Monday 31 July 2023

Women's Tour de France delivers drama and new stars

Tour de France Femmes peloton on the stage to Albi (photo: Thomas Maheux)

Following the successful staging of the reborn Tour de France Femmes in 2022, this year's edition of the event, sponsored by Zwift didn't fail to disappoint.

Last year's women's Tour de France Femmes began to the fanfare of the women racing Stage 1 on the Champs Elysees a few hours before the men's concluding stage of their Tour de France. The women then contested their remaining stages of their Tour in the East of France, in the Alsace/Vosges area with an exciting finale on the Superplanche des Belles Filles.

I must admit that when I saw that this year's stage would be starting from Clermont Ferrand, it seemed a slight downer compared with the iconic landmarks of central Paris. Granted, the event was in the shadow of the Puy de Dome, but the famous road up the extinct volcano was not included in the women's race itinerary.

However, the race more than made up for it with the final stages snaking through the Pyrenees, over the col d'Aspin and the col du Tourmalet, culminating in a time trial on undulating roads around Pau. 

Lotte Kopecky (photo: Getty Sport)
What also makes the race are the riders. It was no surprise to see women from the mighty SD Worx team occupying the upper echelons of the General Classification rankings, but it wasn't totally one-way traffic for the Netherlands-registered team flush with National, European and former World Champions. This made the overall racing exciting and introduced an element of suspense - an important ingredient for an engaging sports competition.

Where the men's Tour de France solicited a guessing game about whether Tadej Pogacar or Jonas Vingegaard would come out on top, the women's race led to debates around whether it would be Movistar's Annemiek Van Vleuten who would replicate her triple Grand Tour victories from last year (she had already won the women's Vuelta a Espana, and Giro Donne) or whether Demi Vollering would stop her compatriot in her ascendancy.  

After Vollering drew first blood by thanks to the stage one victory by Belgian National Champion Lotte Kopecky, allowing her SD Worx team to seize the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) and keep it thanks to further stage victories from Lorena Wiebes (stage 3) and Marlen Reusser (stage 8). However the team was punished with setbacks which could have toppled its aspirations. In reality, these problems were self-inflicted and would have been associated more with a small newbie team, than with a dominant World Tour Team led by some of the most experienced riders and sports directors in the women's peloton.

On Stage 4 from Cahors to Rodez, won by a breakaway rider Yara Kastelijn (Fenix-Deceuninck), Vollering crossed the finish line in a celebratory mood, in second place after bursting forward from her group. She had not realised there was another rider further up the road who had won the stage - despite her having radio communication with her team mates and sports director, and knowing that there had been a breakaway which had as much as 10 minutes time advantage over the GC chasing group at one point.  

The following day, during Stage 5, SD Worx effected a bike change for Vollering when she got a puncture. Looking at the TV pictures, the bike change must have been the slowest change in the history of bike racing! Unsurprisingly the rider lost a significant amount of time on the peloton including her GC contender rivals, so she slipstreamed off her team car in order to be paced back to the bunch. 

It wasn't plain sailing for SD Worx (photo: Thomas Maheux)

The only problem was her sports director drove down the wrong side of the road, dangerously overtaking, and potentially putting other participants in danger. 

After an initial reprimand from the race commissaire during the race for excessive slipstreaming and dangerous overtaking, sports director Danny Stam received a 200CHF fine and Vollering received a 100CHF fine. Stam was later expelled from the race after dismissing the UCI commissaires' ruling as ridiculous. 

While SD Worx had the means to pay the fine and co-sports director Anna van der Breggen could still manage matters during the race, the real bite came when Vollering received a 20-second time penalty which relegated her from second to seventh place in the GC, and 12 seconds behind Van Vleuten. This was in addition to the double whammy of seeing Movistar's Emma Norsgaard (Jorgensen) sprint to win Stage 6 into Blagnac ahead of yellow jersey wearer, Kopecky on the eve of the decisive weekend for the race.

During the decisive penultimate stage from Lannemezan to Tourmalet, Van Vleuten and Vollering had a face-off on the lower slopes of the giant of the Pyrenees. There was no love lost between these two Dutch girls - even less so since last year's Tour de France Femmes, as well as this year's Vuelta a Espana when Vollering believed Van Vleuten had been unsporting en route to her historic win. [Van Vleuten allegedly attacked while Vollering, who was in the lead, took a loo break.]

