By Abby Mickey: The first three weeks of my childhood throughout July started out the same way. I would wake up and immediately run upstairs where my dad was already posted in front of the television with his coffee. My sister and I knew nothing about cycling. Ask us about any race other than the Tour de France and we would say, “there’s other races?” We didn’t know the riders, the teams, the tactics…we didn’t know cycling, but it didn’t matter. Every summer when July rolled around we knew it meant mornings spent watching skinny dudes in spandex ride around France.
In North America the Tour IS cycling. Michael Woods recently said in an interview before the start of this years Tour that, although his list of results is extensive and includes a stage win at the Vuelta, 3rd at the World Championships in 2018, in the eyes of Canadian cycling fans he’s not yet a bona fide professional cyclist. “What do you do?” “I’m a professional cyclist.” “Have you raced the Tour?” “No.” Now, instead of that typical conversation Mike can say “yes,” and thus gains validation at home and with many more cycling fans around the world.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I took up cycling, and I was devastated to find out there actually wasn't a Tour de France for the women. The days on the bike dreaming of my dad sitting at home on the couch watching me race up the iconic climbs of France deflated. Or better yet, my dad being one of those crazy fans who runs next to the riders. Fortunately, the year I started racing was also the year La Course started. Some amazing women who maybe had the same daydreams I had about racing the Tour were making change. Unfortunately, it was only going to be a one day race. “It’s OK” I thought, “it will grow.” At least La Course by the Tour de France was set on the biggest stage the ASO could offer us, the Champs-Elysées.
That was 2014. This year, 2019, we are still only racing one day. La Course by the Tour de France will be held on July 19th, the day of the men’s Individual Time Trial. It will be a rolling course, hilly but not long climbs, and it promises to be hard, yet it’s still kind of a bummer. After five years of putting on the race, ASO still has not developed it into an annual multi-day event.
At this point many professional cyclists, and also The Cyclists’ Alliance, have set aside the dream that one day we will have a legitimate women’s Tour de France to focus more energy on the bigger goal of reinventing our sport. There are other amazing races out there that have shown dedication to the growth of women’s professional cycling, and continue to push their events to be better.La Course is one race, on one day, and the rest of the sport doesn't have to be held hostage waiting for ASO to catch up with the evolution of women's cycling. There is a much bigger opportunity to develop more women's races, and in a different way that doesn't rely on a single race to excite our current fans and inspire new people to follow our sport.
The riders may have changed their focus in order to build a bigger and better women's sport, but that doesn’t mean the fans aren’t still demanding a women's Tour. Five years ago, Claire Floret set out with a mission to prove that a woman could ride the men’s Tour de France and created Donnons des Elles au Vélo, a group of women who aren’t professional racers, but who love women’s cycling.This group is riding every stage of the men’s Tour route the day before the men race it, and have done so for the past five years.
Donnons des Elles au Vélo wants women to be able to race their own Tour de France, to be role models for young athletes and cycling enthusiasts alike. Anyone who loves sports has athletes they look up to, and as the biggest event, the most watched, and the most well-known, the Tour is also where lovers of the sport often find their first role models in cycling. But outside of the Tour de France and the opportunity to develop La Course into a bigger race, there isn't enough coverage of women's cycling reaching fans today to introduce them to our sport and our role models.
When Donnons des Elles au Vélo first started they were a little known group of French women out to prove a point. Now, they are a multi-nationality team with a huge international following. Women from as far as Australia and the United States have joined the cause. Non-group members also come to ride with them on a day to day basis, some of their days are live-streamed, and occasionally at the stage finish they have a festival waiting for them. They have gained more and more attention in the five years they’ve been riding the Tour route.
As we approach the 6th edition of La Course by the Tour de France, it’s becoming more and more apparent the world may not get a women’s multi-day Tour de France. Yet, as much as the riders may have once wanted it, and many fans still want to see it, the evolution of women's cycling might not need one. Next year, the Battle of the North - a new 10-day race - will join the Giro Rosa as the second 10-day event on the women’s calendar. It’s looking hopeful for the sport, with new rules starting in 2020 that require all Women’s WorldTour races to broadcast live finales of their races.
The goals and aims of Donnons des Elles au Vélo and The Cyclists' Alliance are not that far apart: to elevate and bring attention to women’s professional cycling. Both organizations agree that women’s professional cycling needs big multi-day stage races - true Grand Tours not just in the amount of kilometers ridden, the number of stages, and the quality of riders - but also the media attention. However, the Alliance believes that the women's sport can create a new sporting story, and a women's "Tour de France" can take place anywhere so long as there is proper media coverage, the best teams and racers, and a season-long format that crowns great champions and introduces new role models for fans to look up to.
But right now, is it possible for any of the women’s races already on the calendar to gain the attention the Tour already has? Probably not. With 116 years of history and hype around the Tour de France, it would take a huge amount of effort for any race to get even a fraction of attention the Tour gets each today. At the same time, the dedication of Donnons des Elles au Vélo and The Cyclists' Alliance can help to build on the exposure we get from La Course to benefit the much larger effort of taking our sport to new heights - even if ASO doesn't yet see the light. If we start now, we can win over ASO and keep riding ahead - and hopefully our daughters and the entire sport can benefit.