Why can’t we have a women’s Tour de France?
Does cycling’s institutional sexism mean women will never make it in pro racing? Asks Sarah Barth
Three thousand, two hundred kilometres of blood, sweat and tears; 21 days of mental and physical achievement; up mountains and through headwinds, the Tour de France is without doubt the pinnacle of the racing calendar for pro cyclists and spectators alike. But only if those pros are men.
There’s no women’s Tour de France, at least not any more. Since 2009, the event known as the Tour Cycliste Feminin has not been held. Its demise followed decades of scrambling for adequate sponsorship to allow the race to be held, and the lack of esteem in which it was held is demonstrated by the fact that in 1997 the organisers of the men’s Tour de France declared its name a breach of trademark, so it was renamed La Grande Boucle (the big loop).
By the time it eventually came to a halt in 2009 the race was only four days long with 66 riders, a shadow of its heyday of 15 stages. That year, three British stages were plannned; when that fell through the race’s winner Emma Pooley dismissed it as "more of a Petite Boucle than Grande."
Speaking again about the race on BBC Radio 4's Women’s Hour this week, Pooley said that there was no good reason not to have a women’s event on the same scale as the enormously popular Tour de France.
Speaking from her Zurich training base, Pooley, an Olympic Silver Medallist and 2010 World Time Trial Champion, told the programme: “There did used to be a real women’s Tour de France back in the 80s; two weeks long and really tough with proper mountain stages, but it sort of fizzled out because of lack of sponsorship.
“2009 was the last time that the daughter race of the Tour happened.”
But, she said, she saw no evidence that women’s cycling was any less exciting or watchable than men’s, citing the audiences for the women’s Olympic cycling events at the 2012 Games in London.
“It’s a a real opportunity that’s being missed, frankly,” she continued. “There’s a real growth in women's cycling and we saw in the UK last year with the Olympics that there’s the same Olympic events in cycling for women as for men.
“People said to me: ‘where can we watch more of your racing?’ and I said, ‘well you can’t, because it’s not on television.’
“We have plenty of races but they don’t get much media coverage so people don’t watch it and the sponsors aren’t interested."
She said she could envisage a situation where women rode the same Tour course as the men each day, passing through earlier and giving the public who turn out to line the streets another opportunity to see top-class racing passing through their local area.
She said: “The Tour is such a huge logistical challenge anyway that adding 50 or 70 women wouldn’t make a huge difference. I’ve heard people say that there wouldn’t be enough hotels, but I mean, honestly!
“For the spectators it would be quite a good thing because they stand by the side of the road in pouring rain or sweltering heat for hours and hours and they only see the race go past once."
Asked whether women simply weren’t capable of the physical challenge of the Tour, she was quick to reject the idea.
She said: “It annoys me a little bit because there used to be the argument that women couldn’t run a marathon, and that died a death a long time ago.”
She said that the financial pressures on women to afford to race meant that many did not race full time, so to start with there wouldn’t be a huge field.
“Most women can’t afford to race full time, so I don’t think you have 100 women...but you have 50.
“I want to do the tour... I’m sure I could finish - I know I could do the distance. I couldn’t finish probably the men’s race because they ride faster than us uphill.
“We’re not actually allowed to ride as far in a single stage... it’s old fashioned sexism in my opinion. But women play fewer sets at Wimbledon and people still want to watch it.”
Half The Road: too much to ask?
Pooley, who took part in the filming of a documentary called Half The Road, which explores the world of women’s professional cycling, focusing on both the love of sport and the inequality that modern-day female riders face in a male dominated sport, said that given Britain’s involvement in next year’s Tour Grand Depart, we might be able to exert a little pressure on the race organisers to let women in.
She said: “The Tour starts in Yorkshire next year and you’d think they’d be desperate to organise a women’s race. The governing body of cycling should start to legislate on this... They could say you’re not getting a licence unless you have a women’s race as well.”
