There were not one, but in fact, two historic moments in women’s sport at the weekend. The first, as you may be aware, came at Wembley on a joyous night for English football; the other was on a mountain summit in the French Vosges, where Annemiek van Vleuten won the Tour de France Femmes at Super Planche des Belles Filles.
The 39-year-old Dutchwoman overcame a stomach bug to utterly dominate the mountain stages of the eight-day race. Such was her superiority over the peloton that only six riders finished within 10 minutes of her overall winning time.
In a way, the outcome of the race mattered less than the breakthrough it represented. The various incarnations of the women’s race have endured exile, underfunding and mockery, until finally, after years of reluctance, the Tour promoters ASO were browbeaten into launching this year’s event.
There are other major women’s races – the Women’s Tour in Britain and the Giro Donne in Italy – but the Tour de France is the pinnacle of the sport, the global showcase of elite cycling. Now plans are afoot to make the Tour Femmes bigger, better and significantly more competitive.
While the men’s Tour has survived world wars, pandemics and crippling doping scandals, women’s cycling has existed in a sporting hinterland. It’s to the great credit of those athletes and campaigners who lobbied so hard, for so long, that Van Vleuten was able to stand, in a maillot jaune, on the final podium.
What started in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe and finished on a gravel track was only the beginning. “I was always sure of one thing with this race,” said the Tour Femmes director, Marion Rousse. “It wasn’t a gift that we were giving to women’s cycling, to create a women’s Tour de France. They simply deserve it and you see the proof each day, with different scenarios in the race. And even though it’s the first year, it’s a proper Tour de France, with the caravan, the crowds, placards, flags – it’s great. It gives me shivers when I see it.”
The Tour Femmes has three more years on its contract with title sponsor Zwift. “It’s important in this first year to see the reception from the public, the media, the audience, the sponsors,” Rousse said. “They don’t know with a new race how things will go, but it’s already impressive on all levels. We’re making women’s cycling a part of everyday life. We’ve met the challenge and clearly it’s going to grow in the next years.”
There is talk already of increasing the number of riders in each team and of more racing days next year, including an individual time trial and visiting the Alps and Pyrenees.
“We’ve already learned a lot,” Rousse said. “There are some questions to answer – some things we can improve on for next year. But looking at the popular success, the size of the TV audience, the interest in the race, the quality of the racing, it’s going to get bigger in the coming years.”
But she acknowledges there are significant issues to be resolved to enable the event to grow. It also has to establish greater depth through the women’s peloton, and generate a higher level of competition throughout. With some riders taking time off work to compete and others riding for free, there is a need for greater investment in the teams themselves.
“Although women’s cycling has evolved, the economic model remains fragile,” Rousse said. “It’s still an amateur milieu, for sure, and one hopes that, thanks to the audience, to the fact that the race is on TV in 190 countries around the world, and because it’s the Tour de France, that the sponsors will be encouraged to invest in women’s teams.”
In the immediate future, it is clear that from now on the three-week Tour de France will morph into a month-long festival of road racing, celebrating both men’s and women’s cycling. As the women’s race develops, the globalisation of the men’s race continues unabated with the 2022 podium featuring a Danish winner, a Slovenian runner-up and a veteran Welshman, Geraint Thomas, placing third.
Jonas Vingegaard’s success was celebrated by thousands of fans in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, while Tadej Pogacar headed straight to the Tour Femmes to support his partner Urska Zigart, who was racing for Team BikeExchange. Next year the Grand Depart for the men will be in Bilbao for two stages looping through the Basque Country before the peloton enters France.
The Tour Femmes meanwhile will start on 23 July as the men’s race ends in Paris and, according to Rousse, will remain in its current format of a week of racing. “You can’t build a race of 10 days or three weeks on the spot,” she said. “You need to develop it progressively. For now it’s eight days.”