Such stand-offs can actually be advantageous to others, as Canyon SRAM's Kasia Niewiadoma found when she launched her own attack off the front, staying away until shortly before the finish line when eventual winner Vollering caught her, though the Pole still stayed ahead of Van Vleuten by more than half-a-minute. Deservedly Niewiadoma was awarded the polka dot jersey for the Queen of the Mountains.

An emotional Demi Vollering on realising she's won the Tour de France Femmes (Thomas Maheux)

What we learned during this Tour de France Femmes was that contrary to fellow competitor Elisa Longo Borghini who once described Van Vleuten as an alien, the all-powerful Movistar rider is human. She began to show signs of weakness and fatigue as the route passed through the mountain villages of St Marie de Campan, and La Mongie, and the World Champion was unable to match Vollering's attack through the mist in the Hautes Pyrenees as she crossed the finish line over two and a half minutes ahead of Van Vleuten as the new wearer of the yellow jersey. 

Similarly, at the closing time trial, where Van Vleuten has traditionally prevailed, she was also caught wanting, when she finished in 14th place, over 1 minute 40 seconds behind Reusser.

So it wasn't to be for Vleuty, who finished in fourth place in the GC almost four minutes behind the victorious Vollering. Meanwhile the SD Worx camp enjoyed huge celebrations following Reusser's victory in the time trial, Lotte Kopecky's green jersey, and Vollering's maiden yellow jersey for her overall win at the Tour de France Femmes.

As well as the battle between these two arch-rivals, this Tour de France Femmes was also spiced up by young guns going for it - new riders, young riders, smaller teams, throwing themselves out there and trying their chances for a stage win.

A crash-filled Stage 2 saw Lianne Lippert take flight with a maiden victory. The young team-mate of Van Vleuten finished ahead of Kopecky who punctured before the finish line after being led out by Vollering. Stage 3 saw the dreams of Julie Van de Velde of the young team Fenix-Deceuninck crushed as she was caught agonisingly close to the finish line after launching a long breakaway. Her cyclocrosser team-mate Kastelijn (who eventually won the overall combativity prize) finished the business by winning Stage 4 into Rodez. 

Ricarda Bauernfeind, new kid on the block (Thomas Maheux)

In spectacular style Ricarda Bauernfeind, a recent arrival at Canyon-SRAM having been in the development structure Canyon-Generation took the biggest win of her short career in stage 5 (from Onet-le-Chateau to Albi) and at age 23 years and three months she became the youngest winner of a TDFF stage.

Additionally, the likes of Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, racing for the newly formed AG Insurance-Soudal-Quick-Step team, whose sport director is former racer Jolien d'Hoore, also put time into Van Vleuten on the slopes of the Tourmalet. Kopecky who is known as a sprinter and also a handy track cyclist emerged as the Wout Van Aert of women's racing as she also put in a sterling ride in the mountains.

So all in all, the Tour de France Femmes this year turned out to be an engaging race, with interesting stories and talking points, excitement, intrigue, and new stars. 

As much as I like Van Vleuten and it would have been a good note on which the 40-year old could close out career, doing the triple, I must say that I am happy that there were a few twists and turns in the competition. Although SD Worx dominated in the rankings, we certainly saw fearless challenges from riders across the spectrum of age, experience, and team strength.

                              Jersey winners: L-R: Cedrine Kerbaol, Kasia Niewiadoma, Demi Vollering,
Lotte Kopecky (photo: Thomas Maheux) 

Next year's Tour de France Femmes with Zwift will start in the Netherlands, and we will find out the full itinerary in October. I look forward to seeing what 2024 will bring.

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Saturday 29 July 2023

Freewheeling - Identity politics and cycling

In this day and age there seems to be significant importance placed on an individual's race, gender, sexual orientation etc. No more is this more so than in the world of sport.

When someone wins a race the headlines scream the first woman/person of colour/gay person/disabled person etc. Then it is immediately followed by "they are inspiring others to do the same", "they carry the hopes of this group of people", "they are using their platform to encourage others" etc etc.

2022 Black Unity Bike Ride (photo: BUBR by RaphaWEB) 

It's something I have never really understood. Firstly, when I take part in an event I have never thought of checking out who else is doing that activity or what they looked like. If I see a black woman doing an activity I am no more likely to be inspired by her than if I see a white man doing that activity. I can't get inspired by someone purely based on their appearance. Why on earth would I identify with someone whose life I know nothing about? To say that they "look like me" because they are a black female seems totally crass, in the same way as when sports commentators in the 1980s would say they couldn't tell one competitor from another "because they all look the same".

