Friday 15 October 2021

Excitement at the reborn Women's Tour de France - it doesn't need to be three weeks long!

At Palais des Congrès, Paris
Yesterday I attended the presentation of the 2022 Tour de France, at the Palais des Congrés at Porte Maillot, Paris. 

It's a pretty big affair with the auditorium being packed out with a couple of thousand people - among them, team riders, sponsors, dignitaries, community cycling groups, and journalists. 

This event always garners excitement - finding out what novelties there will be in the route, but the really noteworthy thing was the unveiling of the route of the inaugural Women's Tour de France. 

Yes, a women's version of the men's 108-year old event will take place next year. As the men finish their race on Champs Elysees on 24th July, the women will begin their event shortly afterwards at the Eiffel Tower.

The race will then consist eight stages, all in the North Eastern part of France, and will have use the infrastructure of the men's event organised by Amaury Sports Organisation, as well as being televised.

After the 82km-race around central Paris, the remaining stages will be around 130km, passing through towns like Meaux, Epernay, Troyes, Bar-le-Duc, with a 175km-stage to Saint Die Des Vosges and finish on the really challenging Superplanche des Belles Filles. 

Auditorium filling up at Palais des Congrès

Although they will only be racing for eight days, the women will have some pretty tough stages. A couple of stages will include steep gravel roads, and a couple of stages will go over the Grande Ballon, the Petit Ballon, and the Ballon d'Alsace - some infamously steep hills in the Vosges regions. 

The stage race will see an exciting end as women have to race up the 20%+ gradients of the Superplanche des Belles Filles, and sprint to the finish line along a 1km uphill stretch of gravel road.

These stages do look exciting, and it will be great to see them getting the scheduled two-hours' TV coverage that was announced, as women contesting for a share of the 250,000-euro (£210k) prize fund.

This is not the first time an ASO-organised women's Tour de France is taking place. This event took place between 1984 and 1989, with the winning woman being pictured on the podium alongside the winning man. The women did not win any prize money, and the event was not televised (though there was print media coverage). However, the event was not financially viable and was difficult to manage logistically.

Much campaigning has been done for a women's ASO-organised event that would get the same coverage, and be on par with the men's event. Since 2014, a one-day race, La Course has taken place during the Tour de France, on the route of one stage of the Tour de France, and that was televised. However, activists were quite dissatisfied with the event and saw it as a token gesture.

When this women's route was revealed, the audience response was positive, with spontaneous applause. The professional women racers I spoke to - Audrey Cordon-Ragot, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Elisa Balsamo, and Evita Muzic - for Cycling News, were glad to have Tour de France and saw the route as correct, and in line with their expectations.

Tour de France Femmes with Zwift 2022 route

Some observers have bemoaned the fact that this so-called Tour of France is only concentrated within one region within Northern France, and is only eight stages long. But it has to be understood that a) women's road racing teams are smaller than men's teams (~13 riders vs. 30 respectively) and so there is less rotation of riders in races. Riders end up doing different types of races back-to-back, where men's teams operate a double roster. So a women's team doesn't have enough riders to compete in three-week stage races; 

b) there are a few stage races taking place within a short time frame - the Women's Tour of Italy, the Women's Tour, and another new stage race in Scandinavia (Battle of the North), so rider well-being needs to be kept in mind when setting out the number of stages in a race (as well as following the UCI rules on the length of races); c) over an eight-stage race it would be impractical to move the whole peloton across large geographic areas of France within an eight-day time frame.

In the last nine years that I have interviewed professional women, I have never met anyone who said they wanted to do a three-week stage race with 200km stages. It seems that these calls have been from activists who are calling out for their ideals of what equality means, independently of what current professional women's peloton actually want.

So I would rather take my lead from the feedback of the professional women racers. For them, the rebirth of a women's Tour de France is a very positive thing, and so I am inclined to agree with that. Of course, there are a few outstanding elements like a lack of a time trial stage. 

Also, the prize money, though significantly higher than other women's races is still a long way behind the 2.3M-euro (£1.9M) fund set aside for the men's Tour de France. This is something that can only really be addressed over time as media organisations gain confidence in televising women's cycle races and viewer numbers increase.

What has been announced is a good start, and I look forward to seeing the race play out next year. As Tour Director Christian Prudhomme says, I like to see it as something that will still be going in 100 year's time.

[I also wrote about the Tour de France reveal for The Times. Link here.]

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