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Juliette Labous: French cycling and the return of the women’s Tour de France

Juliette Labous waves to the crowd after winning the French Elite time trial championship between Locmine and Grand Champ 284km western France on August 21 2020 Photo by Damien MEYER AFP Photo by DAMIEN MEYERAFP via Getty Images
Juliette Labous won the elite women's time trial at the 2020 French National Championships (Image credit: Getty Images)

Juliette Labous wasn’t born yet when American Marianne Martin won the first edition of the women’s Tour de France in 1984, or when her compatriots Jeannie Longo, Catherine Marsal and Marion Clignet stood on its podium in the late 80s and early 90s, or when Italian Fabiana Luperini won three consecutive overall titles between 1995-97. 

Labous, 22, was born in 1998 and during her short, but so far, successful four-year career with Team Sunweb, she has become one of the world’s most prominent mountain climbers. In a phone interview with Cyclingnews from the launch of her newly-named Team DSM, Labous admitted that she knew little about the former women’s Tour de France but that it’s possible return in 2022 has the potential to breathe new life into women’s cycling. 

"I have to stay humble and say that I don’t know a lot about its history," Labous, the reigning French time trial champion, told Cyclingnews. "I know Marion [Clignet] and Catherine [Marsal] well, and they are good role models for the young athletes. There was the Route de France, which was not as famous as the women’s Tour de France, with less media but when I was young, I would go to some stages in my region. It was important for me and for my development to be able to watch the women racing at the highest level because I found it motivating. I hope in the future women’s racing can become something bigger."

The first version of a women's Tour de France was held in the 1950s, but it was only one edition. ASO launched its own version of the women's Tour de France between 1984 and 1989, the height of the stage race. There have been other versions over the years, through the 1990s and early 2000s, but it was later reduced to just four stages before it officially ended in 2009. It wasn’t the only top-level stage racing for women in France, but the other events like the Tour de 'lAude ended in 2010 and La Route de France was cancelled in 2016.

Ahead of the seventh edition of La Course, a one-day race held in conjunction with the men’s three-week Tour de France, UCI President David Lappartient confirmed that ASO will launch a stage race for women in 2022, but he could not confirm the route, number of stages, or that it would be officially named as the women's Tour de France.

ASO stressed that it would be 'logistically impossible' to have the men's and women's events held at the same time. It has been reported that ASO are expected to host an eight-day women's race that would start in Paris on the same day the men finished their stage 21 of Tour de France on the Champs Elysées. 

"I was happy when [ASO] announced that, finally, we would have a kind-of Tour de France, or something like a Tour de France, we don’t really know yet what the race will be like but I’m curious to know if it will reach our expectation - I really hope so," Labous said.

"I think they want to step up and bring the level of women’s cycling higher, which will be better than the one-day race that we have so far [La Course]."

Labous said she would welcome a women’s version of the Tour de France, not only for its competition, but also to raise the level of women’s cycling in her country and internationally.  

"I would be very excited to have a women’s Tour de France because as a French rider, you look to the race when you are young and as a girl, we also want to do that race," Labous said. "When someone asks if I have done the Tour de France, I have to say 'no' because there is no Tour de France for the women. So, I really hope that we can have a good women’s Tour de France."

There has been differing points of view regarding the timing of a potential women’s Tour de France. Some people think that the women’s race should be held at the same time as the men’s Grand Tour, while others believe the women’s race would receive its own fan base and media attention if the events were separate.

"It might be better held after the Tour de France, not at the same time," Labous said. "Not being held at the same time means that people can focus more on our race. If it were on the same day, people might only watch the men’s race and not the women’s. Being separate would give us more focus and so that is a good thing." 

French revival

French cycling has been revived in recent years with the level of performances from riders like Labous, Audrey Cordon-Ragot (Trek-Segafredo), Evita Muzic (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), and the multi-discipline world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Canyon), all achieving success on the world stage. On the men’s side, there are French stars Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama–FDJ), but it's been Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck–QuickStep) who has dominated the headlines at the Tour de France, some of the Classics and at the World Championships where he won the men’s road race in Imola in September.

"We did a good job this year, Evita Muzic won a stage at the Giro Rosa and Audrey Cordon-Ragot won a stage at Tour de l’Ardeche. We have several women who can compete at the high level and I think it’s really good for France. The next generation is coming with my age group and a bit younger, so we need to wait a bit for the future to play on the Women’s WorldTour," Labous said.

"Overall the level is good, but it has gone up and down. We had Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, who was really strong and even a world champion, but when she left the road cycling, I think, that there has been a gap, but it’s gotten better and better, and good for the future.

"Julian [Alaphilippe] with the world championship this year, that win was quite special, we [French National Team] were all together there and all watching. That win gave all of French cycling motivation, and some added pressure for the women because we also need to do the same in the future. It’s only positive that the guys have performed so well."

Labous stood on the podium in stages at the Giro Rosa and Tour de Bretagne, while also placing in the top 11 overall and the winner of the youth classification at the Giro Rosa. She was also top 10 overall at Ladies Tour of Norway and Tour of California. 

She will join her Team DSM for a full season of racing in 2021 and hopes to race in the Giro Rosa, which was downgraded to 2.Pro in 2021 due to organisational issues and a lack of live television.  She also aims to continue to develop into a world-class GC contender. In the future, she hopes to be the next French rider to stand on the podium at the women’s Tour de France.

"Yes, I would like to win a women’s Tour de France, for sure, that would be great."

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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.