Sunday 31 July 2022

The Tour de France Femmes est arrivee!

The day finally came for the women's Tour de France, known as the Tour de France Femmes with Zwift. 

After years of campaigning Amaury Sports Organisation finally put on a women's stage race around France, that can become the race of reference for pro women. Also, given that it was happening at the time of the men's Tour de France the women's race had a high profile, media coverage, and hopefully a lot of public interest.

I had a media pass to attend stage 1, which started from the Eiffel Tower and consisted of 8 laps around central Paris, going along the same route that the men use during their customary finish in Paris at the end of the Tour de France each year.

The last time the women's pro peloton raced around the streets of Paris was during the first edition of La Course, 10 years ago. This race was the predecessor event to what ASO are now organising for the women's pro peloton. At the time the event took place first thing on the Sunday morning, with not much of an audience. Granted, the event was televised but then at that time of the morning there would have been a limited audience to see Marianne Vos cross the finish line and do her victory salute.

However, this event was a very different matter. This was the culmination of a lot of campaigning, negotiations and behind the scenes preparation. There had been a lot of publicity in the months running up to the event, and it had been the talk of the town among all cycling fans.

So the day had finally come, and this would be the first day of  a week-long Tour de France Femmes. Although described as a tour of France, the stages were going to be largely in the Alsace and Vosges, just in Eastern France.

On this hot sunny day in July I got on my bicycle and made my way from my lodgings in Vincennes to the press centre, just behind the Champs Elysees. It was my first time going to the press centre for the final day of the Tour de France (and the first day of the Tour de France Femmes) and the thing that struck me most was the number of road closures, even for bicycles.

It is understandable to have heavy security at such a grand scale event in central Paris, but recent unfortunate events such as terrorist attacks and the "gilets jaunes" rioters meant that police presence was omnipresent, complete with machine guns and even CRS (like the UK equivalent of the SAS). All this made it difficult, once I arrived at Concorde to get to the area just across the road from me. My trip involved a real tour of Paris. Then as if that wasn't enough there was a lot of haggling with the ASO staff to get through to the Media Centre. A few other journalists with me also encountered the same difficulties - an officious guy refusing pass down the small avenue to reach the media centre and folks angrily remonstrating. All that added about an hour to my journey and by the time I reached the media centre I was ready for a rest. There was no way I was going to venture across to the start line of the women's race at the Eiffel Tower, and preferred to stay where I was and watch them on the Champs Elysees, as well as on the TV in the media centre.

This was definitely a historic moment, with plenty of spectators watching the first stage in the afternoon sunshine in central Paris. There had been so much build-up to this day - with the various column inches having been written about the history of women's Tour de France races in the past, analysis of the route, pundits views on how will win, and that's before counting all the various initiatives by Zwift, Santini and other sponsors.

In the end, for me, when the big day came, the significance of this moment was forgotten - perhaps because of all the logistical hassle, perhaps not - and it was all about reporting on a women's cycle race and then dashing off to the media centre for the post-race press conference.

I know there were probably people who really were smitten by the occasion, and were quite emotional about it. I can't say why I didn't feel that way. I think that for me, the big moment came when there was the announcement of the race last year and the grand reveal of the route in Autumn in Paris. Thereafter, I wanted to just focus on the job in hand and the racing itself. There's a limit to how much you can say about a historical moment, and when it comes to sport, the engagement comes through exciting racing.

It was a fast-paced race with a couple of crashes during the 82km circuit race around the Champs Elysees, Concorde and Rivoli. Different women went off the front for a spot of limelight under the lenses of the world's media, but the main bunch with the protagonists largely stayed together. In the end the result was decided by a showdown between the most experienced racer, Marianne Vos, and her young compatriot Lorena Wiebes. The youthful pre-race favourite, Wiebes crossed the finish line on the most iconic of avenues and ended up on the podium in the yellow jersey. It would have been good to see Marianne Vos up there, but Wiebes was a very worthy winner. Marianne Vos (possibly the greatest racer of all time) did get to wear the Green Jersey at the end of the 8-stage race. Sadly, Lorena Wiebes, who went on to win a second stage, withdrew from the race on Stage 7 as a result of a crash the previous day. 

The other overall winner, Annemiek Van Vleuten did it in combattive style after having had setbacks during the early stages, including racing with an upset stomach and having stop on the roadside for a poo during the hilly stage to Epernay. On the final stage, with a commanding lead over her second-placed rival, Demi Vollering, Van Vleuten encountered mechanical problems and had to change bike twice. Yet she still found it in her to stay head of everyone on the legendary climb up the Superplanche des Belles Filles.

For me, that is sort of thing that excited me about the Tour de France Femmes. Women now have a stage race of reference. Rather than repeating the "wow women have a Tour de France", I want to move things on and say "Wow, wasn't that an exciting race." And I am glad to have been able to say that about this inaugural Tour de France Femmes.

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