So to say that folks are more likely to do an event if they see people who "look like them", or saying that people of the same race, gender or sexual orientation have the same issues, is like saying all black people are the same, all women are the same etc. Now that would be considered as a racist or sexist remark, and the person saying this would be sacked from their job.

Yet, we have groups, even events cropping up based on people's specific characteristics. I previously wrote about what is now known as the Women of Colour Cycling Collective. There is also a Black Cyclist's Network, Brothers on Bikes (for Muslims), plus similar groups for other sporting activities. My thoughts on those groups are the same - if you want to take part in those sporting activities, why not go to existing groups - even encourage your black friends to come with you, and be part of a multi-racial group just like our society is. I don't understand why sporting activities should become a racial matter and why people want to revert to segregation that folks campaigned against for decades. I have done various sporting activities for decades, including cycling, swimming, running, trail running, skiing, hiking. I have never felt a need to join a specific group of black people to do those activities with.

Black Unity Bike Ride

So, as it happens an event known as the Black Unity Bike Ride is taking place in early August. According to the organisers the ride was created in the aftermath of the George Floyd incident and "calls for the black community to unite against social injustice and inspire more active well being. The ride creates support for the capital'ss underrepresented demographics to take the city's streets and increase the diversity of the current cycling population in the captial.  I must say I have difficulties understanding this thinking. I don't see the link between the killing of George Floyd and riding a bicycle, or how riding a bicycle has a link to social injustice.  

It is true that fewer black people ride a bicycle than white people. Statistics from Sport England show that 75% of people from an ethnically diverse background don't ride a bicycle. O black people are the least represented ethnic group in cycling, with only 57% of black people actively cycle, and only 22% consider themselves to be experienced cyclists. There are various reasons to explain that. 

Fewer black people than other ethnicities cycle regularly; this could be down to various reasons (photo: BUBR by RaphaWEB)

In my immediate family there were seven people. I was the only person who rode a bicycle consistently as a sport as well as to commute. My relatives just weren't that interested in cycling, even though a couple of my siblings watched me in cycle races. 

My dad bought himself a road bike in the 80s (a Peugeot) but he hardly ever rode it, preferring to do other activities. As a child, one of my sisters was invited on a bike ride and went, but came back from it non-plussed about her experience and wasn't minded to do it anymore. My parents and other black people I have met considered cycling something you did because you couldn't afford a car or hadn't yet learned how to drive. Once you had a car, a bicycle was surplus to requirement! This might sound old fashioned but there are many people who still have those opinions. 

But instead, many folks have been quick to play the race card, claiming that some sort of social exclusion or even structural racism is the reason for the lower level of participation. I would be interested to see the evidence to support that.

Sure, there are plenty of black adults who have never learned to ride a bicycle due to fear of the machine - just like there are white people in the same situation. There are various Bikeability schemes where folks can learn. They are not race specific. Fear of bike riding doesn't have a colour.

This event bringing together black cyclists consists of a 17-mile bike ride through London (from Leyton to Dulwich), with a mini festival taking place in a park at the end of the ride. Sounds a great set-up for an event. A few years ago I did a similar ride, the Tweed Run, which also concluded with a party in a park. That event was for folks to celebrate their shared love for Tweed fashion and retro bikes - something of interest to any type of person. Indeed the event had men, women, folks of various ethnicities and nationalities turning out in their twill breaches and brogues of various hues, on penny farthings and other vintage steeds from different decades. 

However, this upcoming  event is aimed at black people and the party in the park will have refreshments provided care of companies run by black people, selling foods that celebrate black culture - so-called Black Eats London. 

I certainly like the idea of what they call a "carnival on wheels" - maybe a cycling version of the Notting Hill Carnival, which has a diverse population taking part. I also think that it's good to celebrate a culture. Though I must say "black culture" seems like a clumsy phrase considering that black people aren't just one monolith. We inhabit as many parts of the world as white people, and we come from a multitude of cultures.

BUBR 2022 (photo: BUBR)

The idea that this ride would be motivated by social injustice is the aspect that I don't like, considering  that cycling is not a matter of social justice or injustice. It's just about getting on a bike if you want, or not doing the activity if it's not your bag. There are so many pastimes to choose from nowadays - people are free to shun cycling in favour of other sports. I don't see a problem with that. 

