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One of the best parts about the upswing women’s cycling is currently experiencing is all the new fans that have come to embrace the sport. In men’s cycling, the past is interwoven with the present. Watch the Tour, and the commentary will undoubtedly include talk of Tour’s past. With so few women’s races being broadcast live (or – let’s be honest – at all), new followers of women’s cycling often lack opportunity for exposure to a historical perspective.
In the wake of La Course on Sunday, I thought it most appropriate to start my tenure as an Ella columnist with a throw-back to my days racing la Grande Boucle Féminin with the Danish-based Team S.A.T.S. The race, first called Tour Feminin and later rebranded as la Grande Boucle Féminin, was held for 16 years between 1984-2003 and was known as ‘the women’s Tour de France’.
The 12th edition of la Grande Boucle Féminin totaled nearly 1400 kilometers over 14 days. In 2003, the peloton was slim. There were just under 70 riders taking to the start in Corsica, considerably smaller than the 113 riders who lined up for the French Grand Tour in Holland the previous year.
The reasons varied for the absence of teams. The late announcement of the tour dates meant some teams had already opted to attend other races while others didn’t have the budget to add another race to the calendar late in the season. For several teams, the underlying reasons were the poor conditions that the riders had experienced for too many years, such as substandard accommodations, excessively long transfers, unnecessarily long neutral starts and unpaid prize money.
Team S.A.T.S. was in its first year as a UCI team and at the time full of riders who had zero European racing experience. Although I had been racing for five years (four years more than many of my Danish teammates), 2003 marked the first year I raced bikes in Europe. We were eight months in to the season and were eager to race everything on offer.
Early that spring we had been to Australia to race the World Cup in Geelong. In May we raced Tour de l’Aude, and in July the Giro d’Italia Femminile. It was a given that we would race la Grande Boucle Féminin. As European newbies, we didn’t know the many varied reasons teams would opt out. We enthusiastically packed our vehicles in Copenhagen and made the long drive (plus ferry ride) across France for the ‘Grand Départ’ in Corsica.
THINGS FALL APART FROM THE START
In our team meeting the night before the opening stage, we studied the race bible and speculated that the race would end in a field sprint. With only two category four climbs over the final 30 kilometres, we didn’t expect a big split in the field.
Our plan immediately became irrelevant when a five kilometre climb early in the stage started to weaken the peloton. The category four climbs that followed fractured the peloton into bits and pieces. Olga Zabalinskaia won by an astounding 4:32. Groups no bigger than ten riders crossed the finish line behind her. The last group to finish the stage was 40 minutes down. This was a so-called ‘sprint stage’ – and the first stage of the race!
PROFILE LIES + HYDRATION CHALLENGES + LATE NIGHTS
Day two saw similar results as the climbers stamped their authority on the race. The grupetto rolled into Saint Florent 22 minutes in arrears. We had raced only two days, and I was already 41 minutes down on the general classification.
At this point I think we gathered that every day was going to be hard regardless of the course profile. We had yet to encounter even a category two climb much less the category one or hors catégorie (HC) climbs that were yet to come. It was demoralising to image the impact the higher-ranked climbs would have on the non-climbers amongst the bunch.
To add to the challenge, we were racing during a heat wave that was wreaking havoc on Europe. The hottest temperatures on record in the northern hemisphere killed over 35,000 people that summer. To say proper hydration in this sort of heat is key is an understatement.
Now try to imagine how hard it was to stay hydrated when your beverage choice during the race was hot (not warm – hot!) water. I blame France for this one. The country apparently doesn’t believe in the value of ice.
Many of the teams were able to make their own ice in their RVs. Our small team with one car and one small van didn’t have that ‘luxury’ of doing the same – which mean we spent two weeks choking down hot water in an attempt to stay hydrated.
After stage two, we took a ferry back to mainland France, only it was about midnight when the boat finally left Corsica. Many teams didn’t get to their hotel rooms until 3 a.m. We were exhausted, and it was only two days into the two weeks of racing.
A LAUGHING STOCK
Stage three was meant to be an important mountain stage in the Alps, but the race jury decided to shorten the stage due to insufficient sleep the night before. We did our casual neutral parade around the start town, and as soon as we were out of sight, we hopped in the team cars. We then were driven to the new start 35 kilometres away.
As we drove past the spectators who had come out to cheer for us, they booed and gave us the thumbs down. It was disheartening to see the confused looks on their faces, it was embarrassing for the sport of women’s cycling, and it was maddening that we had no way to defend ourselves and explain our situation.
