Furore over the lack of a women’s long-distance stage-based race, except for Italy’s Giro Rosa, gathered pace last July when a self-organised women’s race following the route of the men’s Tour a day earlier received unprecedented media coverage – and Skoda as a sponsor.
Women used to have a Tour equivalent but it stopped in 1989. There is only the one-day La Course, a fraction of the men’s distance – described by former cyclist Kathryn Bertine as “throwing women a token”. Last year, La Course was 112.5km, by comparison, the total men’s distance was 3,351 km.
So women cyclists have taken action. Contradicting the argument that they are not capable of cycling a three-week event, activists Donnons des Elles au Vélo have been completing the 21-stage route of the Tour de France race one day ahead of the professional men since 2015.
Claire Floret, a French road race cyclist and team leader of the group, said: “In 2018, 19 countries covered our project, particularly France, Britain, the US, Germany and Spain, a first in our history.
“Each year, it remains a surprise as to whether we will have media coverage or not.” Last year’s was the biggest to date.
In 2017, France Télévisions covered the women’s journey with a daily slot.
“We are hoping that they will do the same in their live coverage of the Tour de France 2019,” Floret said.
Donnons des Elles Au Vélo J-1 had just three riders when it started in 2015 but Floret says the number has shot up.
“In 2018 there were 1,500 participants, of whom 500 were women.” While the numbers are promising, Floret said that the organisation of a women’s Tour is where progress is slowest. Despite support from La Fédération Française de Cyclisme and various ministers – the new president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is pro-women’s cycling – the Tour’s organisers are yet to be persuaded.
Floret attributes this to their concern “with the economic aspects and logistics of running a cycling event”. Speaking last March, Yann Le Moenner, chief executive of Tour organiser Amaury Sport Organisation, said the profile of “women’s racing is becoming so high that the sport will definitely deserve a dedicated women’s Tour”. But he said it was not “logistically possible” to run a women’s Tour alongside the men’s race because the media cannot be in two places at once.
Media attention is crucial, driving the sponsorship that is key to the success of staging a race and running a cycling team.
Donnons des Elles Au Vélo has support from several sponsors, notably la Française des Jeux, LIV (Giant for women), and Skoda, which joined in May 2018.
Floret describes the addition of Skoda as “a very good omen”, saying: “Skoda are very keen for the development of women’s cycling. They understand women’s cycling is one of the major pillars for the future growth of the sport. We hope the partnership will develop as it represents a ground-breaking partnership for the Tour.” The lack of incentives for sponsorship of women’s cycling is holding it back.
Current sponsors of women’s teams are mainly companies already involved in cycling. Casting the net to other sponsors that appeal to women would draw greater interest from a female audience.
Co-sponsorship of a team between brands could be another solution.
The UCI announced reforms for women’s cycling at the UCI Road World Championships held in Innsbruck at the end of September. The most noticeable change is the introduction of a minimum wage for women’s cycling teams, equal to that earned by men’s Pro Continental teams (just over €30,000).
Two-thirds of female cyclists now earn as little as €10,000 per year, which UCI president David Lappartient described as “unacceptable”. The UCI has also introduced a two-tier system for women’s racing, as in men’s cycling. These measures form part of their 2022 agenda to grant equal access to competition for both genders, along with a push for equal prize money.
Ultimately, Floret identifies participation as the force that will propel the profile of women’s cycling to the fore. Right now, “women’s cycling doesn’t exist for much of the world”, she said.
Another much-debated facet of gender equality in cycling has been the continuation in the Tour of the podium girls, who have been dropped by other sporting events and cycle races. Floret said “I think that podium girls should not be chosen because of their gender.
“A mix would be better. As a sports-woman, I am not a fan of the clichés where a woman watches the man complete his physical tasks, while her identity relies on her beauty, patience and attentive nature.”
Floret sees the use of podium girls as linked to the image of women’s cycling.
“The underlying problem needs to be addressed in the development of women practising the sport and the access of female professional cyclists to beautiful, stage-based races.”