Fans at the Femmes Photo: Kristof Ramon

‘I just couldn’t stop smiling:’ When riders needed a lift, Femmes fans were there

Many doubted whether the women's peloton would be greeted with the same enthusiasm — they had nothing to worry about.

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The Tour de France is synonymous with images of fans lining the roadside, some camping out for hours before the race is due to pass by, many dressed in outlandish outfits or else the ubiquitous E.Leclerc polka-dot T-shirts that are tossed from the publicity caravan. 

At the men’s Tour, we saw plenty of those images, from the turnout of what seemed like the entire population of Denmark, to the wall of bodies and sound on the mountain passes of the Alps and the Pyrenees. As the race approached its final stage and the women’s turn to take up the Tour mantle loomed closer, many wondered if the support would continue with the same vigour. 

Paris was swarming with fans trekking through the sweltering heat to line the Champs Élysées. While the men’s peloton approached the city from the outskirts the women lined up beside the Eiffel Tower. There were plenty of fans but it was unclear whether they were merely incidental men’s supporters or dedicated women’s cycling fans. 

Then, the exhausted circus of the men’s race stepped off their bikes to party in Paris, passing the baton to the women –  and something amazing happened: the crowds kept coming. Not only that, they seemed to get bigger with every stage. Stage three from Épernay saw an entire peloton of schoolchildren dressed in yellow jerseys lined up next to the start line, enthusiastically counting down to the gun in unison. 

The finish line of that same stage on a brutally steep climb on the outskirts of Épernay was alive with supporters all day long. The top of the climb was teeming with people lined up against the barriers to watch the eventual winner, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig cross the line first. 

But it wasn’t simply the starts and finishes that saw the people of France (and beyond) gather. Marianne Vos, wearing yellow for the first time on that stage, noticed the roadside support throughout the day.   

“On the last 300m I didn’t see anything at all anymore,” she said of the steep climb in Épernay. “But before it was crazy, it was like rows of people coming into the city. And not only in the final but all day and that’s something very special to experience. Like I say, wearing the yellow jersey, which is of course pretty iconic for people also and you get spotted in the bunch quite easily. It’s really nice to experience this.”

Marit Raaijmakkers of Human Powered Health had been in the breakaway the day before and noticed the same: “On stage two, I was in a breakaway and it was like on some shitty country road in the outback of France, where you don’t expect [even] one single dog to be around and there were like people standing in line like beside the road and I was like, ‘well, that’s crazy,'” she told CyclingTips. 

Stage 5 of the Tour de France Femmes in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, France. (Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Speaking before stage four’s outing on the gravel, Vittoria Guazzini (FDJ-Suez- Futuroscope) also noted the support. “There is a special atmosphere here. And we see at the start and at the end but also during the stage,” she said. “Everyone is outside to cheer for us and it’s amazing, yeah. It’s true the Tour de France is [one of] the most important races and we really see it now that we get to race it.”

One of the most established riders in the women’s peloton, world time trial champion and hour record holder Ellen van Dijk admitted to being unsure, prior to the race, of how much support she and her colleagues would get. 

“It was, of course, hard to know what to expect, because we never did it before,” she said. But she had nothing to worry about: “To be honest, I’m super positively surprised by the amount of people that are everywhere here like around the course, the spectators and everything because I wasn’t sure like how many people would come to watch us but it’s really really cool to see that it has so much attention. I really feels like we get the same attention as the men.”

Her compatriot and former teammate, Iris Slappendel, who was at the race in her role reporting from the back of a moto for Eurosport observed the same. “The crowds every day, I think that’s, for me the biggest surprise, every day, so many people along the course. And yeah, it’s really cool. And I think that’s going to do a lot for women’s cycling, the viewing figures and the people on the course.”

Le Col – Wahoo’s former Belgian champion, Jesse Vandenbulcke, spent much of stage six in a breakaway and compared the crowds to her home world championships last year. 

