Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Why the first Tour de France Femmes ‘changed everything’

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After years of failed attempts and half-hearted gimmicks, women’s cycling will finally have a Tour de France worthy of the name in Paris on Sunday. The all-new Tour de France Femmes is the most lucrative women’s cycling race ever and is brimming with talent on a varied and challenging eight-stage course built for entertainment and perhaps organizer ASO has finally planted the seeds for a race to grow and bloom will be many summers to come.

Since 1955 there have been several different incarnations of a women’s Tour de France. The race peaked in the 1980s but faded and returned in 2014 thanks to continued pressure and campaigning under the guise of the one-day La Course, it always felt like a symbolic gesture, an afterthought, pinned on the men’s race. ASO’s claim that it was not possible to host both a men’s and women’s tour always seemed like an excuse.

Now the Tour de France Femmes stands as a multi-stage race in its own right, with the resources and momentum to thrive. Virtual cycling giant Zwift is the main sponsor, signing a four-year deal and helping fund a prize pool of more than £200,000, with the winner receiving around £40,000. More importantly, TV coverage of the race will be widespread, although it’s a shame ITV won’t be showing the action free-to-air like they did with the men’s edition. UK fans can watch via Eurosport, Discovery+ or Global Cycling Network.

“That’s the most important thing, to show people and to be more aware of it,” says Britain’s Lizzie Holden, who will be driving for Team Le Col-Wahoo. “I think if you were to ask everyone in the peloton which is more important, the prize money or the TV coverage, most would say TV coverage.”

Holden didn’t think she’d stand a chance of being a part of it when it was first announced, but a team change coupled with her performances in recent months saw her move up into the competition. “A few weeks ago Nico [Marche], the team director, called and said, “So we’ve finally made the decision that you’re going to the tour.” It was weird because I was home alone, but obviously I was over the moon.”

Her team is aiming for stage wins and a chance to snag the Queen of the Mountains polka dot jersey on opening day, while Holden has her own eyes on Stage Four, a classic Strade Bianche style race with plenty of gravel roads. “I think it’s going to be epic,” she says. Holden also drove La Course, but this is different. “Finally having eight days is something very special.”

The sport will speak for itself. It’s a line-up full of talent, including Dutch legends Marianne Vos (for Jumbo-Visma, a team looking to win both the men’s and women’s tours this year) and Annemiek van Vleuten (for Movistar and currently UCI -Driver #1). ; Italy’s ever-consistent Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo); then there’s Team SD Worx, with former Olympic gold medalist Anna van der Breggen in the team car as director and assorted threats on the road in the guises of South African climber Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and Dutch rising star Demi Vollering. Organizers could shamelessly hope that victory would come from Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, the 26-year-old Dane whose compelling interviews occasionally go viral and whose big grin and even bigger personality hold untold marketing potential.

It may not be a full 21-stage race, but the eight days are packed with variety, starting at the Eiffel Tower and working east into the Vosges hills before concluding with two grueling stages culminating at the Planche des Belles Filles. La Planche has become a modern classic in men’s racing and it’s those little touches – the one-day overlap with the men’s Tour, the stage finish on the Champs-Elysees, the identical jerseys and classifications – that give just the right amount of continuity and belonging to the Tour de France while standing on its own as a race in its own right.

There is hope that the impact of the Tour de France Femmes will dig deep into the fundamentals of the sport. Louise Vardeman was a leading voice for the cause and founded cycling team InternationElles, which rode the entire route of the 2019 Tour de France to champion a women’s race and she believes this can be a turning point in the history of the sport. “It changes everything,” she says. “I think it’s great that in a few weeks a little girl will be able to turn on the TV and see women in the Tour de France and know that maybe later she can become a professional cyclist.”

Vardeman rode the route in 2019 just three years after taking up the sport as a hobby. Her team cycled the day before the men’s race and even covered more kilometers because a stage of the official tour had to be canceled due to a mudslide. They received worldwide media coverage and used their platform to ask why women don’t have their own Tour de France. Her message reached the professional scene, where a number of female drivers came forward, including Uttrup Ludwig. “She’s wonderful,” says Vardeman. “She’s so passionate about everything and she’s always supported what we do and she loves the fact that there’s now a women’s Tour de France.”

On a rest day during the 2019 Tour, Team Sky riders including reigning Champion Geraint Thomas caught up with Vardeman’s group and were blown away by what they and their teammates were doing with so little equipment and support compared to the professional peloton. “They saw no reason why they shouldn’t be a women’s Tour de France. They totally agreed with us that there should be one.”

Vardeman has noticed that more women have entered the sport during the lockdown boom, leading to a departure from the male-dominated environment she entered seven years ago, and believes the Tour de France Femmes only can drive progress. “From grassroots to amateur to pro, now if they say ‘I’m a cyclist’ and someone says ‘Oh do you ride the Tour de France?’ they can actually say ‘yes I do’. or ‘I aspire to ride the Tour de France’. It changes everything. Finally there is something of equal prestige that women can aspire to as an opportunity in cycling as men can.”

There is still a long way to go towards equality in cycling, a sport that is far from finished eradicating sexism and misogyny. Financial disparities remain huge and media coverage unparalleled, but moments like Sunday are small but significant steps.

“I think we’re just getting started, I suppose La Course was kind of a stage one,” says Vardeman. “It might be phase two or three, but at least we’re on our way and that’s the main thing, it’s a positive change. People are asking for more coverage and more women’s races and more prize pools, so there’s a shift. We are absolutely miles away from equality, but we are going in the right direction now.”

The inaugural Tour de France Femmes is live and exclusive to Warner Bros. Discovery. cross available Discovery+Eurosport, GCN+

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