According to Ajasa-Oluwa, the ride was created "with the aim of inspiring more unity and a sense of empowerment." It targets the "black community" and is keen to diversify cycling. 

I must say I don't think I could describe a ride with just black people as a way of diversifying the sport, so much as driving it back towards segregation. 

Pride Rides

Pride ride (photo: Pride Ride)
Another set of events that took place were the Pride Rides - bike rides for LGBTQ+ individuals which raised money for a cycling programme for the transgender charity, Not A Phase. On the back of that is a film about the rides called Shifting Gears. My first impression is that I am not sure what the need is for this. We've gotten used to Gay Pride marches that take place in cities around the world, and sure some of these events are a hugely flamboyant spectacle to the observer. But is a specific bike ride really needed?

To an extent, I buy into this more than the rides based on race, because there is a very specific debate and public consciousness around transgender athletes taking part in sport. Regardless of one's views on the matter, there is a case for raising awareness of these emerging issues experienced by transgender athletes competing in elite sports and what category they would be in. There have also been issues around male footballers or rugby players coming out of the closet about their sexuality.

So I guess these initiatives are ways of highlighting challenges that some LGBTQ+ and particularly transgender athletes are experiencing when competing at a high level in sports, including cycling. 

Pride Ride 2023 (photo: Pride ride)


Having said all of the above, I still wonder about the need, in both cases to organise rides that specifically group together people based on a physical characteristic. It would be more acceptable if white people were to attend the Black Unity Bike Ride - even give it another name that welcomes all races. Have different types of food from various countries as refreshments. Ditto for the Pride Rides - why not have heterosexuals there too?

We hear of certain groups of people in society talk about feeling excluded. Surely, if the goal is to feel included, it seems counteractive, even divisive to organise events with just their own people involved. So in effect, those who complain about feeling excluded end up becoming the ones excluding others. 

That's not something that I could ever subscribe to, and I look forward to the day when folks understand how unhelpful these sorts of groups can be if the aim is for a more unified population in cycling, and in the wider society. 

Related posts

Freewheeling - Keeping away from cycling activists

Women of colour cycling group - is it necessary?

As featured in Rouleur magazine

Tuesday 4 July 2023

Book review: Le Fric: Family, Power, and Money: the Business of the Tour de France - Alex Duff

This isn't a newly released book, given that it went on general sale last year. I finally got around to reading it at the beginning of this year as part of my research prior to doing an interview with members of the Amaury family. 

They are the top brass behind the Tour de France, plus other well known names in sport - the (Paris) Dakar Rally, Paris Marathon, L'Equipe newspaper, as well as other well-known cycle races such as Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Nice.

I had previously interviewed the then CEO, Marie-Odile Amaury for Cyclist magazine. This year I interviewed her children, Aurore and Jean-Etienne, who have since taken over the reins at the head of the family business, for Rouleur magazine. The feature article is now out in the current issue of the magazine (Issue 120). 

Alex Duff is a writer and journalist specialising in sport, and this is his second book, the first one being about the business side of football. Le Fric looks at the business end of the world's most famous cycle race for the main part, and therefore includes the story behind the Amaurys - the A in ASO, organisers of some of the most iconic sports events. 

The book traces the early days of the the publishing and printing business started by Emilien Amaury after the second world war, how the Tour de France was incorporated into the business, along with other pivotal moments - the printing strike at L'Equipe, a dispute over the family inheritance, the globalisation of the Tour de France, plus attempts by third parties to acquire the event. It also talks about other business interests, mainly other (former) publications such as Les Echos and Le Parisien newspapers. 

All this is told across the timeline of big sporting moments in the race - the Greg Lemond vs Laurent Fignon 8-second margin, the Women's Tour de France in the 1980s, the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, the emergence of British cycle racers as a dominant force, including the first Brit to win La Grande Boucle, Bradley Wiggins. 

Duff also describes how the business of the Tour de France is run, or at least how he interprets it. The book portrays the running of the Tour as being a parochial family business, with the executives having a hotline to the French government, given that this huge summer sporting event is an integral part of French society and culture. 

He is not very flattering towards the family, portraying Marie-Odile as a tough cookie who is totally intransigent in her discussions with cycling team managers. He also describes Jean-Etienne as looking like "a choirboy reading from a church lectern" when he gives his annual speech during the presentation of the Tour de France route.

