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Battle Royale: How the next chapter of women's cycling could change everything

The women's peloton race on the Champs Elysees at 2016 La Course by Le Tour de France
The women's peloton race on the Champs Elysees at 2016 La Course by Le Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images)

Remember that epic battle between Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen at the finish of the 2018 edition of La Course? Now imagine battles and rivalries like that over eight days of racing on the world’s biggest sporting stage. The Tour de France Femmes might be the conduit we need to finally smash that glass ceiling in women’s cycling.

There is no doubt that women’s professional cycling has experienced a surge in momentum over the last decade. Better team conditions, minimum salaries, and increased live coverage and reporting have all been important factors in the progress of the sport. Race parity with men’s cycling has also been a contentious but beneficial element, with some of the biggest one-day races now offering a women’s edition, and a small number of tours doing the same.

In some instances, race organisers were like a horse being dragged to water, and token race offerings lost their shine pretty quickly. I raced the very first edition of La Course on the fabled Champs-Élysées in 2014 and it was a magical day. The petition started by Kathryn Bertine and backed by the likes of Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley, and Chrissie Wellington set the stage for the UCI and ASO to accept that the demand was there for a women’s Tour de France, not just from the riders but from the fans as well, with nearly 100,000 signatures.

The promise was that the one-day race – a glorified criterium – would be extended year by year until it became a proper multi-day stage race for the women. In 2021, it remains a one-day race, but change is finally coming.

Kathryn Bertine is thrilled to be finally seeing the announcement: “We’ve been fighting for—and working toward—this for a long time. I’m not sure people know how much work went on behind the scenes in terms of lobbying ASO (and UCI!) to do the right thing when it comes to equal opportunity … Exposing the truth of what really happens when we stand on the front lines of change is what motivated me to write STAND. We built La Course by Tour de France with ASO in 2014. That was a game changer, to finally have women included at the Tour de France. While ASO failed their promise to grow the event by 3-5 days every year, I’m happy they finally got the message (seven years later) to elongate the race into an eight-day event.”

She added while it’s good news it is still a fraction of the men’s event. ”The reason we need to see a three-week race at the most prestigious event is to combat the traditionalist thinking that ‘women cannot do the same distance/days as a man.’ (Of-course we can. The women in the 80s already proved this).”

While Bertine agrees that shorter-distance races are usually much more exciting, she reinforces her stance that  "…we still need one unified, pinnacle event that stifles antiquity and proves women are equally capable as men. That race needs to be the Tour de France. Change must come from the top down."

“A Women’s Tour de France is so much bigger than a bike race,” said Bertine. “It’s a beacon of progress for society that men and women are valued equally at the top. So yes, I applaud the eight days coming in 2022. I’ll be cheering the loudest! And behind the scenes, I’ll still keep pushing for two more weeks to be added in the coming years.”

Annemiek van Vleuten beats Anna van der Breggen to win 2018 La Course by Le Tour de France

Annemiek van Vleuten beats Anna van der Breggen to win 2018 La Course by Le Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images)

The announcement of an eight-day Tour de France Femmes can be seen as win for the sport after so many years of hearing words like, ‘there is not enough demand/there is no financial return/women aren’t ready for something like this’. The announcement can also be seen as another tokenistic gesture while the real work still needs to be addressed. After taking the time to look at the black and white facts, I’ve changed my mind on the Tour de France Femmes and the Women's WorldTour (WWT), and believe that those in charge have actually made some good decisions.

My past stance on a women’s Tour was mostly negative. I didn’t think a side-show to the men’s Tour was going to make a difference, and it might even hurt our sport. How would it even be able to run alongside the circus that is the Tour? Would we be compared to the men in a poor light? Would we even get any coverage?

I knew firsthand what races made a difference to women’s cycling and what races were just a façade. The Women’s Tour in the UK was notably one of the most successful and important races because they marketed it so well, the fans came out, and it was broadcast on live television. This and a handful of other races set the standard for modern women’s racing.

When Prudhomme recently said that “all women’s races lose us money”, there were immediate reactions from all across the industry to contradict the ASO’s long held ace card. When given the opportunity, women’s cycling is exciting, marketable, and gets a significant audience.

So what do I think now about the Tour de France Femmes? My new optimism lies around where it fits into the overall WWT calendar. It sits in late July, two weeks after the end of the Giro d'Italia Donne, and starts when the men’s Tour has finished. This gives the GC riders time to recover from the Giro (I can’t imagine there will be many GC riders who will want to miss out on either race – the female peloton hasn’t quite specialised that far yet), and the team staff time to reorganize as well as have a rest themselves.

