Wednesday 29 July 2020

Lets hear it for the women's Tour de France - by Donnons des Elles au Velo!

In exactly a month's time the Tour de France professional race will start, from the sunny town of Nice. Today, a group of around 13 women complete with support staff and team bus will set off from exactly the same place to do the same route of the Tour de France. This is the sixth year that the Donnons des Elles au Velo group are doing this challenge. Normally the stages are ridden one day ahead of the professionals, with the ride being known as J-1. However, with the issues around Covid-19 pandemic the ride is taking place one month ahead of the Amaury Sports Organisation race, and is known as M-1.

This crew of women will be tackling the route of this year's Tour de France

So the women have ahead of them around 3,500km of riding to do all around France over the next three weeks. Their ride is a way of showing solidarity to women's cycling, and is also part of the campaign for there to be a women's Tour de France.  

A women's Tour de France took place between 1984 and 1989, where the likes of Jeannie Longo, Maria Canins, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, and Mandy Jones competed. The race happened at the same time as the men's event, with them racing stages over the last 60km of the men's stage ahead of their arrival. They didn't race all 21 stages, as only selected stages were included in the women's race. Also the women were not professional racers, so many were not sponsored and did the racing more as a hobby. When I recently interviewed Maria Canins and Jeannie Longo for an article I wrote for Rouleur magazine they both had fond memories of that era.

After the women's Tour de France ended it was replaced by a 10-day women's stage race around France, given different names - notably La Grande Boucle Feminine. However, those races were no longer part of Amaury Sports Organisation, and given that these races took place at a separate time of the year from the professional Tour de France race, women's racing happened largely under the radar.

So Donnons des Elles au Velo, by doing this M-1 ride are joining the chorus of people from different corners who would like to see a women's Tour de France be restored. At the moment, there is a one-day race, La Course. This year that will take place on the first day of the Tour de France, in Nice. However, many feel that having a stage race would be a more positive way for ASO to show its commitment to women's professional racing.

So, here we are in Nice with a group of motivated women about to ride their Tour de France feminin. It hasn't been an easy ride for them.

The route: 21 stages; 3443km; 6000m of climbing - a bit more than doing Surrey Hills!

Bear in mind that France went into lockdown for two months and they lived through a proper lockdown. People were only allowed to go out for one hour per day, and couldn't be more than 1km from their home. So that didn't bode well when trying to get in training rides.
A lot of rides were done on Zwift, plus a lot of Crossfit, virtual body toning classes, and a little bit of running. But admittedly, none of this can really replicate the 6,000km+ that people do as part of their preparation.

Furthermore, some were directly affected by the Covid-19 crisis as they were working on the front-line; or they even suffered from coronavirus themselves. Claire, the team leader lost her sense of taste and smell and experienced psychological effects from the disease too.

One of the team members, Caroline who lives in London managed to make the trip across to Nice, but her bike had still not arrived in France the day before the race! 

But despite all the various impediments and measures in place, the women finally made it to the start line, all rearing to go.

I will be following the fortunes of Donnons des Elles au Velo as the wend their way around France. I too, would like to see a women's Tour de France - though the form it would take would need to be carefully considered. My main motivation for following this M-1 ride is my interest in seeing how this group of women are able to inspire people through taking on such an onerous challenge against the inherent obstacles of a 3-week stage race plus the additional issues that we have today. 
The women come from all parts of France, and beyond, including the UK

You can follow the women's progress on their Facebook page. On their website you can find out more about them and sign up for free to ride individual stages with them. I will also be catching up with them to hear how they are getting on.

Photo Credits: Mickael Gagne and Marie Istil

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