Overall, it is an interesting read, regardless of whether you are a cycle racing aficionado. It would be of interest tovthose who are interested in how sport works, as well as the life stories of the Amaury family, and key players in professional cycle racing. There's quite a detailed account on EF Education Easypost team manager, Jonathan Vaughters, as well as stories on the racing and managerial career of Groupama-FDJ's Marc Madiot.

Ironically, for a family so heavily involved in media, they are pretty media shy. They hardly ever give interviews. Their executive assistant told me that she turns away practically every bid from journalists. So I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak to Marie-Odile, Aurore and Jean-Etienne Amaury, and I note that they were very pleasant, amenable and open during the interviews.

When I spoke of Alex Duff's book to them Jean-Etienne was not too pleased about the uncharitable way they had been portrayed, and said that there were sections that weren't true either. They preferred not to ignore the book.

I like how the book makes for an interesting tour around the workings of past and present  professional cycle racing, and I did enjoy some of the anecdotes, particularly on people that I see today. But it seems that there may need to be a pinch of salt taken when reading the stories. 

Related posts 

Excitement at the reborn Women's Tour de France 

Book review: Where there's a will - Emily Chappell

Catching up with Groupama-FDJ

Saturday 1 July 2023

As featured in Rouleur magazine: Groupe Amaury

As with most cycling magazines during the month July, Rouleur (issue 120) has dedicated its issue to the Tour de France.

I am very happy to have my interview article on the Amaury Group featured. Groupe Amaury (as the French company is officially known) is the family-run parent company of Amaury Sports Organisation, the organisers of Tour de France and many other large-scale cycle races and sports events. 

The interview was with the joint Chief Executive Officers, siblings Jean-Etienne and Aurore Amaury. I had the pleasure of going to the ASO offices on the edge of Paris to meet them, earlier this year.

My visit took me to a four-storey glassy building at Boulogne-Billancourt overlooking the river Seine close to the Ile Saint Germain, and I got there quite easily by taking the metro from the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord, out to Marcel Sembat metro station. This was where the two main entities of Groupe Amaury, ASO and Equipe Media are housed.

On my arrival I was met in the buzzing reception by Lara, the executive assistant to the Jean-Etienne, Aurore, and their mother, Marie-Odile, who is still president of the organisation. I interviewed each of the siblings in turn in a meeting room on the top floor of the building. Apart from when Jean-Etienne greeted me in English (a language he speaks fluently after having studied in California, and previously worked for Bloomberg in London) all interviews were conducted in French.

Both Jean-Etienne and Aurore were friendly and amenable, and I was particularly appreciative of Jean-Etienne giving an hour of his time for the interview. Bear in mind that the Amaury family do not normally speak to the media, and hardly ever give interviews. I was therefore honoured to have had the opportunity to speak to the siblings (and also Marie-Odile a couple of years ago for another cycling publication). 

Jean-Etienne heads up ASO, whose principle activity is sports events. So it was also good to talk to him not just about the Tour de France but also other events that I had taken part in - the Etape du Tour, Paris Marathon, and the Paris Triathlon.

Aurore is the president of Equipe Media, which includes the daily sports newspaper and magazine, the television channel, and the website. They also sponsor awards, notably the Ballon d'Or football event. She was quite excited about the build-up to the Paris Olympics, which will be a big event for the organisation. After the interviews I was then shown around the television studios. Interestingly, for all of the company's heritage in cycling, the highest viewing figures don't come from watching the pro peloton. Cycling comes third behind football and biathlon (cross country skiing and rifle shooting).

Through my interviews I got a good idea of the family and how they tick. They seemed very down-to-earth and don't have any particular airs and graces. They are proud to be part of an event that is at the heart of French culture - the Tour de France. Sport is a very important part of their lives, and their mission is to make it available on a professional as well as mass participation scale. So it is unlikely that they would be selling any of their brands any time soon, despite different approaches to buy the Tour de France at different moments in history. 

I am happy with the finished result of the article and the way it looks, especially with the photographs taken of them by James Startt.

After my morning spent at ASO/Equipe Media I then went on a walk around the pleasant park on the Ile Saint-Germain, and on to Issy les Moulineaux, passing through the undulating Jardin Delphine Boulay from where there were impressive views of the Eiffel Tower. 

Then it was a case of catching the Metro into central Paris where I enjoyed a late lunch before returning to London.  

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