The women’s Tour de France returns after a 33-year hiatus

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After a 33-year hiatus, women have returned to the world most watched sporting event: the tour of France.

On Sunday, 24 teams of six cyclists each lined up on the Champs-Élysées in Paris to start the eight-day Tour de France Women with Zwift. The 640-mile stage race includes two mountain stages and ends in the Vosges. In 119 years of existence of the men’s circuit, women have only participated in the official Tour de France five times. The women’s tour lasted from 1984 to 1989 – then was canceled due to lack of financial support. A one-day women’s race called La Course has started recently, but some runners said that was more of an insult than an opportunity.

This year, the women’s race was launched by sponsor Zwift, a cycling app, and will be one of the highest purses – around 250,000 euros in total – in the history of women’s cycling races.

“For women to get on stage, to be lifted up through that platform that they deserve, is really the key to unlocking a lot more viewership, investment and growth in sport at all levels,” said said Kate Veronneau, director of women’s strategy at Zwift. and a former pro-cyclist. “For little girls growing up and seeing themselves in a variety of sports…it’s powerful.”

When American cyclist Marianne Martin won the first women’s Tour de France in 1984 at age 26, things were very different for female cyclists. Notably, she had no salary or radio. During a stage race in Grenoble, France, she rode more than 30 miles at the front of the peloton, she said.

“I didn’t know where they were, so I kept thinking, ‘They’re going to get me,'” recalls Martin, now 64. But they never did. The 10 minutes she gained out of the peloton in that crucial stage race, she says, gave her the confidence to win the whole Tour – which was then an 18-stage race covering just over 600 miles .

When Martin was competing, widespread interest in women’s sports was limited. But this world seems different now.

“Women’s sport is trending strongly because companies that have invested in sport are seeing fabulous returns,” Veronneau said. Indeed, as reported by The Washington Post, female athletes are increasingly attracting the attention of fans and marketers, leading to the belief that women are one of the best investments in the industry. Sport.

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“Female athletes take their responsibility to be role models very seriously because they have to fight for every sponsorship dollar they have,” Veronneau added. “They know that everything they do will impact the opportunities that come their way after them.”

The majority of 2022 female cyclists participating in the Tour are under 35; most have never had the opportunity to see other women in this race.

WE Human-powered health team Cyclist and Olympic bronze medalist Lily Williams, 28, got the idea to start cycling after watching the men’s Tour de France on TV every summer with her family.

“I think if there had been a women’s Tour de France I would have started cycling much earlier,” Williams said, adding that she only started cycling a few years ago. . “And I think my career arc would be very different.”

Williams said her mother, speed skating Olympian Sarah Docter, was a professional cyclist in the 1980s who never had the chance to ride the Tour. “She got exhausted very early on,” Williams said. “A lot of that is probably due to the complete lack of support for women’s sports at the time.”

A crucial supporting element is a salary. This is the first year that Williams has been riding as a professional cyclist without having to work. “It’s been huge to have that time to rest and recover. It completely changes the sport when you have 10 or 20 teams of riders who are paid decent wages,” she said.

But not all female Tour de France cyclists receive a salary. Only 14 of the 24 teams taking part in the Tour are licensed as part of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Women’s WorldTeams Tour, which requires teams to provide a minimum salary of 27.5000 euros per year to each rider.

“It’s a whole new concept for professional female cyclists to earn a required minimum wage,” Veronneau said. “The best of the best make a lot of money these days, but for most professional women, it’s still tough and it’s a difficult career choice. More often than not, they have to take on side jobs alongside their training from 25 to 30 hours per week.”

Zwift is funding a total purse for the women’s race of €250,000, including €50,000 for the winner. The men’s purse is 2.3 million euros, including 500,000 for the winner. Compared to 1984, this is a 10 times improvement in the earnings ratio of women to men. Martin remembers winning less than $1,000 compared to the $100,000 that 1984 men’s champion Laurent Fignon won.

Race organizers say the goal is to develop women’s cycling to the point where full parity is possible, but they start with what’s most sustainable first. For now, that means eight steps instead of the 21 steps that men walk. Women’s cycling teams are smaller than men’s, Williams explained, making 21 stages exceptionally more challenging for women’s teams to engage in financially, personally and physically.

Williams also says eight stages with shorter races allow women’s races to be more dynamic, less predictable and therefore more exciting to watch.

“Every day in the men’s circuit there is a four to six hour race [in which] a group goes out on top to get media exposure, then they get dragged in and the overall contenders hold their position,” she said. “In women’s races, where the races last three to four hours, people are fresher to attack throughout the race; the breakaways might have a chance to hold. You have a wide variety of women who could win the race.

Regardless of the numbers, riders say the Tour de France Women with Zwift is a game-changer for women’s cycling and will serve as an inspiration to young women and girls around the world watching the event.

“We need the media to show more women in sport so girls are thinking about more options,” said Martin, the former professional cyclist. “I mean, if they only see women in fashion, they’ll only think about fashion. If they see women in sports, and that’s exciting, they’ll see that as an option.

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