After years in which the organizers of the largest cycling event in the world proclaimed with great certainty that women’s cycling could not earn a living, a women’s version of the Tour de France was restarted on Thursday morning on a stage in the Palais des Congrès in Paris. The stage race, eight stages long and starting on Sunday 24 July, has been christened the Tour de France Femmes, and is made possible in part by Zwift, the American company that develops software for cycling in a virtual world from home.
For the first time since 2009, there will be a full-fledged women’s stage race across France that is more than a secondary number in the men’s shadow. What was rightly called La Grande Boucle Féminine in 1984, a grand tour over eighteen stages, had been stripped down over the years until only a glorified criterion remained with La Course. In fact, in the years between 2009 and 2014, there was no women’s race at all that, in theory, should be able to take advantage of the magic of the Tour.
Het van route of Tour de France Women 2022.
It was, among others, Marianne Vos, successful flag bearer of cycling, who got the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) to grant women at least one ride. She won the first edition herself. It was a race over thirteen laps over the Champs-Élysées on the final day of the Tour for men. La Course then went twice to the Alps, where a memorable battle between Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten took place, especially in 2017, but was then decimated again to a must. Riders did show up, because they understood that extras also get the chance to claim a leading role on the big stage.
Just two years ago it seemed impossible for the ASO, a Tour de France for women. Logistically it was impossible, said race director Christian Prudhomme repeatedly. “I wouldn’t know how. We would never get permission [van de lokale autoriteiten].”
But the pressure to think about it was mounting. The UCI cycling federation wanted to see a ten-day stage race for women linked to the Tour as soon as possible, convinced of the publicity potential of that event. Not that the Italian counterpart is such a great success: the Giro Femminile is admittedly the longest lap (ten stages) for women, but direct images can hardly be found. For that reason, the women’s version of the Vuelta only lasts four days.
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Prudhomme continued to say that women’s cycling races are loss-making because there are no major media partners willing to invest in the sport.
Only if a women’s Tour could break even did the ASO think about organizing the race again. Zwift removed most of the financial risk to the ASO, at least for the next four years. The group dared to collaborate because of the success of the virtual Tour de France, held in the corona year 2020, said Kate Verreneau, director of women’s strategy at Zwift. „We organized five stages and every day we switched the order [vrouwen eerst, daarna mannen]. It was great viewed in 130 countries. I think a lot of women realized they could be on the main stage. And we became convinced of the concept.”
Verreneau promised that all eight stages of the Tour de France Femmes will be broadcast live on television for at least two hours next summer. “If you’re a fan of women’s cycling, it’s frustrating that you always have to follow the races on Twitter. At Paris-Roubaix we have seen that the racing is great. It just has to be recorded.” According to the ASO, that match was watched by one and a half million French. When director Jean-Etienne Amaury mentioned that number in his opening speech on Thursday, there was a loud applause in the Palais des Congrès, where the route of the new Tour is unveiled every year.
Making history together
In the front rows there were now as many riders next to riders in their loose-fitting evening clothes. Dutch women were absent due to injuries (Annemiek van Vleuten) or competition obligations elsewhere (Marianne Vos), but the Italian world champion Elisa Balsano did come to Paris, as did a dozen others from France, South Africa and Denmark. The show started with a promotional video in which a female voice promised to inspire a generation of women. “To make history together.”
After Christian Prudhomme started his story by summarizing all the efforts the ASO has already made in recent years to advance women’s cycling, he called on the podium Marion Rousse, former rider, cycling commentator and the first race director of the Tour des women. She found that the sport that she herself stopped with in 2015 is on the rise. “And I’d like to keep it that way.”
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Together with Prudhomme, she talked the room through the eight stages that have been mapped out in the north-east of France, in particular the Champagne region, the Alsace and the Vosges. The women start their Tour where the men finish; on the Champs-Élysées, for a short ride over 82 kilometers. It seems like a golden handle. Prudhomme: „Marianne Vos once said to me: ‘You can organize races, but how do you get them in the media?’ To generate as much attention as possible, we will start in Paris.” Annemiek van Vleuten, still recovering from a pelvic fracture and broken shoulder, was also enthusiastic for that reason. “I was really hoping for this, because I believe in the concept. This way you take the fans with you who have to kick the Tour after three weeks. This makes it commercially interesting.”
The race continues on Monday with a flat ride over 135 kilometers between Meaux and Provins, with a steep climb to the finish. The third stage is a ride of 133 kilometers for the attackers and is dotted with five côtes from Reims – where the first women’s World Cup was held in 1958 – to Epernay. The women don’t get a rest day, but in stage four (126 kilometers) they have to cross unpaved gravel strips and between the vines from Troyes to Bar-sur-Aube. Spectacle guaranteed.
The next day, the peloton has to cover no less than 175 kilometers, a lot further than the average road race at a World Cup. It is a transition stage between Bar-le-Duc and Saint-Dié-des-Vosges. In the Vosges, it’s up to the climbers. Stage six is still relatively easy (128 kilometers from Saint-Dié to Rosheim), but on July 30 and 31, the first Tour de France Femmes will be decided by the women of the classification. On Saturday they have to climb classic climbs such as the Petit Ballon, the Platzerwasel and the Grand Ballon – with more than three thousand vertical meters and 127 kilometers – and on Sunday the grand finale is after 123 kilometers and an ascent of the Ballon d’Alsace on the common steep Planche des Belles Filles.
The route of the Tour de France for men in 2022.
Annemiek van Vleuten is happy with all those famous climbs in the course. “This gives the course body and appearance. It does justice to the level of the women’s peloton.” She has already circled the last week of July 2022 in red in her training schedule. “Normally I might take a sabbatical in a post-Olympic year. But not now. In fact, this will be my main goal for next year.”