"The bicycle is just as good company as most husbands and, when it gets old and shabby, a woman can dispose of it and get a new one without shocking the entire community.” — Ann Strong, Minneapolis Tribune.
It might not be among the great rallying cries for women’s liberation, but, even tongue-in-cheek, it ain’t bad for 1895. A year later, the Olympic Games was revived after a 1,503-year time-out with “women having but one task, crowning the winner with garlands”. Those were the words of founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, an otherwise enlightened pioneer of the age.
Still, it was an advance on earlier times when women risked being thrown off a cliff if they had the temerity to sneak a peek at naked males competing in the ancient sprints. And in 1896, the Tour de France (TDF) was barely a twinkle, not getting underway until 1903. So the Tour de France Femmes, which rolls out from the Eiffel Tower on July 24 just before the garlands are placed around the male winners, is something to be celebrated.
Nope, it’s not the same course and only a quarter of the distance of the men’s race; nor is it the first time there has been a women’s version. So, why the fuss? It’s because this is the most concerted and sustainable-looking effort yet to allow women a shot at the world’s greatest cycle race. Not only does it have the full backing of the official TDF organisers and riders, it may also have got the timing right.
After a long and chequered history, women’s cycling is gaining respect and momentum. The UCI Women’s World Tour has taken it up a few gears through increased sponsorship and professionalism. The Tokyo Olympics made feel-good headlines when an underdog and a much-loved veteran won gold. And this year the Paris-Roubaix classic joined the World Tour and saw a seven-fold increase in prize money. As American rider Alexis Ryan says: “There’s not a lack of racing, just a lack of coverage.”
But even that is changing. The women’s race almost stole the show at the annual route announcement for this year’s men’s tour — an event akin to the Academy Awards in France for its glitz and glamour. This time it was a joint affair with male and female race directors sharing the stage and the spotlight. Next to long-standing men’s race supremo Christian Prudhomme sat former national champion Marion Rousse, who looked a perfect fit for the role.
She spoke from the heart when she said: “When I was a little girl, I watched the Tour de France on television with admiration, and when I started my career, I suspected that I would never have the opportunity to race in it. Now that I have accepted this mission, I intend to invest myself so that it becomes a ritual among the public, and for a long time because this is not about launching a race for two or three editions.”
Previous versions have never seemed to know whether to piggyback on the men’s tour or pretend it wasn’t happening. The trouble was women’s cycling had never been big enough for it to work either way. On and mostly off from 1984, there have been other female iterations but, one by one, they became unviable and riders had to hang up their wheels.
This time was different. To have any credibility with a discerning French cycling public “the Femmes” had to be both tough and a visual feast. Which meant some of the vertiginous climbs and verdant landscapes that make the men’s event such a spectacle had to be included. With a finish on the summit of the iconic La Planche des Belles Filles (Plank of Beautiful Girls), it looks as if the organisers were listening. Nothing less would have cut the Dijon mustard.
La Planche is a regular feature of the Tour whose name demands an explanation, albeit not for the faint-hearted. Legend has it that a group of local girls, fearing the arrival of foreign mercenaries during a 17th-century war, committed suicide by jumping into the lake from a plank.
Before what is a brutal finish — no portents intended — the chosen route is a judicious mix of flat, hilly and mountainous stages which Olympic champion Annemiek van Vleuten says shows that the Tour did take riders’ requests seriously. The Netherlands time trial queen claims: “There’s something for everyone in the eight days of racing.” From the chalk plains of champagne country to the dense forests of the Vosges mountains, there’s plenty for spectators, too — even before the dramatic, 24% gradient fini.
The decision to start as the men finish has also gone down well. Interest will be at its height and no less a figure than the men’s champion for the past two years, Slovenian powerhouse Tadej Pogacar has promised: “When I finish my Tour, I’m going in a camper to see the women’s Tour.” Never before has a women’s race met with such approval.
The great irony in a long and often fraught relationship with the Tour is that women don’t have to prove themselves physically. As long ago as 1924, when they were banned from racing, Alfonsina Strada rode in the Giro d’Italia.
Registered as Alfosin, she fooled the organisers long enough to ride the first two stages with the men. She crashed during a storm but carried on to finish in Milan, beating two men in the process. She became a legend, cycling’s very own Emily Pankhurst, but despite her best efforts, the Tour remained closed to women for another 60 years.
Another cycling heroine who never graced the Tour but showed that women were just as capable of scaling vertical peaks and descending like the Suicide Squad was Britain’s late Beryl Burton. Besides dominating women’s cycling for two decades, winning 90 domestic titles and seven world championships, she won many mixed races. And when she overtook a man, he could expect a witty barb or word of encouragement.
Not even the British men’s champion was spared. In a 12-hour time trial in 1967, when she passed Mike McNamara, she cheekily offered him a Liquorice Allsort to boost his energy. He duly set a new men’s best but it was way behind the record Burton set and which stood for two years.
Sad to say, the Tour has plenty of form for sexism. One hundred and twenty six years after de Coubertin, women are still placing the garlands as well as a peck on the cheek. Introduced after WW1, podium hostesses, clad in yellow to match the winner’s jersey, are still smiling through clenched teeth although their grid girl counterparts in Formula One have long since been disbanded. And they’re still getting their bums pinched.
But nothing was more shameful than the prize structure at the inaugural 1984 Tour de France Féminin. When American Marianne Martin shared the winner’s podium with France’s Laurent Fignon, some thought it a breakthrough for women’s cycling. The women’s race had 18 stages to the men’s 23 and they covered a quarter of the distance. But Fignon won US$225,000 while Martin picked up just US$1,000. Vive la difference? It was beyond degrading.
Tour photographer Graham Watson told The Guardian years later: “There was nothing very different in the images I was taking of the women and the men — they both climbed the same mountains, and suffered as much as each other in doing so!” The only difference Watson noticed? “I got a sense that the women were having more fun — there was less pressure on them.”
It’s not just the Tour but cycling itself that seems inseparable from sexism. Going back again to the 1890s, there was a brief craze among female cyclists in the US that was hailed by women’s rights activists of the time. “Woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle,” it was claimed. The Nebraska Courier noted: “The bicycle took old-fashioned, slow-going notions of the gentler sex and replaced them with some new woman, mounted on her steed of steel.”
Men were worried and resorted to concocting myths such as a condition known as “Bicycle Face”. Caused, allegedly, by trying to maintain balance, it was characterised by “a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes”. Some doctors were in on the act, warning that it might have a lasting effect. Suffice to say, vanity won and the craze petered out.
The nearest thing to facial disfigurement today is the reported “foaming at the mouth” among some teams as excitement for the first race builds. A US$2 million prize pot has been a contributory factor as the crème de la crème of women’s cycling prepare for their moment in the sun.
Current legend of the sport Marianne Vos, who has won everything multiple times, says of the Tour de France Femmes: “It’s bigger than the sport, bigger than cycling, being a part of that … I think the bunch is ready. It will be one of the most watched and hyped events on the women’s calendar.”
At 35, the Dutchwoman would love to crown her career with an inaugural win in a race she thinks will be around a long time. But she’ll face tough competition from the likes of compatriots Annemiek van Vleuten and Demi Vollering, as well as Italians Elisa Longo Borghini and Marta Cavalli. They should spare a thought for their predecessors while their husbands ought to be getting concerned.
This article first appeared on July 18, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.