meredith's column copy
  • Whippet

    Perhaps la Grand Boucle was too ambitious. I have witnessed several sports try to grow too quickly. Like you, Meredith, I hope La Course (and other races) grow in a sustainable manner.

    • dcaspira

      As they say – “the 1st Draft is rubbish”…

    • Dave

      As well as keeping it sustainable instead of having big ups and downs, the other key for women’s cycling will be to make their events and teams viable in their own right.

      Currently the women’s side of the sport is too reliant on coasting along in the wake of the men’s pro races and scooping up the easy cash that falls on the road behind them. This sort of short-termism is dangerous, because the current model of men’s pro racing is not sustainable (note the undersubscribed WorldTour this year and the uncertainty over the future of BMC, IAM Cycling and Europcar) and there are major changes (i.e. revenue sharing, potential breakaway league) to the men’s racing landscape looming in the next couple of years which will reduce the amount of money available to cross-subsidise women’s events.

      The uncertainty over the next couple of years is a problem in its own right even without those changes actually happening. I have it on good authority that the reason that the SA Government is ready to make the Santos Women’s Tour a UCI race (which would be Australia’s first international women’s race since the old Geelong World Cup last decade) but they are holding off on it until the future of the Tour Down Under is secured.

  • Derek Maher

    Welcome Meredith.Great reading your account of the last La Grand Boucle and the way a race can be destroyed by the organisers just going through the motions and really losing interest in the project.Some great names from the past as well.Maybe things will pick up in the future.

  • Cameron Fraser

    On the progress front, La Course was broadcast here in Canada this year. Last year, with a Canadian on the podium, we didn’t even get highlights.

    • Annie.

      NOW.
      In Germany, they finally opted for finally broadcasting the Tour de France for the first time after the desastrous incidents several years ago. However, broadcasts were much too short and even the online livestream only started way into the race.

      There was no chance to watch La Course though, not even the highlights! Also, they didn’t mention anything about it. I was furious!

      At least, we’ve got a private TV station (Eurosport) who do a great job: They – as every year – gave great insight into everything regarding the Tour, and let us have full coverage of La Course, too. Also, this year’s broadcast was organised much better so that you could actually see individual riders and get information on them.

      AND THEN.
      Thanks a lot, Meredith, for telling us the story about what heppened back then at La Grande Boucle. I can imagine how bad you must have felt. In my opinion, it would be a great step to simply treat womens’ and mens’ fields the same, be it at small races, nationals, worldcup and grand tour races.

      I really hope that aspect after aspect will change: I was happy to see more media and TV coverage of La Course this year, and also, a better quality to the broadcast. Also, I love the small steps toward equal prize money in womens’ cycling, to see more women on the bike and better bikes and equipment on the market. These very few years since I have started riding my bike, a lot has changed.

      Hopefully, one day, we’ll have a patrouille de France for the female riders as well, same TV coverage, same Tour, same frantic reaction of the public. And I really hope it’ll be some day soon!

      • Dave

        The free-to-air Tour de France broadcast in Australia is similarly bad, only on the time trial stages did they have coverage from the start.

        Unfortunately the free-to-air network SBS has locked out the competition so Eurosport is forced to show repeats of other programs in Australia while Eurosport subscribers elsewhere have the Tour de France.

  • Khoa Lam

    Great incite Meredith. I totally recall the late 80’s coverage, albeit short but was cool to see there was actually such a race. Too bad about the conditions and the lack of organization behind it.

  • Robert Merkel

    Great story about what sounds like two weeks of hell.

    Given the time and what was going on in the men’s peloton, you also have to wonder about the “two speed peloton” – another thing to keep an eye on as women’s cycling regains momentum.

    • Jessi Braverman

      Doping was not and has never been as pervasive in women’s cycling as men’s cycling – in large part because there’s simply not enough money in the sport to a) incentivise women to dope and b) to be able to afford the sort of program that would give the results necessary to take that sort of risk. The discrepancy that Meredith’s referencing likely has more to do with the differences in team budget, the unexpected difficult of the course profile and the variance in ability or willingness to cope with such unnecessarily suffering.