“It’s almost like against the whole road. You also have like World Championships in Belgium. That was amazing, It’s just Tour de France. Also, a lot of people come to here for having a vacation and enjoy cycling. So yeah, it’s really nice.”

It was when the race reached the mountains that the fans really made themselves known. Fans lining the slopes of mountain passes is one of the defining images of the Tour de France and the public truly got the memo for the Femmes. On the drive up to Le Markstein, at the top of the Grand Ballon, hours before the race was due to arrive there were hundreds of people riding, walking, and driving in the same direction. At the top, the barriers and bars heaved with people waiting to watch the race come by twice. 

“Everything is very special, special from fans’ point of view, from the organisation’s point of view from rider’s point of view, I feel like everyone’s just giving their best,” said Kasia Niewiadoma after the stage.  

The next day, La Super Planche des Belles Filles surpassed expectations once again. On the same day that a record 87,000 fans filled Wembley stadium to watch the final of the women’s European football championships, thousands also lined the roadside of the iconic Tour de France climb.

Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images

From the bottom to the top, people stood at the roadside, waiting to watch the final stage. Along the final few hundred metres of the climb, people draped themselves over the Zwift-branded barriers, behind those at the front multiple rows of others stood. Fittingly, in the corner of a fixed camera shot pointing towards the finish line from below, two young girls wearing polka-dots could be seen cheering on their heroes.

At the top of the climb, riders gathered themselves and began to reflect on the experience. FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope’s Grace Brown echoed others who said the race had surpassed all expectations. “Everything has been bigger than what I expected,” she told SBS. “Like the media, the fans, just all the extra little things up and above the riding”

Her fellow Australian, 21-year-old Anya Louw (AG Insurance NXTG) who had been in a breakaway on an earlier stage, agreed. “On the first day everyone was like, ‘yeah, well, the crowds are amazing.’ But then everyone knew it’s probably because of the men like they’re also going to be there. But then it hasn’t stopped the entire race. So it’s been awesome to see so many people coming out to watch the women’s race. It’s really Yeah, it’s really motivating.” 

Kirsten Faulkner, who crashed multiple times throughout the race and fought tooth-and-nail up the Grand Ballon to the point where she passed out at the top, came across the line at the Planche beaming.

“I was smiling the last one kilometre,” she said. “I just couldn’t stop smiling because there were so many fans out there. I was in so much pain, but I just would make eye contact with a fan and…just to see them, they’re cheering and yelling, and it was amazing and every corner there were more people.”

“There was one moment on the course where it was dead silent and I was like, ‘that’s so weird,’ because the whole rest of the race we had fans at any given point. I feel pretty self-motivated most of the time, but today, I really needed that. Yeah, I’m really grateful they were there.” 

Fans line the gravel roads of the Tour de France Femmes. Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

It wasn’t just the support along the roadside that surpassed expectations and illustrated the significance of giving women access to the biggest stage in the sport. France TV Sport Press confirmed that France 3 reached a peak of 2.8 million viewers on stage three. 

As well as roadside fans and TV viewers, those who engaged on social media also didn’t go unnoticed.

“It was amazing to see a lot of fans on the side of the road. I feel like we’ve been receiving a lot of energy and that also motivated us to go harder and push beyond our limits. Also receiving a lot of recognition from social media and TV was something very special, so it was really nice to find ourselves in the position that we are giving something to the public and the public is giving something back to us,” said Kasia Niewiadoma after the stage.

“It was a very special experience and it was nice to feel it myself because a lot of people talk about this race, how amazing it is, how special and how much attention the race gets. So it was nice to find ourselves in the position of the rider and basically feel it.”

The support the women’s peloton had over the past eight days of racing is a testament to the sheer scale of the Tour de France. While many have been loath to overstate the role this race could play in the growth of women’s cycling, the unprecedented reach that it has had and the impact that seeing it first-hand will have on the crowds who came to see it marks a watershed moment for women’s sport.

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