In the Women’s Tour de France, it’s a steep climb towards equality

MEAUX, FRANCE – After winning the second stage of the Women’s Tour de France, Dutch cyclist Marianne Vos donned the Tour leader’s yellow jersey for the first time and made it clear that no, in fact, this special moment wasn’t something she had always dreamed of.

As a child, Voss would attend the Tour de France every summer and camp with her family along the track for a full three weeks, screaming encouraging as riders sped across flat roads, climbed winding mountain passes and flew up steep slopes. This was where Voss, an Olympic gold medalist and winner of several world championships, fell in love with cycling. But the race was only for men, so it wasn’t her goal to win it.

Over time, even though she became one of the most successful female cyclists in history, it became clear to her: Why should she get all the media attention, fan adulation and money that only the Tour de France could bring?

That realization was in part how this week’s Tour de France was revived after a 33-year absence. Voss was a major force in lobbying to bring back the women’s race, held once in 1955, and then again from 1984 to 1989, before disappearing again for a generation.

Not until Sunday, in the shade of the Eiffel Tower and under the blazing summer sun, the women – 144 riders from 24 teams – took back their bikes for a Tour-related race, the most famous race in cycling.

“Of course, you can say maybe it took a long time, but yes, but I’m just happy to have her here,” said Voss, who retained the yellow jersey on Tuesday after finishing second in the third stage. Up to completion in three days. “I think the time is right.”

For some cyclists and feminists like Voss, the time was right for at least a decade.

In 2013, Voss and three other cyclists – American Kathryn Bertin, an advocate for women’s cycling from Bronxville, New York; Former British Time Trial Champion Emma Polly; And four-time Iron Man champion Chrissy Wellington – so sure it was the right time for the Women’s Tour – that they formed a group called Le Tour Entier (French for the full tour) to rally public support for one decade.

Their efforts to impress the Amaury Sport Organization, or ASO – the company that runs the tour – succeeded, but only to some extent.

ASO agreed to host a race in 2014 that obviously wasn’t the full round, considering the first edition of the race was about 2 percent as long as the men’s race. The event, dubbed La Course by Le Tour de France, was a one-day circuit race held on the last day of the men’s Tour in Paris. Voss won that day, then won again in 2019.

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

Bertine, who made a documentary called Half the Road that discussed gender inequality in cycling, said. “My biggest fear is that this eight-day race will go on for another eight years because it’s scary looking at the record of the ASO on this. They are dinosaurs that resisted this for a very long time.”

Bertine lamented that women’s cycling took a back seat so soon after the Women’s Tour was held in 1984.

Six women’s teams raced on that tour at the same time as the men’s, with the women starting 35 to 45 miles ahead each day. They rode 18 of the 21 stages, including the terrifying Alpe d’Huez climb, and all but one of the women finished. Marianne Martin, of Boulder, Colorado, became the first American – female or male – to win the Tour de France.

On Sunday in Paris, dressed in a yellow, sleeveless dress the same color as the leader’s jersey, Martin, 64, was at the start of the Tour de France to cheer on the female contestants. I remembered riding to thousands of fans on the 1984 Tour, just hours before the men’s race entered town, and felt the excitement the men had experienced annually since the race began in 1903.

people screaming. Flag waving. Cobel rings. You’ve never seen anything like this before. On Sunday, the weather was similar — and that was exhilarating, she said.

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

“I didn’t care because we were in the Tour de France and I was getting massages every day and we were fed and our bikes raced every day in France,” Martin said. “I wasn’t expecting more.”

She remembered winning about $1,000 and a trophy. The men’s winner, Frenchman Laurent Fignon, won more than $100,000. This year, there is also a huge disparity between the prize money for men and women.

The women will receive approximately $250,000, and the overall race winner will receive approximately $50,000. On the men’s side, the purse was worth more than $2 million, with Denmark’s Jonas Vinggaard winning over $500,000 for first place.

There is still a long way to go for women to achieve parity in sport. The International Cycling Federation, for example, limits the distance they can ride in a day, which is much shorter than the maximum for men. (The women’s Olympic road course, in another example, is 60 miles shorter than the men’s.) The minimum wages for men at WorldTour are higher than for women, and budgets for women’s teams are often negligible compared to men’s.

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

Jackson, a former investment banker, started her team in 2004 with the goal of one day racing in Europe. Her team is competing in the Women’s WorldTour and also in the Tour de France Femmes this year.

She said there are many signs that the sport is on the rise for women, including more racing, more TV coverage, and minimum salaries that help riders focus solely on their training (which means a higher level of competition).

It was also significant that Zwift, a company specializing in fitness technology, signed a four-year contract as the main sponsor of the Tour de France Femmes. In 2020, the company teamed up with ASO to host a virtual tour of the Tour de France during the pandemic, and viewership numbers for the women’s events were so high that Zwift eventually committed to helping ASO bring the women’s tour back to life.

“ASO, in particular, don’t do this because, ‘Equality for women, wow, wouldn’t it be nice to have it?'” Jackson said. “They’re doing it because they see the growing momentum in the sport.”

She added, “They won’t be on the Women’s Tour in 20 years if they lose money for three to four years. The ASO should at least break the break even point.”

Jackson said media exposure is the most important component of the race’s success, and with two and a half hours of live TV coverage daily on this women’s tour, “this one race has the potential to change our sport forever.” “People pay attention when they hear about the Tour de France. It’s the only race everyone knows,” said Kathryn Hammes, who accompanies the Jackson team.

Several of the women contestants on the Tour said the eight-day event was a good start, but they are already hoping for more. Dutch rider Animek van Vleuten, a race favourite, said she’s ready for a three-week challenge, just like the test the men are going through. She added that she would be “so excited” for an epic climb like that of the Alpes d’Huez as it would be another milestone for women’s cycling.

At the moment, the contestants have several days left before reaching the final stages, which will take place in the Vosges Mountains and will end with an excruciating climb at the summit of La Super Planche des Belles Filles, a summit that is sometimes included in the men’s tour.

And Voss — who has done almost everything there can be done in cycling — has a few days left before she can look back and appreciate her role as a rider and defender who helped make the entire event happen.

You’ll probably remember little girls chanting her name as they lined up along the track and watched the Peloton go off on stage two. Or a group of men from a wild made community in cream yellow cloaks and matching flat hats who asked her for a selfie.

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

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

“All I know now is that the Tour de France is bigger than a sport,” she said, running away.

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