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Tour de France Femmes: A lasting impact?

Words: John Wilcockson; Images: Jordan Clark Haggard  

It’s probable that a large proportion of the millions who tuned in to view the first Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift were watching women’s racing for the first time. And what they saw surprised and excited them. The First Lady of the United States, Jill Biden, who has four million followers on Twitter, wrote this after the opening day in Paris: “What an amazing Stage 1 of Le Tour Femmes—and such a great sight to see after 33 long years.” She was referring of course to the year 1989, the last time the owners of the men’s Tour put on a women’s race as a daily prelude to the main event. It was a six-year experiment that in hindsight can be seen as a blip in the race’s history.

For most of its 120 years of existence, the Tour de France was misogynistic. Pro men’s teams had no female staff members; the presence of women in official race vehicles was not allowed; and a woman journalist in the press room was a rare sight. Matters began to change in the mid-1980s thanks to an influx of American, Australian, British and Irish riders at the sport’s highest levels. They made it clear they wanted their wives or girlfriends to visit them on rest days; the first U.S. team to compete at the Tour brought along a (tut-tut!) female soigneur; and one or two women journalists were finally given official accreditation.

Without that easing of the Tour’s unwritten rules, there would not have been the brief inclusion of the Tour Féminin; but it has still taken another three decades to drag the Tour organizers into the 21st century and promote the first standalone Tour de France Femmes. Among the developments that made this possible have been the presence since 2006 of a woman, Marie-Odile Amaury, at the head of the family-owned Groupe Amaury (which includes Tour organizer ASO); a campaign for a proper women’s Tour started by American cyclist/activist Kathryn Bertine, whose first petition sent to ASO in 2013 gathered 98,000 signatures; and the emergence since 2017 of former French national women’s road champion Marion Rousse as part of the commentary team that covers the Tour de France for the French national TV network.

Race director Marion Rouse (tan dress, center) before the first stage.

Rousse gave up racing at age 24 to focus on her TV career, where she has gained a national audience and became a strong advocate for women’s racing. ASO was so impressed with her high profile within the sport—she’s also world champion Julian Alaphilippe’s partner—that last October it named her race director of the Tour Femmes. Rousse, who worked with the ASO staff on planning the new Tour’s eight stages and negotiating with the various stage towns, said this about the race: “This isn’t a cheap version of the Tour de France; it’s the real deal.”

Parts of that deal was a route that included some of the most scenic French back roads through a region rich in cycling history where knowledgeable spectators came out in their thousands to watch the race pass through town. Typical, on stage 4, was Bergères, a community of just 120 people in the Champagne region that has a coveted village fleuri designation for the beauty of its flower displays on the houses, walls and bridges. Another was Rosheim, a town of only 5,000 residents set among the vineyards of Alsace, which hosted the finish of stage 6. The Tour Femmes took over the town, with the mayor holding a large, outdoor reception. Selecting such a small stage town added to the race’s impact, rather than it getting “lost” in a big city, such as nearby Strasbourg.

The relevance of the chosen course wasn’t lost on the riders. Overall Tour Femmes winner Annemiek van Vleuten said: “In every village, you can feel the Tour comes to life.” She added: “[The course] was way harder than the other stage races we usually do. I think it was a great way to start the first edition of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. And I think we can build from here for the next years.”

Cycling has a ways to go to catch up with other women’s sports. In the 2021 YouGov’s Women in Sport Report, cycling was only eighth in sports that are closely followed around the world. The most popular was women’s soccer (22%), followed by badminton (19%), basketball (18%), tennis (17%), volleyball (15%), cricket (15%) and table tennis (15%). Then came cycling with 9 percent followship. Surprisingly, women’s golf had just 5 percent considering its high profile in the U.S.

In the same report, the main reasons why a global audience does not engage with women’s sports are “less media coverage” (40%), “lack of knowledge about the teams and athletes” (35%), “limited marketing” (30%) and “cannot easily find games to watch on TV or online” (27%). Rousse knows that viewership is key to the race gaining publicity: “This is what the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift is trying to do by being broadcast in 190 countries.”

Increased viewership and publicity can also help women’s cycling to grow. It has slowly progressed from an all-amateur sport in the 1980s, but it’s still far behind the relative affluence of men’s racing. Although the minimum salary for Women’s WorldTour riders is $28,000 a year (and will increase to $32,600 next year), The Cyclists Alliance found in a recent survey that 60 percent of non-WWT riders are paid nothing. To improve this situation, a race as big and beautiful as the Tour de France Femmes can have a lasting impact.