Friday 8 March 2024

52 Cycling Voices - 37: Marion Rousse

Amaury Sports Organisation are the organisers of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, and like with its other races it appoints a director. The men's Tour de France has Christian Prudhomme, while the women's equivalent is Marion Rousse. For such an event ASO couldn't have chosen a more appropriate person for the job, given Ms Rousse's very strong pedigree. 

Born into a cycle racing family, Marion recalls going to watch her father compete in semi-professional races when she was barely five years old. A couple of years later she was racing herself, and went on to become a professional racer and French National Champion. Marion has since retired and become a sports broadcaster and gained experience as a director of other races. 

I had the pleasure of interviewing Marion on a few occasions and was impressed at how industrious she is, as well as being a new mother  and partner to one of the most successful road racers, two-time world champion Julian Alaphilippe.

Marion Rousse, aged 32

From: Valenciennes

Lives: Andorra

Occupation: Director, Tour de France Femmes and Sports broadcaster for France Televisions 

I am the director of the Tour de France Femmes and Consultant for France Televisions Sports, as well as being a mum - though being a mum is what takes up the most of my time.

There is a lot to manage, but my life has always been about doing different things in various places with full days. And as well as that I am always doing bike-related things - something I love.

I started cycle racing aged six, so I’ve always had a routine to follow throughout my life. It comes naturally to have to manage a routine so that's no different. It comes naturally, though now that I have little Nino, I try not to travel too far away from him and I bring him with me as much as I can. It’s lovely to get home on a Sunday evening and spend time with him. It’s a routine that I have managed to establish, and I feel lucky to be able to do what I love.

Having Nino has been the biggest change in my life, and probably the same for people who become a parent. Having a baby changes your life and your priorities, and my biggest priority is Nino. I would say it has given me a calmer more mature outlook on my job in a way I didn’t have before. I certainly feel like I have grown up a lot since I became a mum.

When I’m at home I leave my telephone aside and dedicate myself 100% to Nino, and to Julian when he is home. It’s true that it’s my form of self-preservation when I am at home. As I may only have one day at home, I cut myself off from work things so that I can give myself the time I need to relax, otherwise I would explode! 

In my free time I look to do sport. That’s the thing I really need to do. I feel good physically and mentally when I have done a bit of jogging or cycling. I also like to go for relaxing walks in the countryside when I can, in the afternoons with Nino and Julian. Julian is into music, and so he plays his electronic drumkit sometimes.  

We live in Andorra for part of the year and then I do day trips to Paris at times. Then with my job I am lucky enough to travel to various events around France. One would say I live a bit all over France!

I am originally from near Valenciennes. I am a proper northerner, and grew up in a village where there were 600 inhabitants. So it was really in the countryside where there wasn’t even a boulangerie. A famous film called Welcome to the Sticks was based in that area. My parents still live in the area and I go up when the Paris-Roubaix race is on as they live really close to one of the cobbled sections. 

When I was growing up I was always watching bike races on TV with the family. There wasn’t a single televised race that I missed – whether it was Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de France or Tour of Flanders. Roubaix was special for me because I was in a cycling academy and I did all my championship races at the velodrome in Roubaix, and the local championships were held there each year. So as Northerners we were really proud watching the Paris-Roubaix and I could say, ahh the Roubaix Velodrome, I’ve already won races there. I would often ride some of the cobbled sectors too. 

I would have liked to race the women's Paris-Roubaix, even if it is a poisoned chalice as it is nevertheless the most difficult race in the world. It’s the most tiring race mentally and physically. It might be flat, but the paves are so difficult and in such a bad state that when you ride them you are aching everywhere – on your arms, your fingers, everywhere, though less on the legs as it is quite an atypical course. 

I think I would have loved doing it, as much as I would have hated doing it. But it’s sure I would have still been on the start line to do it if I'd had the opportunity. 

