Racing for equality

Being able to compete in Paris on the final day of the Tour de France marks a breakthrough for women’s cycling, says Paul Lamarra

Organisers of the Tour de France have not been slow to take the world’s biggest cycling race beyond French borders in an attempt to raise the profile of cycling and increase participation. Until now, however, they have neglected to cross the frontier between men’s and women’s cycling, and send a message directly to the female half of the population.

In response to increasing pressure, including a petition organised by a group of elite women cyclists, officials finally relented and announced that they would hold a women’s race in Paris this year to coincide with the final stage of the men-only Tour, guaranteeing a worldwide TV audience of millions for female cycling.

It marks a change of heart by Christian Prudhomme, the Tour director, who last year swiftly dismissed a call from Harriet Harman, the Labour Party’s deputy leader, for a women’s race to be run alongside the 2014 Grand Départ in Yorkshire.

He told The Observer newspaper that the race, entitled La Course by Le Tour de France, will take place against a Paris backdrop “that will be exceptional because this is the most beautiful circuit in the world. The race will be transmitted live on France Télévisions and Eurosport and I would imagine that most of the other Tour rights holders will be interested by it.”

In May, Prudhomme revealed that on 27 July, before the men race over a 136-kilometre stage from Évry to Paris for a twilight finish on the Champs-Élysées, 20 teams of six elite women riders will compete over a 90-kilometre course that involves 13 urban laps. Each lap will go up and down the Champs-Élysées and turn at the Arc de Triomphe and the Jardin des Tuileries at each end, with racers finishing a few hours before the men.

The first prize of €22,500 is the same as for the men’s stage, but the winning woman will be greeted by male podium hosts in yellow jackets rather than the customary hostesses.

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Cheered on by thousands lining the route and potential viewers in 147 countries, the female riders hope they will receive the necessary media exposure to attract increased sponsorship. In the past, elite women’s multi-day road races such as the Grande Boucle Feminine and the Tour de l’Aude have foundered due to lack of money and media interest.

The move has been welcomed by Le Tour Entier, a campaign group set up by world champion Marianne Vos, former world triathlon champion Chrissie Wellington, author and professional cyclist Kathryn Bertine and 2008 Olympic silver medallist Emma Pooley. Vos, fresh from a win in the inaugural women’s Tour of Britain, has already said she will take part in La Course.

The group’s objective is to “improve women’s cycling, starting with the Tour de France.” After launching a petition in August last year, which has already attracted 100,000 signatures, the cyclists had hoped to persuade organisers to go further and re-launch the Tour de France Féminin (forerunner of the Grande Boucle Féminine), which ran alongside the men’s race, albeit with shorter stages, from 1984 to 1989.

Wellington, however, is still pleased that the 2014 race will feature a women’s stage. “This is a huge step forward and we are not disappointed at all,” Wellington told FRANCE Magazine. “The men’s Tour de France is the pinnacle of professional cycling and the women’s race is the start of an exciting new era.

“Of course, we would be keen to see a race through France with many stages, just as we would like to see other iconic events have multi-day racing; however we must accept that small steps climb big mountains.”

Organisers have already indicated that they are planning a similar final-day women’s race as part of the Tour of Spain (Vuelta a España) later in the summer. One disappointment for campaigners is that the Tour de France clashes with the Giro Rosa in Italy, one of the few remaining multi-day women’s races. They want the race held at the same time as the men’s Giro d’Italia.

International cycling rules limit the length of women’s stages to 130 kilometres, a time trial to 40 kilometres and a multi-day race to eight days, but Bertine believes women will prove to be the equal of men.

“My ultimate goal is to bring women’s cycling to the same level of visibility, sustainability and progress as the men’s side of the sport,” Bertine told FRANCE Magazine. “Tradition is a difficult opponent, but I am confident that the entire sport of cycling will reach its highest potential when the women are treated as equals.”

Women’s events at the Olympics and the World Championships have proved popular with the public and medal winners such as Pooley, Rebecca Romero and Victoria Pendleton have become household names. The organisers of the Tour have realised just in time that they were about to be left behind.