SARAH CONNOLLY Women’s racing needs to be able to say it has a Tour de France
It’s time for a women’s Tour de France to return
It’s strange that, in 2017, we’re still talking about the lack of a women’s Tour de France – and no, La Course doesn’t count, not by a long shot. Road cycling is the only big endurance sport in which the sexes are segregated, and it’s even an outlier among the UCI’s disciplines.
A women’s Tour ran on the same roads as the men in the 1980s, the winners sharing the podium. Then, in 1999, the Société du Tour de France refused to let the Tour Cycliste Féminin organisers use that name, and a separated Grand Boucle struggled through the 2000s, until the final, reduced 2009 edition.
Things looked to be changing in 2014 when, thanks to public pressure, the ASO brought in La Course for women on the Champs-Élysées on the final day of the Tour. At 89km, it was too long for the adrenalinefuelled action of a crit, not long enough for the usual road race tactics, but it did feel like a stepping stone.
When the ASO announced this year’s route would be different, there was hope it would become a stage race once more but then they revealed that while the 2017 race will be on the same roads as stage 18 of the men’s Tour, finishing on the Col d’Izoard, the route has been reduced to just 66km. It now feels as though La Course is just a sideshow, and a real women’s Tour de France is as far away as ever. But does it matter?
On one hand, of course it does. The Tour is the only race outside of the Olympics to get public attention so excluding women sends a clear message: the only place for women is as podium girls or WAGs. Other sports - athletics, swimming, triathlon – continue to reap the rewards that parity brings.
Then there’s the setting. The Tour is famous for incredible climbs pushing riders to their limits and these mountains are missing in women’s cycling. In the troubled 2000s, we lost a lot of events, especially climbers’ races in France and Italy. While the number of races has stabilised, the new ones tend to be in the UK, Belgium, and other countries that have the will but not the geography. Every time the women take on big climbs – the Giro, the Rio Olympics – they put on a fantastic show but there’s little for the climbers.
On the other hand, a women’s Tour de France run by an uninterested ASO could do more harm than good. Top teams and riders have raced La Course because, despite the issues, who wouldn’t race on the Champs-Élysées? But it’s a different matter in the Vuelta’s equivalent, the Madrid Challenge, where the absence of some top sprinters and teams tells its own story. And a stage race of 80km days over flat courses and smaller climbs would send a message that women aren’t capable of riding like the men. It would add nothing to the calendar.
It’s important to stress that a women’s Tour de France shouldn’t be a charitable impulse. The women’s peloton brings a whole new set of fantastic storylines to enjoy.
Then there’s how women race. Women compete over the same distances as men in endurance races such as the 6,900km Trans America (which in 2016 was won outright by a woman, Lael Wilcox), yet the UCI has only just increased women’s one-day road race distances to 160km. The previous limit of 140km resulted in explosive racing that’s arguably more spectator friendly than men’s five-hour slugfests. The new distance for women’s racing won’t change that. Incorporating what’s best in women’s racing, while giving them the chance to take on the terrain of the Tour at distances which stretch the front of the field, would be a win for everyone.
With the ASO adding a women’s Liège-BastogneLiège this year, there’s still hope they’ll change their mind over La Course in the future. The important thing is that they are constantly reminded of the demand for a women’s Tour. Maybe by 2027, we won’t need to keep having this conversation.
Sarah Connolly is a proli ic writer and recognised as a leading authority on women's cycling. You can ind her all over social media, podcasts and various websites, including her own blog: prowomenscycling.com