I was born into cycle racing. My cousins raced professionally, and my dad also raced at a high level as he was a first category rider. So as a baby I was already at the roadside in the buggy, watching bike races. Cycling really has been there all my life. After a while I had enough of being at the side of the road cheering on my dad; I wanted to have a go at cycle racing. So when I announced to him, aged six, that I wanted to get into cycling he wasn’t in favour of it at first. He said it was too hard and I was too young.

So, one day my mum secretly signed me up to race. Then when my dad returned from work I showed him my licence, saying there you go dad, I can now race. He just laughed and said, “Okay you can race but I’m telling you now, we won’t be going to races every weekend.” We went the following weekend, and in the end he became my coach and he did accompany me to all the races after that.

I have an older sister, Flavie, who is six years older than me. We have very different temperaments, which was obvious from birth. My sister has always been very calm and relaxed, whereas I’ve always been the one who would run around everywhere and always on the move. I was always energetic getting into rough and tumble and would come home with my clothes all dirty and with lumps and bumps on my body. That thing of running around energetic doing lots of activities has still continued into adulthood.

I raced at a time when women’s cycling was not as developed as it is now and was not so professional. There were big differences in the level of racing. Some women were very strong, earned higher salaries and won a lot and then there was everyone else. I was at Lotto Soudal, but had to work at the same time in order to earn a living. So it was by chance that I got the opportunity to be a commentator for a few cycle races on TV. Initially I was both a professional racing cyclist and a commentator. But I got the impression that I wasn’t doing any of them very well.

Doing the two was hard to juggle and I began to reconsider my future given that at the time I was 25 and already had a 20-year career in cycle racing. After all, I had been racing since I was six years old! So I already had thousands of kilometres in my legs. 

So I decided to take this golden opportunity to further my work in the media. I was enjoying it so much that I thought maybe this is the moment to turn the page and move in a new direction. And I must say, I don’t regret that decision.

I can't say I prefer one type of job over the other as the two are completely different jobs and I reallly enjoyed doing both. I had a wonderful time being a professional cycle racer but there were more sacrifices to make in terms of lifestyle, being out training all day.

Being a consultant in media doesn’t require hours of training like I used to. Of course I still get on my bike and keep fit, but not for as may hours as before – and it certainly doesn’t tire your legs out like before. But it’s still hard work, commentating on the races. 

I can't really say I miss being a cycle racer. It's just that I'm not really one to look back on things. Once I have done something I tend not to look back much. That’s how I’ve always functioned. I don’t even pose myself the question. I am just happy to commentate on the cycle races on France TV, given that it’s a national channel. My character is to move on without looking back and wishing I was doing what I used to do. I'm not nostalgic.

Even if I’m not part of the exciting racing that is going on now in the women’s peloton, I really love commentating on it for France TV and knowing that the racing is reaching a wider audience. Women’s cycling has developed a lot, and I am just really happy to see the future developments in women’s cycle racing.  

The problem in women's cycle racing is that historically there was a massive difference in level among the women. There were a couple of teams that paid their riders well – though that was quite rare in the women’s peloton. And because of that you had some women who raced but were more like amateurs and then there were others who were paid professionals. Whereas now you can see that because of the evolution in women's cycling there are women who can compete on a more level playing field and it is great to see that. It’s not always the same women who win – there are various scenarios that play out in a race and the courses are very different.

It’s great that now when you watch a women’s race it’s not easy to predict who will win, as the competition is at a much higher level and there are good routes designed for the race.

It’s true that women haven’t had the same treatment as they do now, and the professionalism that exists in women’s racing now is normal, where before it wasn’t. It’s great that we have things like the minimum salary now, but it’s a shame that we had to wait so long for this to happen.

Even if I know we still have some way further to go in the evolution I tend to be optimistic and I look to the future, looking forward to more positive things for women’s cycling and women’s sport in general, rather than saying “damn, I didn’t have the opportunity to do this or that when I was a racer.” I’d rather focus on moving forward.

