Women’s Tour de France returns to boost cycling’s latest breakaway

In the long march of female cyclists towards parity within their sport, there have been clear turning points, moments when the process has noticeably accelerated and taken on new and above all lasting momentum.

It was in 1958 that the UCI incorporated the women’s world championships, against their will and in a miserly way, remaining at the mercy of organizers who perhaps did not want to be part of the process. The rise of female runners to the Olympic Games in 1984 was immense, although again there was no initial recognition that women could or should be allowed to compete for the same medals as men. Others could cite the first women’s Tour of Flanders in 2004, or the creation of the Women’s Tour in the United Kingdom in 2014.

Sunday afternoon, when the first stage of the Tour de France Women leaves the Eiffel Tower for an 80 km circuit on the Champs Elysées, this should prove to be one of these points, no matter who wears the yellow jersey at the end of the La Planche des Belles Filles up-race in eastern France on July 31. The exit of the women’s Tour de France, piloted by the organizers of the men’s Tour after a 33-year break, has already had tangible effects.

New teams have appeared and established teams have acquired new sponsors. The established organizers had to raise their level. New stage races have appeared on the calendar, including the Tour of Switzerland, the Tour of Scandinavia and the Ceratizit Challenge. The men’s Tour has always had a centrifugal effect, forcing change simply by its presence and economic importance; even before it started, the Women’s Tour de France seemed to produce the same effect.

“Historically, it’s a male sport,” said multiple world champion Marianne Vos in an interview with L’Equipe newspaper on Friday. “In countries with a cycling tradition, men’s cycling was immense. Women’s cycling didn’t exist, and it wasn’t good or bad, it was just a fact. It took time for women’s races to develop and become professional.

“From what I’ve seen over the last 15 or 20 years, there’s been a huge evolution. The Tour is the result of this process of change.

Demi Vollering crosses the line to win La Course in 2021
Demi Vollering crosses the line to win La Course in 2021. Photography: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The Tour de France Women has its context. Rather than being an entirely new event in itself, it is the latest in a series of attempts dating back to 1955 – when a six-day race was held through Normandy, won by Manxwoman Millie Robinson – to found a women’s stage race that builds on the foundations of the men’s Tour. The most sustained attempt was between 1984 and 1989, dominated by Italian Maria Canins and Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo, until Tour organizers felt their event was getting too big to handle and dropped the side which, in their view, would elicit the least amount of public protest. .

Subsequently, various races took place outside the aegis of the Men’s Tour: the Tour de l’EEC, the Tour Cycliste Féminine and the Grande Boucle Féminine, although when the latter closed, one of the last winners , Emma Pooley, said it was more of a Small Loop.

Given the level of social media scrutiny, it’s hard to see Amaury Sport Organization treat their revived race as casually as they did on their last attempt. In hindsight, the 1980s race was constrained by running alongside the men’s event; Going forward, it will be fascinating to see how they build an identity for the revived race, how far and how fast the organizers venture into the Alps and Pyrenees, and if and how they build the length of the race. . But a look at next week’s course highlights the immediate value of running the Women’s Tour de France separately from the men’s event.

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There is a marathon stage at 176.5km, while the heavy climbing is postponed until what should be a culminating final weekend across Alsace on the Grand Ballon, Ballon d’Alsace and Le Markstein; before that the road gets progressively hillier as the week progresses. The organizers have planned finish circuits around three of the venues, and the fourth stage in Bar-sur-Aube features four gravel vineyard tracks which should appeal to Vos, the current cyclo-cross world champion. All of this points to a race that should develop its own identity as the sport is built around it.

The final weekend points to a possible duel between Giro d’Italia winner Annemiek van Vleuten and this season’s discovery Marta Cavalli. Behind them, the peloton is strong enough to promise intense battles for stage wins between Vos – two-time Giro stage winner – Ride London winner Demi Vollering, fellow Dutch sprinter Lorena Wiebes, the current world Elisa Balsamo, and Women’s Tour winner Elisa Longo-Borghini.

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