Tour de France Femmes is on the map after thrilling first edition – now let’s keep it there
The inaugural Tour de France Femmes finished on Sunday, with Movistar’s Annemiek van Vleuten draped in yellow at the victory ceremony. The immense success of the event shows that although there are still great challenges ahead to raise the profile of women's cycling, this is the right time for a women’s Tour to become established on the calendar, as Niamh Lewis explains from France…
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It’s not commonplace in men's sport for athletes to thank the organisers and sponsors for putting on the event in what is an opportunity to show the world what they are capable of.
As the dust settles from the inaugural Tour de France Femmes – the first ASO have hosted – riders will reflect on what happened across the last eight days, and many have reiterated their thanks for the opportunity to race in a spectacle like the Tour de France.
Canyon-SRAM’s Tiffany Cromwell, who has had a 17-year career in cycling, was one of them, thanking title sponsor Zwift for backing the race and ASO “for giving us a chance,” she says.
“I hope it continues to grow. It's given us such a huge platform and people have seen what we're capable of - we've raced hard, the terrain has been hard and I think it's given a lot more respect for us as female athletes and to show that we are tough and we can handle whatever is thrown at us and the racing is exciting," Cromwell told Eurosport on the ground.
“So I just hope this is the beginning, maybe we can increase it to something bigger and hopefully all the other races get as much coverage because we always get some, but not to the level that we have here.”
It is the beginning of at least four editions backed by Zwift, with a lot more work to do across three more editions to ensure this one – the sixth attempt by various organisers since 1955 of a women’s Tour de France – is the one that stands the test of time and gains the gravitas that the men’s Tour has as a world-class event after 109 years.
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Now, in 2022, it seems to be the right time for a women’s Tour. The success of the inaugural event combined with the turnout of people lining the roads for eight days, and the numbers of those watching at home – three million on France TV on Stage 1, while the men had a peak of 8.4 million with the same broadcaster – and engagement online from around the world showed the interest is there.
The product is also there. Anyone who knows bike racing knows the women have created a kind of racing that is condensed, punchy and often filled with drama. The days are shorter and there’s enough talent in the peloton for the top-level heavyweights to be challenged and not win easily.
The maillot jaune winner Annemiek van Vleuten told Eurosport following Sunday’s podium: “To win easy is really nice but to win in a not so easy way makes it more special. I am super, super, super proud to win the first edition, and I have the feeling that it's the start of something that will develop in the next years to become a really bigger event.”
There are a combination of reasons why the others did not succeed: financial, a lack of interest, poor coverage by the media, scheduling, copyright and so on. Women’s cycling has grown considerably over recent years due to various reasons, but mostly increased broadcast and media coverage so audiences can finally engage with it, although races and stages still aren’t live from start to finish.
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said previously women’s races lose ASO money. Although they have influence and responsibility over the sport, they are also a business. So to eventually put the show on, did they bow to pressure or did the right investors and partners come along at the right time? The answer may never be known.
Maillot vert winner Marianne Vos told Eurosport it is the start of a new journey, and “we have to embrace what we have now…"
She said: "We're in such a beautiful place in women's cycling at the moment, it has grown over the last 10 years and I think the time was right to get this [Tour de France Femmes] going and I'm happy to have been part of it.
“Of course we have been in this lead up first with La Course and then getting a stage race and as I've said before, maybe in the next couple of years or in 10 years Tour de France Femmes will change a bit, but it has been a fantastic stage race with great days of racing every day.
“Speaking with [race directors] Marion Rousse and also Christian Prudhomme, it was really nice to see them so excited about the race and happy with what has been going on for the last eight days.”
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Vos started her career in 2004 when she became junior world champion. She’s had one of the longest careers in the sport and has been part of the transition to today’s sport, which she says is “definitely different” to the life she had almost 20 years ago.
“Things have improved so, so fast that I think it's also very important to keep the balance between the base and get the development riders, the U23s, the amateurs to keep the focus on there so the growth is still possible. The top will still be at a very high level so let's also think about the grassroots and younger riders.”
Cromwell agrees and the consensus from stakeholders, including Kate Veronneau, Zwift’s director of women’s strategy, is that there is a responsibility to ensure the growth is sustainable and the jump is not too great.
“To launch the race in a sustainable fashion and build year after year is the goal - to ensure that it’s a thrilling race from start to finish, and to ensure that the teams are prepared for it,” Veronneau said.
The Giro Donne is the longest stage race on the calendar at 10 days. Van Vleuten is arguing for more in France, including a time trial next year “to show we are capable of that” and for organisers to “design a course that makes it still interesting to watch and try to grow it every year until finally we will have a three-week Tour de France when we are ready for it.”
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Cromwell argues two weeks is enough with one rest day.
“I don’t think three weeks is the answer,” she says. “Sure we can increase the prize money but with everything else it needs to be step-by-step, we can't ask overnight to have one million euros of prize money - that takes time but if we take steps along the way then that's the future because even teams have to be able to deal with that, we can't expect teams to be ready for a two-week Tour overnight.”
For a two-week or longer stage race, teams would need more resources and riders, which they don’t have and would become a huge financial dilemma. Women’s World Tour (WWT) teams with bigger budgets may be able to adjust for the increase, but smaller teams with reduced budgets and resources would suffer; thus fracturing the product of brilliant racing and increasing the gap between the youngsters and the top-level riders.
Cromwell says that it’s important to get external sponsors, not just cycling industry sponsors, to grow the sport on a commercial level. Then, she adds, “we can keep on inspiring young girls, women and people around the world.”
The event had all the hallmarks of a Tour de France with strong attention to detail in everything from branding to the iconic horn of the Skoda race vehicles on the course, and the yellow mid-race picnic stools for VIPs to eat a four-course champagne lunch at the side of the road.
It was a slick operation like the travelling circus of the men’s tour. It had as much gravitas, but in a less hectic and more accessible way. There were also nice touches such as the drivers of the ASO cars were predominantly female ex-professional riders, and importantly, it was not just an opportunity for female riders, but women across the industry were at the forefront. Drivers, directors, journalists, photographers, commentators, hospitality, team staff, logistics and many more were leading the operation.
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There’s still learnings and improvements to be made – the inequality in prize money is a typical one to be highlighted, as well as decisions and reviews by commissaires, logistics, and live coverage of the whole stage and many more things to iron out and ensure its success goes beyond the four years investors have initially backed it for.
But in a month where the women’s Euros saw record audiences and stadium attendances, and the first time the world has had a whole July of the Tour de France, taking centre stage, it’s a good start.
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