Along with the American rider Kathryn Bertine, Pooley has begun a petition asking Christian Prudhomme, Director of the Tour de France, to "break down the barriers that unjustly keep female athletes from the same opportunities as men."
The petition, which you can sign here, demands:
-- Women should have the opportunity to compete at the same cycling events as men.
-- Women should be on the starting line of the 101st Tour de France in 2014.
Perhaps there is hope: in his manifesto to become the next President of the UCI, Brian Cookson wrote:
“I strongly believe there is huge potential to grow women’s cycling at all levels. As UCI President, I will make it my priority to create new opportunities for women’s cycling in all disciplines, and also create a new UCI Women’s Commission, appoint at least one woman to every UCI Commission, establish a minimum wage for women pro road riders and formalise proper and modern terms of employment.”
Pooley is not a lone voice on the subject; it’s an argument that has gathered pace since the British successes at the London 2012 Olympics gave some of our home-grown stars a real voice for the first time.
At the time, Pooley spoke out in the Guardian, and it’s sad to see how little has changed in a year.
She said: "Women's cycling really does have a problem. It's not a lack of enthusiasm or willingness, it's just the races aren't televised for the most part so for sponsors it's like night and day compared with men's cycling. There is a lot of uncertainty every year over teams. You think you've got a contract then the team decide women's racing is not of interest to main sponsors because it's not visible.
"[In] A lot of women's teams you're lucky if they buy you a sandwich at the race… sponsors keep pulling out of races so they get cancelled… the calendar has been more than decimated. I get enough to live off, better than most women in the sport. The depressing thing is that there is so much money in cycling but it all stays in one bit of the sport, not much of it trickles down."
Nicole Cook, road race World Champion and Olympic gold medalist, added her voice to the debate in her retirement statement, which you can read here in full.
She said: “One expects there to be an infrastructure for both boys and girls to develop and demonstrate their talents; to nurture them. One does not expect that nothing is available if you are a girl or that worse still, girls will be specifically excluded, not allowed to compete."
She blamed the doping scandal that has damned the men’s sport over the last few years for the lack of sponsorship for women’s cycling, which is crucial if talented women are to devote more of their time to racing.
She said: “Every scandal on the men's side has caused sponsors to leave on the women's side. And with such thin budgets, the losses have a greater relative impact on what survives. In areas where there was unique female development and growth, such as in Canada, which hosted a major Tour, a World Cup and the World Championships, all geared to supporting their number one rider — Genevieve Jeanson, there has been calamity. Perhaps Jeanson will not be a name familiar to you. She was the Canadian superstar, a national icon. She never tested positive. She missed a drugs test when she beat me and received a meaningless fine as a consequence. She exceeded the 50% Hematocrit level and the authorities acted in line with their legislation and imposed a "health rest" on her.”
Can't complain about the race that we don't yet have?
When we spoke to Sarah Storey, whose Paralympic successes have seen her become Britain's most successful female Paralympian, she echoed the sentiments, but in a more nuanced take on things, said that women had to bear some of the burden themselves, and fill all of the events that are currently open to them.
Storey, 34, won four gold medals at the London Games, for events as diverse as the 500m time trial and the C4-5 road race at Brand's Hatch, and now holds 22 Paralympic medals in all, a record shared with former wheelchair racer Tanni Grey-Thompson.
Speaking to Road.cc, she questioned why the turnout at women's races is often poor, and cited her own experiences of finding it hard to get started in elite racing.
"It can be quite daunting, so we need to find a way of supporting women to race, and allowing them to learn the skills before we put them in a field of people who are going so quick it's impossible to see what's happening.
She added: "To go to a road race and see that the field isn't full, despite the fact that there's a fantastic race has been organised, is disappointing. So if we don't support our races that we do have then we can't complain about the ones that we don't yet have in a more glamorous setting.