It also allows fans to relieve their Tour de France withdrawals with more racing. Every time the Tour is over, many fans feel like something is missing after they’ve tuned in to three weeks of drama. The Tour de France Femmes will be an opportunistic way to tap into that market, if marketed well.

Tour de France transcends sporting boundaries

Chloe Hosking wins on the Champs-Elysees in Paris

Chloe Hosking wins on the Champs-Elysees in Paris (Image credit: Getty Images)

Chloe Hosking, winner of the 2016 edition of La Course, is also optimistic about the announcement, and shares her experience that “the first thing you get asked as a female cyclist – as any professional cyclist for that matter – is ‘do you, or did you, race the Tour de France?’ For women, you needed to launch into a big explanation of how there isn’t a Tour de France for women but that you’ve ridden and won stages in the women’s equivalent, the Giro d'Italia Donne… But the reality is that the Giro isn’t the equivalent. It doesn’t come anywhere close.

The Tour de France transcends sporting boundaries, like football’s World Cup. Everything about it is unprecedented in women’s cycling; the coverage, the public and media attention, the value for sponsors, the organisation.”

Hosking added “when I won La Course it was broadcast live to something like 197 countries. Now we have eight days of that. Now we can answer, ‘yes, I ride the Tour de France’. It shows the huge step that women’s cycling is making towards parity with men’s cycling. It doesn’t matter if you don’t follow cycling. You watch the Tour de France. Now women’s cycling has the chance to tap into that huge market - for sponsors and athletes that’s huge.”

In addition to the Tour de France Femmes, what do I think of the overall WWT calendar? Well, my opinion has also changed on that too. I used to think that there were too many races and that the WWT should be a shorter list that were truly the pinnacle events, thus creating a better narrative in the season and giving more meaning to the overall leaders jersey. I also thought this because the minimum standards to be a WWT race didn’t seem to be upheld. Since the UCI demoted the Giro d'Italia Donne this year, I’m finally more optimistic about these standards being sustained. The most important aspects for women’s racing are rider safety and live coverage. The Giro Rosa certainly had some ground to make up there.

Further to those reasons, I believed that too many WWT races pushed out the lower-level races that were crucial for the development of younger and less experienced riders. It seemed to me that any race that wasn’t WWT standard eventually was cancelled. According to Procycling Stats, in 2021 there are 25 WWT races, and 96 “women elite” races across the world. Unlike men’s cycling, there are only two tiers in women’s cycling – WWT and Continental. My rough calculations from Procyclingstats told me that for every WWT rider there are 5.5 non-WWT riders. That is a lot of riders who won’t get the call up to race WWT, so it’s important there are plenty of other races for them.

The good news is that in 2022 there is a jump from the 9 current WWT registered teams, up to 15. There will also be an increase in the number of teams invited to WWT races, from 15 to 17. In other words, there is less opportunity for non-WWT teams to be invited to WWT races, but it is somewhat balanced out by the fact that 6 more teams will be automatically invited. Currently there are 52 Continental women’s teams, so there are still many teams that will struggle to get the two extra invitations each race. This is why the elite-level races are so important to maintain. One of my biggest concerns is that the gap between the top and the bottom of the sport is only growing, backed up by statistics collected by The Cyclists’ Alliance.

Now, I think that the WWT calendar is finally getting to the level it should be. Races are being held accountable for their safety and coverage, and there is a much nicer “flow” that creates an interesting arc through the season, as well as logistical sense. Most women’s teams just cannot run a dual program due to limited staffing and vehicles. There are also no more glorified criteriums that should have never had WWT status in the first place. TDF Femmes and RideLondon Classique have stepped up their game in taking women’s racing seriously and that’ll add to other key changes we’ve seen in recent years like the addition of a women’s Paris Roubaix. I wished that I could have raced it, but boy am I excited to watch it when it eventually gets the green light.

In addition, the Battle of the North – a six-day tour replacing the Tour of Norway – will provide a fresh and exciting race for veterans and rookies alike. The race organisers of the long-run Swedish WWT and the Tour of Norway have done a fantastic job over the years in running safe and exciting races with a decent level of coverage. No doubt the new tour will be even better.

Overall, the 2022 WWT is shaping up to be one of the best calendars yet. The addition of the Tour de France Femmes will hopefully bolster the top end of the sport, but it is important to note that there is still work to be done in closing the gap between them and the entry level professional female cyclists. WWT races are extremely hard and making sure there are plenty of other races to continue to nurture and develop the next generation, coupled with the improvements at the top end, will ensure the sustainability of our wonderful sport.

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