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Philippa York: The journey to a Tour de France Femmes

La Course by Le Tour de France
La Course by Le Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images)

The 2021 running of the La Course by Le Tour de France may not have appeared as dramatic as the 2018 race when Annemiek van Vleuten overhauled her big rival Anna van der Breggen in the final 20 metres but that's not to say the final edition of the event organised by ASO was boring. Far from it. 

With the ever improving standard of professionalism in women's cycling the number of athletes who are competitive on difficult routes has become larger and as a result more tactical and more entertaining. 

The race distance may have been less than that ridden by the men, who tackled the same climb later in the day, but the women's race included three ascents of it compared to the two that the Tour de France peloton had to negotiate.

Previously, there would have been accusations that would have implied that the race was too hard or too selective for the women but the action we were treated to on Saturday dispelled that notion completely. Each time the race climbed its way to the finishing line the riders attacked the course in a manner that showed the route in itself was no longer the deciding factor, rather it was the speed and level of competition. 

The accelerations were sustained, a variety of teams were involved and the racing provoked a worthy selection who would sprint it out for the victory. Demi Vollering (SD Worx) ultimately beating Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) and Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) in a show of speed similar to her win in Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes this spring. 

Marking the likely end of the one-day format for La Course, it was a fitting stepping stone for ASO, as it now heads towards the next level of development of the sport, namely Le Tour de France Femmes.

With the expansion of the number of Women's WorldTour teams to 15 and the investments finally being made by many of the squads that run men's WorldTour teams, it seems entirely logical that there is a showcase event that the public recognises without explanation. 

As Gracie Elvin has said in a recent feature story Battle Royale, it's been a long hard slog to cajole and generally drag the most influential organiser in cycling to re-establish an event similar in size that they let fizzle out in1989. Known then as the Grande Boucle Feminine it ran before the men's race and thus appeared to be some kind of hors d'oeuvre before the main event.

Therefore, it is an important development that in 2022 the Tour de France Femmes will be a totally separate entity, occurring after the men's race but still in the period when the interest is significant.

The arguments advanced previously that any women's edition of the Tour de France would have to be financially viable seem to have been squashed with the arrival of backers like Zwift, LCL, Leclerc and Liv so as we go towards the opening stage on the July 24, 2022, momentum will build accordingly.

One of the main things that strikes you about the women's peloton is that it remains approachable in terms of access to the people and that the communication with the athletes and staff is easier. When I first went to cover their races it was quite eye opening just how much more accessible, what is now known as, the race bubble was. 

That is the kind of engagement that makes the sport attractive to fans and potential sponsors alike. The fact that their are recognisable characters who are highly marketable makes the promotion of the eight-day race much easier and not only is the women's peloton of an ever-increasing athletic potential but there are so many interesting stories to be told of how they've arrived to be racing in the WorldTour.

Now that ASO has committed to an initial four-year project it'll be interesting to see how they manage the expectations of those who will be directly affected by not only the choice of route but also the overall presentation. 

Of course the variety and the difficulty of the route will be compared to the men's race however some of the choices will be influenced by the current UCI limits that are placed on women's event in terms of distance. Given that there have been promises of proper live coverage of each day, I think we can assume that there'll be an equivalence on the resources given over to the Tour de France Femmes. What remains to be seen is just how much dialogue there'll be with the teams and the other stakeholders.

It would be nice to think when the route is being mapped out that the riders will have some input to the decisions on how difficult, or not, the course is, if only to avoid the assumptions made that certain terrains are beyond them. They've shown they want to do the iconic climbs and with the race taking place in the height of the holiday season it would make sense to see the women's peloton against the spectacular backdrops that have become part of the folklore when the men are in the high mountains.

Another point that has been mentioned about how the sport moves forward is there has to be the appearance of a greater number of women in the management positions. More women coaches and Directeur Sportifs, more of them involved in the day-to-day running of the teams. It's great the structures behind the men's squads are now recognising the value of having a similar female set-up, however a few more women being present in more senior roles is one of the things that would be desirable.

The journey to having a Tour de France Femmes has been a long and sometimes frustrating one for those who believed in its viability. Now that ASO and Christian Prudhomme have laid out their visions for the future of women's cycling as they see it, listening to what the other stakeholders require is a matter of communication and understanding. 

An exchange of information and opinions would be a great help in avoiding assumptions being made and in installing a feeling of equity because the opportunities are there for the event to be a massive success and to have an influence far beyond just the sporting aspects.