"The fields in the women's races are very oversubscribed in the early season, and then by the time you get to say the Essex Giro, which is the final one of the national series, there's only 45 riders maybe, when there could be a field of 80.
"Maybe it's because women have jobs and other commitments, and maybe some of the girls run out of money, but we have to support the events that are there before complaining about the ones that aren't."
A thousandth of the prize money
But affordability is clearly a factor in women's racing.
The Giro Rosa, previously known as the Giro Donne, features eight stages, a total length of 808 kilometres, with an average stage length of 101 km. It's a baby compared to the Tour de France (21 stages, 3404 km, average stage 162 km), but the Giro Rosa's prize money of 460 Euros is a mere thousandth of the Tour de France's 450,000 Euro top prize.
Lizzie Armitstead announced that Team Sky was "missing an opportunity" by failing to set up a women’s team, but fortunately Wiggle Honda stepped into the breach, hoovering up all those women like Laura Trott, Dani King and Joanna Rowsell, who had such success at the Olympics.
They have managed the difficult trick of getting coverage in the mainstream media, especially the Guardian newspaper. Some have noted that, in the same way as the mainstream media celebrates women’s tennis, less specialist media are able to come to the subject with fewer preconceptions and simply accept the idea that women's pro cycling is as worthy of attention as men's.
Speaking to us last month, Joanna Rowsell gave what she said was an example of how the profile in Britain of not just cycling, but women’s cycling specifically, has been transformed.
“There was a picture of me and Lizzie [Armitstead, who finished second] on the podium in the Guardian,” she explains.
“When would that have made a picture in the newspaper before? The British national time trial championships?”
As Trott noted, the remaining battle is to get some air time for the women’s road team - as it’s television that attract the sponsors.
She said: "I think women's races need to be run alongside men's races. Obviously as a track rider we get just as much coverage on the TV and the same sponsorship, because we're there with the men. Twenty minutes to show the end of our road races isn't a lot to ask."
Sadly, these days, if you switch on your television you’re more likely to see a girl having her bottom pinched on a podium than standing on it in her own right.
Of course, supporting the successful female riders we already have is one thing, but building on the, for the future depends on a longer term process that includes getting more women cycling in general.
Step forward Team CTC, which hasn’t had so much coverage, but it’s another small step towards making sure women have the support they need to compete.
Formed as an offshoot of the Cyclist’s Touring Club, we reported chief executive Gordon Seabright’s comments in which he said it’s not just about winning races, but winning women around to cycling. Seabright recognises that the solution to the institutional sexism is not simply to put on a few more women’s races.
Seabright wrote: "Members of the team have committed their non-racing time to visiting CTC activities around the country to help us get them the media coverage they deserve.
"We also want to show by actions and not just by words our support for women’s cycling and what we think of the disgraceful disparity between support for sporting men and women.
"Getting women cycling is our job. CTC has always been a campaigning organisation, and as far back as the 1890s we were fighting for the rights of women cyclists to be just as welcome at wayside inns as their male counterparts."
Quietly, they have been doing their bit, recently putting in a solid performance in the Tour De Feminin - O cenu Ceského Švýcarska in the Czech Republic.
Girls on film
So is the idea of women’s cycling regularly appearing on television a bit of a pipe dream?
In the world of women’s football, things have slowly begun to change. From being something of a niche interest, the BBC has begun to show noticeably increased coverage of the sport, including extensive content from the Women’s Euros this month. It’s clear that with increased scheduling, the audiences will follow, and so, the sponsors - it’s hard to see how it’s not a winning combination for everyone.That’s a view echoed by William Fotheringham of The Guardian. If the cycle racing industry doesn’t want to change itself simply to address inequality, he argues, they should consider it simply because it might be good for its pockets.
He writes: “It is blatantly unfair that women racers should earn proportionately so much less than their male counterparts and face instability that they don't. But if that is not an argument that carries enough weight, the prospect of a massive untapped market should have the cycle industry beating the UCI's door down.”