With three stages and all that mess behind us, we turned our focus to what would be the ‘queen’ stage – a 113-kilometre Alpine route that was to include three categorized climbs of one, two and HC difficulty. Believe it or not, the race was foiled again for the second day in a row. We woke up that morning to reports that the roads were impassable due to a recent landslide that had destroyed homes and injured residents.
The organization was forced to shorten the stage to a mere 35 kilometres. Again we were the laughing stock as we drove the opening 75 kilometers to get to the new starting point smack dab at the base of the final climb. Twelve years on, and I still vividly remember standing in the middle of the road, dumbfounded, as it started to rain.
Talk of protest began to brew but before there was enough accordance and coordination amongst the teams, a small group of riders who were opposed to protest took off down the road. While some riders were still collecting rain jackets from team cars, the race had unexpectedly begun.
One hour and four minutes later Fabiana Luperini crossed the finish line. The rather large grupetto casually rolled in 23 minutes later.
And there you have it – the ‘queen’ stage.
RACING IN THE GRUPETTO
Over the next few stages, the races continued to be challenging, hot and hilly but everything seemed to go more or less according to plan. Then on stage seven there was some rumbling at the back of the race.
In the opening kilometres of the stage, the peloton exploded over the cat four climb. The GC contenders and climbers took off never to be seen again. Left in their wake was a large contingent of frustrated and unmotivated riders who were already minutes off the back.
Mid-way through the stage I distinctly remember being in the grupetto with Petra Rossner – one of the most decorated, influential, respected and outspoken riders in the peloton. Petra would control the pace of the grupetto so that we didn’t go faster than we needed to but fast enough that we didn’t get time cut. At some point a moto official came back to the group to tell us to ride faster because the gap was too big.
This set Petra off into a tizzy. She started yelling at the official that the race was a joke, that the profiles were a lie, that we were being treated with incredible disrespect. Needless to say, Petra was not persuaded to go any faster than she wanted, and we all followed her lead. On a 107 kilometre stage that included what should have been two relaxed category four climbs, we finished almost 37 minutes behind the winner of the stage.
SUFFERING OFF THE BIKE
We continued to suffer through stage after stage in the extreme, suffocating heat. We still had no ice in our bottles and it was hard to eat anything in the heat. And it wasn’t just on the bike that we suffered.
It was in the dilapidated and depressing hotels where we continued to endure adverse conditions. We did not spend a single night in a hotel with air conditioning, and we were fed terrible food. The heat at night was stifling, which made it impossible to sleep. In fact, one night my teammate and I took our mattresses outside to sleep on the lawn where we could at least sleep under the trees with a nice breeze blowing across our sheets.
Fourteen days after beginning the tour on the island of Corsica, the race concluded with a stage from Versailles to Paris. There was little fanfare along the streets to greet us in Paris – it wasn’t the Champs-Élysées after all – but we had every reason to be proud of the grueling, uncomfortable and often times disrespectful conditions that we had endured for two weeks. A gratifying bonus in our own little camp was that we were the only team to finish with an intact roster. Only 50 riders reached Paris and six of them were from Team S.A.T.S.
FROM LA GRANDE BOUCLE TO LA COURSE
There’s no arguing that la Grande Boucle Féminin was epic and beautiful, but the disorganization, false information and treatment of the riders was unforgivable. Never again did la Grande Boucle Féminin exist in women’s cycling. A once prestigious and respected race had finally been brought to its knees.
Fast-forward 12 years, and the women’s peloton now race amongst raucous fanfare and esteem on the cobbled streets around the Champs- Élysées. It is only a one-day race for now, but it’s treated with more respect and excitement than la Grande Boucle ever was.
For the future of women’s cycling I dream that La Course will be transformed into a significant tour that is reminiscent of a well-organized, sustainable, respectable, prestigious and beautiful la Grande Boucle Féminin.
Meredith Miller’s professional cycling career has spanned 15+ years and three different continents. Racing for top-ranked teams on the road including Team S.A.T.S and Team Lipton, the 2009 U.S. national road champion retired from full-time road racing in 2013 to fully focus on cyclocross. The American currently owns, manages and rides for her own cyclocross team – Noosa CX – and has represented the stars and stripes at the Cyclocross World Championships six times. Having spent a good portion of her career living abroad, first in Denmark and then in New Zealand, Miller now happily lives in Boulder, Colorado.