The relationship between some professional female cyclists and those that run the sport, it feels, is starting to become strained. With the Tour de France underway, fan’s eyes are inevitably drawn to La Course (full name – La Course by Le Tour de France), the women’s cycling race that aligns with a stage of the Tour itself.
Image credit: UCI
Whilst the Men’s edition of the Tour de France features 21 stages, the women’s cycling edition features only one – a far cry from the old Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale’s 26 stages.
Previously, La Course’s single stage has traditionally been hosted alongside the final stage of the Men’s edition – similarly ending on the Champs-Elysées, streets lined with crowds, providing the fanfare and spotlight that women’s cycling deserves.
This year, they don’t even get that. This year, the women’s peloton will race along 66 mountainous kilometres of Stage 18, passing through the Casse Déserte and the famous Col d’Izoard. Those that finish fastest will then participate in a pursuit-style track race at Marseilles Velodrome to decide their overall positions. The track race will be on the same day as the final Men’s time trial.
Now, we’re not arguing that Stage 18 isn’t worthy of the challenge. If anything, it is far more treacherous and difficult than the usual 21st stage, which for the Men’s race has recently been a long coronation march. It’s just the corresponding lack of exposure may potentially be more damaging for women’s cycling in the long term – and it jars with the consistent protestations of those in governing bodies – particularly the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) that they want to grow women’s cycling.
What’s more, there had been consistent murmurings over the last 10 months that this year’s La Course would be a three-stage event, rather than just one. Now, of course, rumour cannot be held up as fact. However, the enthusiasm and general acceptance by the cycling public to such an obviously sensible idea being raised ably demonstrated how long overdue it is that women’s racing should play a bigger part in the Tour de France. Additionally, the shaking of heads and resigned signs when it was confirmed not to be three stages spoke volumes too.
You might be thinking, “But men’s cycling is more popular than women’s cycling!” While that is currently undeniable from a purely financial perspective, that is precisely why more exposure for the women’s sport is so important. As the rapturous response to the Olympic road race in Rio showed, there is a hugely untapped market of fans just waiting for more coverage.
Another common argument against expanding women’s role in the Tour de France is that women have their own equivalent multi-stage race every August – La Route de France Féminine. But this year, in a further cruel blow, they don’t.
Image credit: RC.FR
La Route de France Féminine
If you ask any fan of women’s cycling, they will tell you that La Route de France Féminine is always one of the year’s racing highlights – more so than La Course. Which makes the reasons for cancelling it this year so baffling, and so exasperating.
The cancellation first came to light back in February, when La Route’s organisers – Hervé and Brigitte Gerardin posted a long note on Facebook, as well as La Route’s website, criticising the UCI and labelling the situation “a scandal.”
The note went on to explain that when they had tried to integrate their new calendar for La Route with that of the World Tour last August, their request was rejected – stating that it had been submitted too late.
The Gerardins attempted to clarify the situation, sending call after call and email after email to the UCI throughout the months that followed until November.
It then emerged that the week where La Route de France Féminine would usually run was now earmarked for the European Road Race Championships and two World Tour events – leading Hervé and Brigitte Gerardin to describe the UCI as – “an institution that has no value and no respect for an organization that has dedicated itself to the development of international women’s cycling for over 10 years.”
Image credit: A.S.O./P.Ballet
In the UCI’s defence, some female cyclists when asked, have said that they understand the difficulties of scheduling conflicts. Amber Neben, for instance, suggested “It seems like we are always trying to make cycling bigger, but there are still battles within.”
While this is admirable, anyone watching the cycling news in recent months will appreciate why female cyclists may think one thing in private and say another in public. What with the non-appearance of a bigger and better Tour de France section for female cyclists, to the cancellation of La Route – arguably the women’s Tour de France anyway, and plenty more in-between – it’s not a good look for the UCI, is all we’re saying.
We can only hope that La Course is a resounding success this year, and that La Route de France Féminine returns bigger and better than ever. Otherwise, some might start to suspect that the numerous claims that those in charge “want to do something more for them, the women”, might just be lip service after all…
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