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

MEAUX, France – After winning stage 2 of the Tour de France Women, Dutch cyclist Marianne Vos put on the Tour leader’s yellow jersey for the first time and explained that no, in fact, this special moment was not not something that had always been a dream for her.

As a child, Vos had attended the Tour de France every summer and camped with his family along the route for the entire three weeks, shouting encouragement as the riders traversed flat roads, pedaled over twisty cols and descended steep inclines. It was there that Vos, an Olympic gold medalist and winner of numerous world championships, fell in love with cycling. But the race was for men only, so his goal was never to win it.

Over time, however, as she became one of the most accomplished female cyclists in history, she realized: why should men get all the media attention, adulation fans and the money that only the Tour de France can bring?

This awareness partly explains the relaunch of the Tour de France Women this week after 33 years of absence. Vos was a major force in lobbying to bring back the women’s race, which was held once in 1955 and then again from 1984 to 1989, before disappearing again for a generation.

It was only on Sunday, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and under a scorching summer sun, that the women – 144 riders from 24 teams – got back on their bikes for a race associated with the Tour, the cycling race more prestigious.

“Of course you can say maybe it took too long, but yeah, but I’m just glad it’s here,” said Vos, who kept the yellow jersey on Tuesday after finishing second in the Stage 3. It was his second runner-up finish in three days. “I think the time has come.”

For some cyclists and women’s rights advocates like Vos, the time has been right for at least a decade.

In 2013, Vos and three other cyclists – American Kathryn Bertine, a women’s cycling advocate from Bronxville, NY; former British time trial champion Emma Pooley; and four-time Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington – were so sure it was the right time for a Women’s Tour that they formed a group called Le Tour Entier (French for The Whole Tour) to rally public support to organize one a.

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

ASO agreed to run a race in 2014 which was clearly not The Whole Tour, given that the first edition of the race was around 2% longer than the men’s race. The event, called 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. Vos won that day and then won again in 2019.

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, Bertine said in a phone interview on Monday, but that doesn’t never happened. La Course has been completely replaced this year by the eight-day Tour de France Women – longer than La Course, but not as long as the men’s Tour.

“I believe the social pressure on ASO was the reason why they finally, after eight years, decided to finally increase the women’s race,” said Bertine, who made a documentary called “Half the Road” which discussed gender inequalities in cycling. . “My biggest fear is that this race will go on for eight days for another eight years because it’s scary to see the ASO record on this. These are dinosaurs that resisted this for a very, very long time.

Bertine lamented that women’s cycling declined shortly after the Women’s Tour was held in 1984.

Six women’s teams raced this Tour at the same time as the men, with the women starting 35 to 45 miles ahead each day. They completed 18 of the 21 stages, including the daunting Alpe d’Huez ascent, and all but one of the women finished. Marianne Martin, of Boulder, Colorado, became the first American – woman or man – to win the Tour de France.

Sunday in Paris, wearing a sleeveless yellow dress of the same color as the Tour leader’s jersey, Martin, 64, was at the start of the Tour de France Women to encourage the riders. She remembers passing thousands of fans on the 1984 Tour, just hours before the men’s race arrived in the city, and feeling the thrill the men had felt every year since the start of the race in 1903.

People are screaming. Floating flags. The cowbells are ringing. She had never seen anything like it. Sunday, the atmosphere was the same – and it was exhilarating, she said.

One night on that 1984 tour, she joined a male crew for dinner and noticed that their hotel was much nicer and their food was much better than the women’s. Still, she was unfazed.

“I didn’t care because we were in the Tour de France and I was getting a massage every day and we were being fed and racing bikes every day in France,” Martin said. “I had no expectations for more.”

She remembers winning about $1,000 and a trophy. The male winner, Frenchman Laurent Fignon, took home over $100,000. This year, there is also a gaping disparity between male and female awards.

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

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 cover in a day, a distance much shorter than the men’s maximum. (The women’s Olympic road course, in another example, is 60 miles shorter than the men’s.) WorldTour men’s minimum wages are higher than women’s, and women’s team budgets are often paltry by comparison. compared to those of men.

Linda Jackson, owner of the EF Education-TIBCO-SVB women’s cycling team, said the road to the top of the sport – and to equality – will take both time and a calculated plan to succeed, especially during building something lasting.

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

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

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

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

She added: “They won’t have a Women’s Tour in 20 years if they lose money for three to four years. ASO has to at least break even.

Media exposure is the single most important component to the success of the race, Jackson said, and with 2.5 hours of live TV coverage a day during this Women’s Tour, “this race alone has the potential to change our sport forever”. Kathrin Hammes, who rides for the Jackson team, said: “People pay attention when they hear about the Tour de France. It’s the only race that everyone knows.

Many women on the Tour said an eight-day event was a good start, but they were already hoping for more. Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten, favorite in the race, said she was ready for a three-week challenge, just like 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.

For now, the riders have several days left before reaching the final stages, which will take place in the Vosges and end with a strenuous ascent of La Super Planche des Belles Filles, a summit sometimes included in the men’s Tour.

And Vos – who has done almost everything there is to do in cycling – still has a few more days to go before she can look back and appreciate her roles as a rider and defender that helped make the whole event happen. .

Perhaps she will remember young girls cheering her name as they lined the course and watched the peloton take off on Stage 2. Or the group of men from a manufacturing company of Brie wearing cream yellow capes and matching flat hats who asked her for a selfie.

But as the race started, Vos said she could only think of the many miles ahead.

“I’m so grateful to everyone who put their energy into making this race a reality,” she said. “But I’m also focused on the race now. I’m going to let it sink in and think about what maybe happened at the end, after the season, or even in a few years.

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

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