MEAUX, France — After winning Stage 2 of the Tour de France Femmes, Dutch cyclist Marianne Vos donned the Tour Leader’s yellow jersey for the first time and explained that no, actually, this special moment wasn’t something she always had. been a dream for her.
As a child, Vos had attended the Tour de France every summer and camped with her family along the course for the entire three weeks, crying out for encouragement as the riders sped down flat roads, pedaled down twisty mountain passes and flew across steep slopes. That’s where Vos, an Olympic gold medalist and winner of numerous world championships, fell in love with cycling. But the race was for men only, so it was never her goal to win it.
However, over time, as she became one of the most successful female cyclists in history, she realized: why should men get all the media attention, fan adulation, and money they only get? the Tour de France can bring?
This realization was in part how the Tour de France Femmes was revived this week after a 33-year absence. Vos was a major force in lobbying to bring back the women’s race, which was held once in 1955, then again from 1984 to 1989, before disappearing again for a generation.
It was not until Sunday, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and under a scorching summer sun, that the women, 144 riders from 24 teams, got back on their bikes for a race associated with the Tour, the world’s longest cycling race. prestigious.
“Of course you can say maybe it’s taken too long, but yeah, but I’m happy it’s here,” said Vos, who retained the yellow jersey on Tuesday after finishing second on Stage 3. It was his second-place finisher. to finish in three days. “I think the time is right.”
For cyclists and women’s rights advocates like Vos, the timing has been right for at least a decade.
In 2013, Vos and three other cyclists: American Kathryn Bertine, a women’s cycling advocate from Bronxville, New York; former British time trial champion Emma Pooley; and four-time Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington, were so sure the time was right for a women’s Tour that they formed a group called Le Tour Entier (in French, The Whole Tour) to rally public support for one.
His efforts to convince the Amaury Sports Organization, or ASO, the company that runs the Tour, worked, but only up to a point.
ASO agreed to host a race in 2014 that was clearly not The Whole Tour, considering the first edition of the race was about 2 percent longer than the men’s race. The event, named La Course after Le Tour de France, was a one-day circuit race held on the final day of the men’s Tour, in Paris. Vos won that day and then won again in 2019.
ASO was supposed to add three to five days of racing to that one-day race until the women’s race reached parity with the 21-day men’s race, Bertine said in a phone interview Monday, but that never happened. La Course was entirely replaced this year by the eight-day Tour de France Femmes, longer than La Course but not as long as the men’s Tour.
“I think the social pressure put on ASO was the reason why they finally, after eight years, finally decided to increase the female career,” said Bertine, who made a documentary called “Half the Road” that discussed gender inequalities in cycling. . “My biggest fear is that this race will last eight days for another eight years because it’s scary to see the ASO’s track record on this. They are dinosaurs that withstood this for a long, long time.”
Bertine lamented that women’s cycling regressed shortly after the Women’s Tour was held in 1984.
Six women’s teams raced that Tour at the same time as the men, with the women starting 35 to 45 miles out front each day. They covered 18 of the 21 stages, including climbing the intimidating Alpe d’Huez, with all but one of the women finishing. Marianne Martin, of Boulder, Colo., became the first American woman or man to win the Tour de France.
In Paris on Sunday, wearing a sleeveless yellow dress the same color as the Tour leader’s jersey, Martin, 64, stood at the start of the Tour de France Femmes to cheer on the female runners. She recalled walking past thousands of fans at the 1984 Tour, just hours before the men’s race came to town, and feeling the excitement the men had experienced annually since the race began in 1903.
People shouting. Flags waving. Sound of cowbells. She had never seen anything like it. On Sunday, the atmosphere felt the same, and that was exciting, she said.
One night on that 1984 Tour, she joined a men’s team for dinner and noted that her hotel was much nicer and her food much better than the women’s. However, she did not flinch.
“I didn’t care because we were in the Tour de France and I got a massage every day and they fed us and we were able to race our bikes every day in France,” Martin said. “I had no expectations of more.”
She recalled winning around $1,000 and a trophy. The men’s winner, Frenchman Laurent Fignon, won more than $100,000. This year, there is also a huge disparity between the men’s and women’s prize money.
The women will get around $250,000, with the overall winner of the race receiving around $50,000. On the men’s side, the purse was over $2 million, with Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard earning over $500,000 for finishing first.
There is still a long way to go for women to achieve parity in sport. The international cycling federation, for example, limits the distance they can cover in a day, a distance that is much shorter than the men’s maximum. (The women’s Olympic route, in another example, is 60 miles shorter than the men’s.) The minimum wage for men in the WorldTour is higher than for women, and the budgets of women’s teams are often pitiful compared to those of men.
Linda Jackson, owner of the EF Education-TIBCO-SVB women’s cycling team, said the path to the top of the sport, and to equality, will take time and a calculated plan for success, especially when building something sustainable.
Jackson, a former investment banker, formed her team in 2004, with the goal of one day competing in Europe. Her team is competing in the Women’s WorldTour and also the Tour de France Femmes this year.
There are plenty of signs the sport is booming for women, she said, including more racing, more TV coverage and higher minimum wages that help female cyclists focus solely on their training (meaning a higher level of competition).
It was also crucial that Zwift, a fitness technology company, signed a four-year deal as title sponsor of the Tour de France Femmes. In 2020, the company partnered with ASO to host a virtual Tour de France during the pandemic, and the viewership of the women’s events was so high that Zwift finally committed to helping ASO revive the Women’s Tour.
“ASO, in particular, doesn’t do this because, ‘Equality for women, wow, wouldn’t that be nice to have?’” Jackson said. “They’re doing it because they see the growing momentum in the sport.”
She added: “They’re not going to have a Women’s Tour for 20 years if they lose money for three or four years. ASO has to break even at least.”
Media exposure is the most important component to race success, Jackson said, and with two and a half hours of live television coverage per day on this Women’s Tour, “this race has the potential to change our sport forever.” “. Kathrin Hammes, who rides for Jackson’s team, said: “People pay attention when they hear about the Tour de France. It is the race that everyone knows”.
Many of the women who competed on the Tour said that an eight-day event was a good start, but that they are looking forward to more. Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten, one of the race favourites, said she is up for a three-week challenge, like the test the men face. She added that she would be “super excited” for an epic climb like Alpe d’Huez because it would be another milestone for women’s cycling.
For now, the riders have several days left before reaching the final stages, which will take place in the Vosges Mountains and will end with a painful ascent to La Super Planche des Belles Filles, a summit that is sometimes included in the Tour male.
And Vos, who has done just about everything there is to do in cycling, has a few days left before she can look back and appreciate her role as a runner and advocate who helped make the entire event happen.
You may remember the girls cheering his name as they lined up along the course and watched the peloton take off on stage 2. Or the group of men from a Brie-making society wearing creamy yellow capes and top hats. matching flat who asked for a selfie
But early in the race, Vos said he couldn’t think about anything other than the many miles ahead.
“I am very grateful for everyone who put their energy into making this race possible,” she said. “But now I am also focused on racing. I’ll let it settle and think about what happened maybe at the end, after the season, or even in a couple of years.”
As he walked away, he said: “All I know now is that the Tour de France is bigger than sports.”