There are more and more important races for women, like Fleche Wallonne, Tour of Flanders and now we have the Paris-Roubaix, which was brilliant to watch and even gets good viewing figures. But we were missing a stage race of reference for women. Well, the most beautiful cycle race in the world is the Tour de France, which is such a big race that it goes beyond sport and resonates so much for the sport of cycling. 

So having a women’s Tour de France is the best thing that can happen. And Amaury Sport Organisation treats it in exactly the same way as they do with the men’s Tour de France. It's great to have a stage race of reference for the women. It is the best thing that can happen for women’s sport. 

For me, in accepting the role of Director of the Tour de France Femme with Zwift, I had to know that Amaury Sports Organisation were treating the race with the same attention as they do with the men’s Tour de France – not just doing the race for the sake of it. They needed to really want to do it, and I hope that young girls can watch this race and be inspired to become a cycle racer. The plans are in place, the route is in place, the women are ready so we are ready to go and it’s going to be super.

The work I have done in previous jobs have helped set me up as Tour de France Femmes director. I didn't just come from nowhere to do this role. I have the experience of having been a professional cyclist. I have been in the media with France Televisions, so I know the journalistic side of things as well. And the organisers cap is something I learned from being joint director of the Tour de Provence. When I stepped into the world of race organising I was surprised at everything I discovered I had to do, and all the constraints around the work which form part of cycle racing these days.

It is paramount when taking the role of race organiser that I understand these aspects when taking on the role. I understand the importance of having meetings with the town councils, looking for sponsors, engaging with local cycling/interest groups, and how to design a route. So my experience in organising the Tour de la Provence helped me in quickly assimilating into the role as Tour de France Femmes director.

I never imagined that I would be the director of the Tour de France Femmes, though I must also say I never imagined working in television either or doing the other things I've done! It was Christian Prudhomme himself who called me to say he was really thinking of me for the role of Director of the Tour de France Femmes, and he asked if I was interested. Well, I didn’t hesitate in accepting the offer. It’s an amazing opportunity, and something that I am proud of. Cycling has brought me so much over the years, so if I can bring something to cycling in my role, I will do it with my heart. 

I raced with a few of the women who are still in the women’s peloton. I raced with Annemiek Van Vleuten (who retired last year), Marion Vos, Elena Cecchini, and women who were in the French squad who are still on the circuit now. So it’s nice to have this link. Whether they are women I know or not, we are all there with the same objective, to make our sport more well-known and we are travelling in the same direction. 

I think that the women's Tour de France could serve a role as to inspire little girls to want to have a go at racing at this level. They will switch on the TV and will see women on a bike, and they may even say to themselves “Well I could have a go at that too” and they won’t pose themselves the question about whether they can do it or not. In fact what we would like, by holding and televising the Tour de France is to show that yes it is possible to do bike racing – whether you’re a man or a woman. We want to show that if you want to do cycle racing you can, and it is perfectly normal to see women cycle racing on TV.

I feel very comfortable in the work I do, and I just get on with it without thinking whether I am a man or a woman. I’ve always been keen to move up the ladder, but I also think that if I move up it was because I proved myself and not because they wanted to just have a woman in place and it looks good to do that. I like to think that I earned my place because I knew what I was talking about.  

So the best reply I can give to people who are stuck on the fact that a woman shouldn’t be on a bike, or I have nothing to say to a woman about cycling …I don’t need to explain anything to them because I don’t have anything to say to them, and I will just show them – whether that’s with women’s cycling in the Tour de France Femmes – that we deserve that. We have nothing to explain because we are in our well-deserved place and we can do our jobs well. It’s for others to change their opinions, and that can come from them, rather than us needing to explain anything to them or persuade them about anything. 

So my advice would be that women should go out and do exactly the thing that they love and to not get a complex about having a go at it be it cycling or rugby. Do whatever you want to do. 

Marion Rousse on Instagram

Other cycling voices

Sadhbh O'Shea

Emma Wade

Pauline Ballet

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig

Claire Floret

Monica and Paola Santini

Maria Canins

Rochelle Gilmore

Rebecca Charlton

Hannah Bussey

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