      • Doping was present then. Perhaps interviewing some former “names” from back in that era, would offer a different perspective. It wasn’t stopped or eliminated because of finances, it was fuelled by results.
        Attitudes towards women’s cycling then, was less than complimentary, and reflected in the examples, Meredith, has written of.
        Fast forward to now, and aside from the best final stage of the weekend, women’s racing is going on the right direction.

        • Jessi Braverman

          Just to clarify – I’m not saying there was no doping then (nor would I saw that now). I’m well aware that there was. I’m saying it was not as pervasive as in men’s cycling and the “two speed peloton” Meredith somewhat alluded to would not have been a result of doping.

          • My recollection of that era regarding how women’s racing was received amongst male riders, was generally indifferent, and viewed less than complimentary, within some professional men teams.
            Mostly it was regarded as “insulting” to have a maillot jaune awarded for a race that was half what the men’s was, and even “worse” that “they” stood alongside the men’s winner, for a fraction of the effort.
            Sexist attitudes for sure, deserved or not.

            Just to be clear, the comments above, came from several well known riders, of race winning stature, within, some of that era.
            Luckily, Rochelle never heard them!

  • Mark

    Not surprising it folded, but sad after 16 years. It would be interesting to read a story about it at its peak.

    • Jessi Braverman

      We’ll see what we can do for you there, Mark. Good idea!

  • Lyre_bird

    Great story, Meredith.

    For the record, 2003 was the second hottest year Europe had recorded up to that time (it is now sixth on the list).

  • jules

    I think the S&M style skinsuit in the promo photo should have offered a premonition of things to come from the organisers.. disappointing.

  • kamoteQ

    What a read. Sounded more like the Grand Debacle. Thanks for sharing.

  • Tony Cooke

    Hi Merideth, thanks for sharing yourviews. I think it might well be worth adding a little colour here.

    You write from your experience and I am not too sure placing your bumping into the final two week version of the Tour Fem and writing about it without reference to what had gone on before or giving the extreme weather conditions, gives the reader a full picture.

    Let me help. I am Tony Cooke and my daughter Nicole had ridden the year before in Joane Somarriba’s team. She was due to ride I 2003 but a serious crash and recurrent knee injury consequential on that crash, kept her out of the team. My wife and I had already booked our holiday for following the Tour so we went to France anyway to cheer on her team-mates, but cut short the time we followed the Tour.

    I have no rider engaged in the Tour, I have no connection with the management and therefore with “no dog in the fight”. Perhaps an outsiders view might be relevant.

    I had first seen the Tour Fem in 1999. It was two weeks long, had a good commercial caravan in front of it, a daily slot on TV for a round up program and a good field and good course. This was the first event when it was titled La Grande Boucle Féminine after ASO had won their court case preventing Pierre Boué, the organiser, from using the title Tour Cycliste Féminin or any wording such as Tour de France Féminin. This was not some continuous lineage since 1984 but was really the 3rd evolution as organisations gave up with the previous two. The first lasted from 1984 to ‘89 before the men’s race split it off and it morphed into the Tour EEC. That again died in 1993. Boué then picked up the ball and worked at promoting it, but the door was closed in his face in respect of running it alongside
    or in conjunction with any men’s race. It became successful and attracted sponsorship and TV coverage. However, at this time the institutional view was best represented by that court case and the UCI subsequently passing rules limiting races to 10 days maximum and limiting average stage lengths to 110 km. They did not want any women’s Tour. The Festina scandals and subsequent farces
    were causing men’s cycling to be economically insecure to the point of collapse. In 1999 Lance tested positive at the Tour but
    was allowed to produce a backdated TUE for a fictitious remedy in order to prevent the scandal further denting the image of the sport. Women’s cycling was only taking a sliver of sponsorship but was another threat to be snuffed out.

    Many supporting women’s cycling in Europe knew that in the period 1999 onwards, it was really a fight for existence. This was obvious to all. The tell tale signs were all around, the commercial caravan had all but disappeared, sponsors had left. Signs for the route, so clearly marked well in advance of the race were now no longer present; we marveled that Boué was achieving miracles maintaining TV coverage and the sweep of the course. This meant a lot of us looking in, cut the organization significant slack that maybe mismatched with the expectations of yourself and some riders who were unaware of this history of the persecution of women’s sport at that time or what
    conditions you might expect as the norm.

