Commentary: Do we actually need a women’s Tour de France?

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I’ll let you in on a secret. When I started writing this piece, I did so more than a little reluctantly. I really didn’t want to write another article pushing for a longer La Course.

It also didn’t help that many riders really didn’t seem excited to talk publicly about the women’s race that runs alongside the Tour de France, at least judging by the uncharacteristically underwhelming response I got to interview requests. (Either that or they’ve decided they just really, really don’t like talking to me. I’m hoping my first conclusion was right.)

So what’s with the lack of enthusiasm?

Back in July, yet another edition of La Course went by, and it brought spectacular racing that was widely broadcast and watched by an audience so much bigger than women’s cycling usually gets. All good things. But then we got news last month that La Course would again be a one-day event for its sixth edition in 2019.

Women’s racing may not be expecting a three-week, 3,460 kilometre race just yet, but even the way it was presented with little fanfare (tucked into the Tour de France announcement) made it again feel like a sideshow that the organisers, ASO, had begrudgingly been pushed into. La Course may be an exciting, broadly televised race that helps increase the exposure of women’s cycling, but it certainly isn’t the wholehearted attempt to elevate women’s racing into the mainstream that so many hoped for when the event began in 2014.

After the announcement of another one-day La Course the expected voices were raised in irritation. This time UCI president David Lappartient weighed in as well, to lean on the ASO. Much of the media (and yes, including us) continues to jump into the outrage stories, asking why La Course shouldn’t be longer. At the same time the media repeatedly fails to give any real attention to the events that already exist, like the Giro Rosa and the Women’s Tour of Britain (and no, that doesn’t include us).

These races offer so many stories of interest and value that it somehow seems futile to continually bemoan the fact the ASO — a privately run business — isn’t jumping at the chance to showcase women’s cycling. Especially when those that are throwing their weight behind the sport would be grateful if even a tiny fraction of the attention was thrown toward their races.

That brings us to an obvious question: Why write yet another article on La Course and, more importantly, why should you even bother reading it?

The answer is two-fold. It only takes a small scratch below the surface for a couple things to become clear. When it comes to anything that may help focus the attention of millions of viewers on women’s cycling, there’s too much at stake not to care. Secondly, like most things, the issue is far more complex than it first appears.

It’s not simply a matter of the ASO stepping up and organising a three-week women’s race alongside the Tour de France. It’s also a matter of looking at whether or not the infrastructure behind women’s cycling is up to it, and whether it is actually the best way to showcase the sport and draw much-needed media attention to it. And that’s before we get to the really big question: Does women’s cycling even want or need the Tour de France?

The biggest show in cycling

Let’s start at the beginning. It was more than four years ago, in 2014, that La Course was first raced, consisting of laps around the cobbled Champs-Elysees on the final day of the Tour de France. Getting it off the ground was a great challenge — Kathryn Bertine, Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley and Chrissie Wellington launched a campaign and petition, which was signed by nearly 100,000 people, to convince the organisers to include a women’s race.

La Course was one part of a bigger push to help support the growth of women’s cycling, to give it greater consumer, media and commercial appeal.

Marianne Vos, a fitting winner of the first edition of La Course in 2014.

“Inclusion at the Tour de France is so important because it is the pinnacle of the sport; the most well-known race in cycling,” Kathryn Bertine told Ella CyclingTips. “It’s the Wimbledon, the World Cup, the Kona, the Indy 500, it even supersedes the Olympics of cycling.”

However the inclusion of La Course as a one-day race in 2014 was always seen as just a beginning by unrelenting advocate Bertine.

“The ‘next steps’ were always in the plans we laid out for ASO in 2014; to grow the race incrementally each year by three to five days until full parity: three weeks,” Bertine said. “Not because women can’t do three weeks now — which they absolutely can — but to help the infrastructure of women’s pro cycling grow hand-in-hand with their inclusion/expansion of the Tour de France.

“ASO agreed to follow suit, and then they dropped the ball. Big time.”

It’s fair to say that La Course 2019’s single, 120km stage — running on the morning of July 19 with multiple laps of the men’s time trial course — wasn’t the step up Bertine was looking for.

But while some may be sure that a three-week women’s tour running alongside the Tour de France is ultimately the most desirable outcome, there are others that see things differently. Some suggest it’s not a move that’s in the best interests of the sport.

Is a three week women’s tour even feasible?

The Shecret Pro was forthright about her view on the push for longer races and three-week Grand Tours for women in her latest column for Ella CyclingTips:

“To all of you keyboard warriors and well-meaning women’s advocates out there: stop trying to get us to race the same distance as the men!,” she wrote. “There is a well-defined set of reasons why this isn’t currently feasible, nor has anyone asked the current crop of racers if it’s what we actually want.”

So let’s take a look at some of those reasons why it may not currently be feasible to make the shift to three weeks.

It’s clearly not an issue of capability, but it is hard to ignore the vastly different structure surrounding professional women’s and men’s cycling. The teams racing on the Women’s WorldTour are generally operating on a fraction of the budget of a men’s team, meaning less of everything. Fewer support staff, less equipment, fewer riders and lower salaries. That can mean an added workload for riders — from cooking their own meals at races to supplementing their income with outside work — which can take their focus away from training and even racing.

The men’s teams have so many more riders, allowing programmes that cater specifically to the Grand Tour rider. With tighter rosters, that’s not a luxury women’s teams can afford. The top women’s team, Boels-Dolmans, has 10 riders, while the dominant men’s Grand Tour team, Team Sky, has 31. Mitchelton-Scott, which won a Grand Tour this year with both its men’s and women’s teams, has 10 women and 25 men.

