of the two-tier system at the beginning of 2020 — when minimum salaries and live coverage requirements were set by the UCI. Rather than set progress back, last year’s Covid-challenged season saw the introduction of new races, more television coverage, and more teams, as well as rumours of the return of a women’s Tour de France.
Nowhere was the continued growth more visible than in the mud-soaked aftermath of Paris Roubaix Femmes. Winner of the first ever edition, Lizzie Deignan, perfectly expressed the significance after the race: “Women’s cycling is at this turning point and today is part of history,” she said. “We’re so grateful to everyone behind the scenes, and every fan watching this is also making history, it’s proving there’s the appetite for women’s cycling and the athletes can do this toughest race and I’m proud I can say I’m the first-ever winner…I’m so proud that this is where we are, that women’s cycling is on the world stage.”
In the wake of that seminal moment, the route for the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift was announced in what felt like a continuation of the snowballing growth of the women’s side of the sport.
The effect of a Tour de France for women both on the current peloton and the future of the sport is huge. While Paris Roubaix Femmes felt like the women were breaking through another barrier of the sport’s history from which they have been excluded, for them to share in the Tour de France brand — one which transcends the sport — is an even greater step forward.
That both Paris Roubaix and the Tour de France are owned by ASO is indicative of just how much influence the organisation has over the sport. The power to create tangible change in women’s cycling has been in ASO’s hands for years, and the fact that they waited this long to use it is frustrating — but now that they have finally yielded the effects are visible.
Already, at least three new Women’s WorldTeams have been created based on the promise of the race and the publicity it will bring. The current crop of pros will be motivated by the opportunity to showcase their strengths on the biggest platform in the sport and fight for the iconic yellow, polka-dot and green jerseys. Younger generations of hopefuls can watch that unfold, and dream of the same.
As for the route itself, it offers greater variety than some of the more cynical followers of women’s racing may have given ASO credit for. Trek-Segafredo’s Audrey Cordon-Ragot told CyclingNews before the announcement: “we want an overall stage race for everyone because we really don’t have something like that on the calendar,” — she will not be disappointed.
Covering 1,029 kilometres in total, the eight-day race will start on the Champs Elysees as the men’s race finishes, ensuring the presence of ready-made media attention and therefore coverage. The iconic Parisian stage is not new to the women’s peloton, having been the backdrop of ASO’s listless nod to equality — La Course — in previous years. The inclusion of this stage serves as a reminder of the long-overdue progress that has been made since that first edition in 2014.
From there, the peloton will head east where they will tackle a combination of hilly and rolling stages that could see either sprinters or breakaways take the day. The race includes stages that traverse the white roads through the Champagne vineyards, rolling stages that could favour either breakaways or bunch finishes, and mountain days in the Vosges.
The route is back-loaded with climbing. On stage seven, the women tackle the iconic Ballon d’Alsace — which in 1905 became the first recognised climb to feature in the Tour de France. The race then culminates on the Planche des Belles Filles where the yellow jersey will be decided. One glaring omission from the parcours is a time trial, which both spectators and riders would have hoped for.
Some have already taken umbridge with the fact that the race covers just a fraction of the country. Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme’s riposte to such criticism is: “the challenge hasn’t been to create a race but to create a race that lasts, one that will be sustainable and with us in 100 years.” Tired riders and staff who will not have to undergo lengthy transfers after each stage would likely take his side.
In addition to a dynamic course, ASO have promised live TV coverage of every stage and, in contrast to the outrageous discrepancy at Paris Roubaix, a prize pot of €250,000. The winner will take home €50,000 which, while still not equal to the men’s prize money, is a step forward from Prudhomme’s excuse that ASO “didn’t realise” how skewed the Roubaix prizes were after Deignan was awarded a paltry €1,535 to Sonny Colbrelli’s €30,000.
The course may not be to the taste of all fans, but the variety of stages will give most of the top female riders the opportunity to share in this seminal moment in their sport. The first Paris Roubaix Femmes has etched Saturday 2nd October 2021 into women’s cycling history. Next year, on Sunday 30th July 2022 atop the Planche des Belles Filles, yet more history will be made as the yellow jersey winner is crowned, and women’s cycling continues its ascent towards equality.