    The Tour Fem attracted its own bunch of dedicated followers, mostly they understood the strictures the organisation were operating against.

    The map shows the sweep of it. A couple of stages in Corsica and then East to West then North, back East and into Paris. I did not go to Corsica but joined the race on its first stage on the mainland, Nice to Valberg.

    But let’s go to those first couple of stages. If you look at the history of the sport, even in the early 1990’s the men’s Giro was still struggling to confirm its course each day and start times might vary significantly from those published. Cycling was not the only sport to encounter difficulties with previously negotiated “closed roads” not being closed. I had friends competing in road rallies, whose experience
    exactly matched those experienced in cycling. The organiser might turn up on the day in a district with the appropriate signed permits for the closed roads and the local police were doing nothing. One view would be that it was incredibly naive to expect the route book to match the course at this point in history. Some races got it all together, particularly those tightly geographically located, for Boué and the
    routes he selected, this was never going to be possible.

    You identify the weather was extreme but neglect to say why the ferries were delayed coming from Corsica. A very good crowd gathered in Valberg for that first day after the ferry crossing. We were there at around lunchtime, surprised to see no finish line furniture. There were
    storms all around us in the mountains. The furniture arrived and Boué then told us what had happened as his team worked frantically to assemble and organize the finish area for you. Let me combine his account and first hand accounts from other riders. These same storms we were now experiencing had been so bad that the ferry booked to take the tour party from Corsica to Nice was not allowed to leave the port at the scheduled time. Late on in the evening, the weather abated and the ship left but obviously arrived at Nice at around 3 or 4 in the morning. This was an incredibly rare event for mid-summer, the weather was indeed freak. Some hotels were closed, in others staff on hand did not check that the team booking in were the team who were meant to take up the accommodation. Teams arrived at the right accommodation only to find another team already there. Riders and support staff started sleeping wherever they could; doubling up in rooms and even sleeping in the foyers of hotels. Some teams did not find accommodation until around 7 am and others never made it. That is why the race jury decided to shorten the stage. They decided that it would be best if the riders had some more time to rest
    before racing. That was maximized but something had to give and that was the total stage length. Boué negotiated with the start town a late roll out and then, to get you not on schedule but there so you could finish in time to make the transfer to Foux d’Allos for the next night.

    We were fortunate, at the finish area we could be briefed. The organization did not have the time or spare manpower to stop and inform people along the route. After briefing us Boué himself was flat out moving finish furniture around the place. At the finish there was only absolute sympathy for the organization and great admiration for all you girls taking part, putting on the show for us. I went down the finish climb about 3 km. The race came by about 3 hours late. Let me share with you what I witnessed. A policeman was on a road junction
    onto the climb. He stayed there and made sure nobody came out onto the climb for the duration. He knew nothing about the timings but knew he had to stay there until the last rider passed. Everyone was good natured. The locals, hoping that the race had cleared were turned back or waited for the race and all cheered you. The weather got blacker and the yellow jersey group made a fantastic sight weaving their way up the hairpins with thunder and lightning around them and the convoy car headlights winking in the gathering gloom. You came through in small groups, often with a motorbike mounted Gendarme ushering you into slightly larger groups, shepherding every single rider. Nobody had been allowed to come out of the town and descend the mountain whilst we all waited for the race caravan and the last rider on the road. It was getting very dark as the last rider arrived. Meredith, I am so sad that you think it was all disorganized. The opinion of every single person in the crowd was that we marveled at the committed organization and the wonderful riders, the police and support staff. We all felt privileged to be witnessing such dedication and commitment.

    Then we all had to move back off the climb. The riders had to go over the Col du Champs at over 2,000m to make their accommodation, shower and evening meal. We set off over the Col de Cayolle at over 2300m for Barcelonette. The storm broke as we descended. Up over the next Col the storm worsened. I have memories of crawling down the Cayolle,, in the dark with the wipers going flat out. Peering into the glow cast by the headlights, with a shear drop on one side of the car and dodging rocks as big as 3 house-bricks that were falling of the mountainside from the other. A couple of times I stopped to move rocks out of the road so we could continue our journey. We had a meal and returned to our tent to find our neighbours explaining how when the storm hit the site they went round putting extra guys on the tents and making everything secure.