These tighter rosters mean that even the 10-day Giro Rosa takes its toll and can stretch resources, particularly when you add La Course just a couple days after.

Nothing left in the tank for Sofia Bertizzolo (Astana), who pushed her legs for yet another day to finish 35th after winning the young riders’ classification at the 2018 Giro Rosa.

In fact, only about a third of the 20 teams that raced La Course had a full squad of six this year. Others turned up with five, four, three or even two riders. Or they made the decision not to go at all. That was the case with mid-tier squad, Team Virtu Women Cycling, who felt the only sensible move was to forego their La Course spot given the toll injuries and illness had taken.

And while we’re on the topic of organisational constraints, there is also the question of what organisers can deliver. When we emailed the ASO after the 2019 route announcement to ask what the specific reasons were not to run the race for more than one day, a spokesperson said: “It is extremely complicated in terms of road closures, security, logistics, human resources and also TV retransmission to organise two races on the same day.”

Media attention

The question of feasibility goes beyond organisers and teams. If one of the key aims is to get more media attention to raise the profile of the sport, it’s clearly necessary for the media to have time and space to cover it. That means adding another layer of coverage to the busiest time of the year, when resources are already stretched.

At CyclingTips, we battle through that issue with the Giro Rosa already. We try to give it as much attention as we can while also managing the expectations that our audience and advertisers have during the Tour de France. The same is true with La Course.

This year at La Course, resources were diverted off the men’s racing to make sure it got a substantial amount of coverage across the CyclingTips Podcast, YouTube channel and with articles on the site.

Could we deliver the full treatment for both a men’s and women’s Tour de France over three weeks? That’s not an easy question to answer.

More importantly, would the bulk of the mainstream media go out of its way to provide coverage of a three-week women’s Tour? Would they choose the lower audience numbers provided by women’s racing over the easy option of covering the established and popular men’s race? I know what I’d like the answer to be …

Just like in the women’s peloton, the resources, depth and financial viability of women’s cycling media needs to grow. Only then will it be in a position to deliver optimal coverage of a three-week women’s tour.

What we really want is …

So what is a feasible or desirable option for women’s racing at the Tour de France right now?

There is no doubt many teams and riders revel in the attention that La Course brings, with its crowds and extensive media coverage. It delivers much-needed publicity for all-important sponsors. From a media perspective, there is also no doubt that having a women’s event associated with the Tour de France brings more eyes to the sport and creates more interest. In fact our La Course coverage counts as our best-read racing-related story on Ella CyclingTips this year.

But even the keenest advocates aren’t lobbying for an immediate shift to three weeks, even if many outside and within the peloton are talking publicly about wanting to see the addition of more days.

Australian rider Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM), who has ridden La Course three times, said her ideal scenario would be three to five days, or maybe a week with a mix of stages.

“It would include climbing stages and a finish on the Champs-Elysees,” the two-time Giro Rosa stage winner said over the phone. “That’s the perfect way to finish and gives everyone a bit of an opportunity.”

That would be a contrast to the past few years, where its been all about one type of rider, even if the type of rider has changed from year to year. The first three years on the Champs-Elysees were for the sprinters, the fourth and fifth for the climbers, and next year will be one for the rouleurs.

From the team management perspective, Virtu’s sports director Carmen Small also believes a La Course of a few days would be a better option than one. It would make it more worthwhile to travel to the race and organise a schedule around it.

But Small, who raced internationally for nearly a decade and is a key player in the Cyclists’ Alliance, was also quick to point out that there is a far bigger question that we need to answer before we start thinking about what the ideal structure of the race might be. That is: “Do we need a women’s Tour de France at all?”

To follow, or to forge a new path

Small said that as the Cyclists’ Alliance continues to delve into the issue of how to grow women’s cycling, they are constantly trying to determine the best path. “It’s not to follow the men and see what the men are doing and just produce a carbon copy,” she said.

“We actually don’t need it [the Tour de France] to be successful … I don’t think that we need a three-week long stage race, at all,” said Small. She added that there were so many other things that needed to be done first, like getting smaller races better supported.

That’s not to say that La Course isn’t potentially something that could work for women’s cycling, Small suggests, so long as its handled the right way. “If we can utilise the Tour de France and make it work for us, then of course,” said Small. “We have to grab a hold of different opportunities.”

Ultimately, that’s one thing there is clear agreement on — that women’s cycling desperately needs more opportunity to deliver races, riders and stories from the peloton to a far larger audience.

“We need to get the mainstream media on our side, we need to get them showcasing us,” said Small. “We have to figure that out and that’s the biggest issue.”

If expanding the women’s presence at the Tour de France is the thing that can do it, then we can probably never write too many articles bemoaning the lack of a La Course expansion. There should be no reluctance to produce or examine anything that keeps up the pressure for that to happen. But do we need a women’s Tour de France?

Given the lack of movement at La Course, let’s hope we don’t. 

Perhaps we do need to be quicker to embrace other ways forward. Maybe in the media we should look beyond the expansion of La Course, and instead give more attention to the great events that already exist.

We should support those that are willing to take a risky or uncharted route to growing women’s cycling, whether that be race organisers, media outlets, or sponsors. Because, ultimately, we need much more than an expanded La Course to help grow women’s cycling.

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