Could a women’s Tour de France be on the way?

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Le Télégramme reports that Tour de France organizer Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) is working on bringing back a women’s Tour de France.

“We are seriously working on a project for a women’s stage race. We want to organise it in the short term,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme told Le Télégramme. “We want to talk to everyone, not just 50% of the population.”

Christian Prudhomme pictured during the presentation of the 2017 Tour de France at the Palais des Congres on October 18, 2016 in Paris, France.

ASO has long been pushed to do more for women’s cycling, and to launch a women’s Tour de France; Prudhomme’s statement is one of the more hopeful signs that the organisation may yet come through with the goods.

In 1955 French race director and journalist, Jean Leulliot, launched the first women’s Tour de France Féminin which was made up of five stages and attracted 41 racers; the men’s race had been taking place since 1903. Millie Robinson, from the Isle of Man, won the race with an estimated average speed throughout of 38 km/h. Due to lack of financial stability, the event did not continue in 1956.

The Tour de France Féminin was revived in 1984 by the ASO, which created a full three-week race running alongside the men’s race as a “curtain-raiser”. After two editions the race had been shortened to two weeks in length, and after two more years, the ASO dropped the “economically restrictive” women’s race to concentrate on the financially-lucrative growth in coverage and sponsorship of the men’s race. The final Tour de France Féminin was held in 1989.

In the years since, events filling a similar space have been put forward by a range of different organisers, under different names and race formats. From 1990 through 1993 there was the Tour of the EEC Women; from 1992 through 1997 the Tour Cycliste Féminin; La Grande Boucle Féminin Internationale from 1998 until 2004; the Grande Boucle Féminin from 2004 to 2010; and finally, the Route du France Féminine, which ran from 2006 until its 2017 cancellation due to scheduling conflicts.

Kathryn Bertine rode the 2014 La Course race for Wiggle Honda.

In 2013, now-retired pro cyclist and activist for women’s rights, Kathryn Bertine – along with Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley and champion Ironman triathlete Chrissie Wellington – launched a petition targeted at ASO stating that women should have the opportunity to compete at the same events, and demanding a 2014 women’s edition of the Tour de France. “After a century, it is about time women are allowed to race the Tour de France, too,” the petition read.

In 2014, after the petition picked up almost 100,000 responses, ASO organized the inaugural La Course, a one-day race held on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, just before the men arrived on the final day of that year’s Tour de France. La Course was a 13-lap circuit coming out to about 89 km in length, a format the race would keep for its first three years of existence.

Bertine’s vision was to take the momentum of La Course and grow the race into a tour, and there were positive signs this may have been on the cards when the ASO expanded the race into a two-day event in 2017. However, it reverted to a one-day race for 2018 and 2019, on different courses each year to allow a range of riders to shine. There have been six editions of La Course, and the 2020 edition – slated again to run on the cobbles of Paris, just like in 2014 – is ASO’s only current concession to the original petition.

Speaking with CyclingTips in 2019, Bertine said that “when we launched the 2013 petition to ASO for an equal women’s race at the Tour de France, we — Le Tour Entier — did so with a very specific intent: Using the most famous bike race in the world as the platform for change. This is when the most eyes are on cycling, and when we knew we’d have the biggest audience.”

In May 2019, the ASO announced that its classics, Flèche-Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, would no longer be part of the Women’s WorldTour (WWT) in 2020 as the ASO would not commit to providing the required TV coverage to qualify for WorldTour classification. Frustrations toward the ASO from fans and racers alike rose even further.

“While we’re all very much aware ASO has broken their promise to expand La Course, it could be easy to dwell on the fact they’re still failing us. But there is a silver lining; more and more fans, journalists, and pro cyclists are speaking up about the inequity,” Bertine told CyclingTips last year. “I am so encouraged hearing their voices speak out. We will continue to keep pressure on ASO.”

However, while there have long been calls for ASO to expand La Course and re-introduce a women’s Tour – including pressure from UCI president, David Lappartient – in a February 2019 interview televised on Eurosport (which has since been taken down), Prudhomme called a concurrently run event “impossible.”

“I would not know how to organise a second event during the Tour de France. We do not know, and we would never get permission. It is impossible to do,” Prudhomme said. “We organise many other competitions and want to develop women’s cycling, but this is a no. Simply because we do not know how to do that during the Tour de France.”

So what does the future hold for a women’s Tour de France? What format might it take? And given the ASO’s dubious track record thus far, is Prudhomme’s latest pronouncement anything more than lip-service?

As of now, it’s hard to say exactly what ASO is planning, other than hints that it would not occur concurrently during the Tour de France, but would take place in the European summer. Beyond that, we’ll just have to wait, and hope that women’s cycling is finally given the respect it deserves from one of the sport’s most powerful institutions.

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