    The storm continued through the night. The next day we set off for the Col de Vars, the 2nd of your HC climbs that day. We could not get there. The road out of Barcelonette was closed. We parked the car, got out our bikes and rode. From Barcelonette there is the main road through Jausiers to Cueno in Italy. It was closed. All traffic into and from Italy was stopped. A gulley which normally featured a trickle, not ankle deep In summer, had filled the river gorge, brought rocks down from the mountain and these had filled the enormous culverts under the road with rocks. The rocks had piled up and there was a sea of rocks and debris on the main road to Italy. Some of the rocks were about 10’ in diameter. The road maintenance gangs were clearing them. In the chaos of the traffic that blocked the roads in both directions they were moving up bulldozers. When we arrived one was in operation and they were just about to open up a single file contra flow. We passed on our bikes and then came against another, similar blockage. We rode on up the Vars. At the summit we met Joane Somarriba’s sister and brother in Law amongst the probably 1, 500 spectators who had somehow made it there. We, like Somarriba’s relatives, were the rarity coming from the Jausiers side;the road from Guiliestre was clear. We all waited. The talk was of what happened yesterday and the very late arrival at Valberg. We knew every one was frantically clearing the road that the race was due to take. Joanne had contacted her sister and informed her that you had, again after your late arrival at Allos, and the need for the workmen to clear the descent of the Col d’Allos of rock debris to make sure it was safe for you, another late roll out of that town. However the road conditions were unpredictable
    as the traffic backed up everywhere.

    So after the roll out you were put back in the team cars and did not come over the Vars but drove around to the clear roads around Guiliestre so that you could access the ski station finish Puy St Vincent. We didn’t see you that day. Eventually the news got to us on the Vars and we all left. Meredith, once again, I did not hear a word of criticism. To us, even if not to some of the riders, we knew what we were witnessing was freak weather. They were doing their very best in the most trying circumstances. I have been riding the Alps in that region for well over 20 years and I have never experienced storms like we did in 2003. No way could this be put in front of the organsers as somehow it was their fault.

    We went down the descent and Joane’s family went to their campsite and we went to ours. It was lashing down when we parted. And again
    Meredith, perhaps this is a mark of the different cultures and expectations you might have brought with you. My wife and I are about to go on vacation and where do we plan to go ? The same campsite we stayed on in 2003. We will ride the Allos, Vars, Cayolle, the Bonnette,at 2,860m the highest paved road in Europe. Pushing 60 I feel proud but my wife, she shows up not having ridden 100km in the last 3 months and goes up the Cols like a mountain goat. We will get back to our tent and there, my wife will pour a glass of red and I will crack open a beer. Then we will cook our evening meal. We will sleep and if it is hot, we will be hot and if it is cold and wet we will get cold and wet. It is great and it is fun. We actually chose that over an air conditioned hotel. We don’t worry that we exist without ice cubes. We do not
    feel deprived in any way. And probably Nicole and Joane are both of an upbringing where they were both very grateful of the race, the showcase for their talents and not having an air-conditioned hotel was nothing to concern them. Nobody is saying you have to like it and if you don’t, nobody says you have to stay.

    I think I will stop there. But please Meredith, you and the rest of the girls were never objects of ridicule to proper fans. We fully understood the trials and tribulations of the riders and organization. We were all glad that Boué managed to put on another 5 editions. They varied in size and scope. Another story that perhaps he is best placed to tell is how the UCI and French Federation behaved towards him. To us the fans – the riders were always complete heroines, to be admired.

    Tony Cooke

    • Jessi Braverman

      Tony – We’re thrilled to have you as an Ella reader. I so appreciate you weighing in and sharing your experience of the same race. I would love to get in touch. If you’re interested in speaking further, please email me at jessi(dot)braverman(at)cyclingtips(dot)com(dot)au. Would be great to share your story (and potentially Nicole’s as well) with our readers to offer an alternate perspective.

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