Iris Slappendel: The Tour is exceeding expectations, but it’s only the beginning

Slappendel is seeing the Tour de France Femmes from the back of a motorbike, and is filled with optimism for the future of women’s cycling.

by Amy Jones

Iris Slappendel has had a unique perspective of The Tour de France Femmes Avec Zwift. The former pro, cycling kit designer and founder of women’s cycling union, The Cyclists’ Alliance, has been reporting from the midst of the race from the back of a motorbike. 

We caught up with a dusty and exhausted Iris after the gravel on stage 4 for the Freewheeling podcast and heard her thoughts on whether gravel has a place in stage racing. 

After she had recovered from the ordeal of stage 4, we grabbed her again to get her thoughts on the race.

FW: what has it been like at the race? 

IS: It’s really nice. I think it’s actually almost bigger than I expected. I don’t know what I expected, maybe I didn’t think about it too much before.

I mean the crowds every day, I think that for me is the biggest surprise, every day, so many people along the course. It’s really cool. And I think that’s gonna do a lot for women’s cycling, the viewing figures and the people on the course.

FW: This race has been a long time in the making, since La Course in 2014 which you raced. 

IS: I think it’s a little bit something that the riders really fought for, fought for. They’ve been fighting for this themselves. That’s what I’m trying to say. Because they are the ones who have done amazing racing, like super interesting racing over the last few years.

They have all been asking for more visibility, more professional races, races that are on the highest level. And I think that’s what we’re seeing right now. 

It’s great that we have companies like Zwift who are invested. We had Le Tour Entier a few years ago, we have The Cyclists’ Alliance, which I think has been a huge catalyst for change. We have the ASO, who of course steps up, but we have also race organisers like Flanders Classics who have been really important. 

But I think mainly it’s the riders, it’s the level of the riders, it’s what they show every race year after year. And that’s kind of like, playing out here this week. And yeah, it’s amazing for them. I’m feeling really happy for them. That they are. Yeah, they can race in this show with this public and this visibility. 

FW: We now have The Tour de France Femmes as well as Paris-Roubaix Femmes and a lot of other women’s editions of men’s races. There’s a lot of talk about whether women’s racing should fully emulate men’s — what are your thoughts on that? 

IS: Personally, I think we should not copy men’s cycling into women’s cycling. But it’s hard to deny that the Tour de France Femmes Avec Zwift can push for change so much faster than everything there’s been before. So I think in that way, it’s really important. But I also think it’s only the beginning. We’re not there yet.

For me, the Tour de France Femmes Avec Zwift is not the holy grail of cycling. It’s an amazing race, where the world finally gets to see how cool women’s cycling is. And yeah, let’s continue in making more of these races like this, and especially showing all because there are a lot of really cool races already. So [it’s about] showing that and keep telling the stories of the riders in this peloton.

But no, I don’t think we should copy men’s cycling into women’s cycling. We can take some good points out of men’s cycling and use that in women’s cycling, but no, I think it has to develop as a sport on its own.

FW: What development would you like to see next for women’s cycling?

IS: I think we really have to focus on the development of the sport. So the past few years, especially from the side of race organisers, and UCI, all the focus has been on the WorldTour, which is great. Like we have a minimum salary, we have maternity leave, the teams are stepping up. We have some great racing, but we really need to think about like the full picture. Development is super important, therefore, and I think we’re losing that a little bit out of sight. 

Even here in the Tour de France. There are 10 Continental teams racing with very limited resources with I think around 40% of those riders not having any salary or a very small salary. So yeah, I mean, we have to think about their race calendar, their trajectory to that WorldTour, we have to look to the U23 category, even the juniors and how to bring more diversity into the sport.

FW: So you’re here on the back of the motorbike following the race. Do you prefer that? Or would you like to be in the peloton?

IS: I actually haven’t thought about being in the peloton that much, but no I definitely really enjoy being on the back of the bike and being able to see the race from so close is really cool.

I mean, it’s also like a cool experience, like it’s so much adrenaline on the bike and the gravel stage [and] like descending every time. It’s really fun. And it’s also cool to learn something completely new and really nice. Actually something I really enjoy is to see so many of my former colleagues here around working in media, working as sport directors, like all kinds of things that’s something I really enjoy. So it’s nice to see the riders but it’s also nice to see them again.  

But no I don’t really feel like sad to miss out on racing myself.

FW: What do you think about the course for this race? Do you think it should be a bit harder or a bit longer or do you think it’s about right for where the peloton is right now?

IS: I think it’s about right I think. It’s kind of nice because it’s only eight days that there is not like crazy transfers in between which we would have had if you would go all around France for example. I always believe it’s the riders who make it really hard and they’ve done [that] this week.

So yeah, I think it’s been actually really quite interesting stages, not super predictable. And I think it’s also nice that the mountain stages are at the end.

It would have been cool if there would have been maybe a super short prologue or individual time trial on day five or six, but otherwise, I think it’s a really well-balanced course for this week.

FW: And finally, who is your pick for the win? 

IS: Annemiek van Vleuten. That was my pick from the beginning and I’ll stick with it. 

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