On June 29, the 100th Tour de France kicked off in Corsica, and the peleton of male cyclists are now well on their way, peddling for the Lance-Armstrong-tainted crown. So where are the women cyclists and their Kevlar-tough calves? Waiting for the ladies’ race to begin? No, because there isn’t one, much to the understandable chagrin of top-tier cyclists like Britain’s Emma Pooley who, in a recent interview with BBC Women’s Hour, discussed why a women’s Tour de France doesn’t exist:
“There did used to be a real women’s Tour de France back in the ’80s, two weeks long, really tough, full of proper mountain stages. But it fizzled out because of lack of sponsorship. In the ’90s, the men’s Tour de France actually sued them for trademark breaches for using the name Tour de France Féminin, so they had to change the name to Grand Boucle, which meant they lost even more sponsorship…2009 was the last time that the daughter race of the Tour de France happened.”
Even though a race of that magnitude — the circuit is 2,000 miles long, which one woman is running during the men’s race — Pooley sees the lack of a women’s Tour de France as a missed opportunity because of the increasing interest in women’s cycling, thanks in part to its televised exposure during the 2012 London Olympics. Moreover, there wouldn’t be any need for additional media outlets, since they would already be in place for the men’s race.
“The Tour de France is such a logistical challenge anyway that adding 50 or 70 women wouldn’t make a huge difference,” Pooley told the BBC. “I’ve heard the argument that there wouldn’t be enough hotels, but honestly for the spectators it would be a good thing…if there were a women’s race, too, there would be two races to watch.”
Even if the Tour de France were to open up to women riders, UCI, cycling’s international governing body, doesn’t allow women to ride as far in a single stage in a tour. Critics also argue that female cyclists aren’t physiologically capable of competing in the grueling race over hills and mountains, and while Poole acknowledges that women wouldn’t be expected to cross the finish line with the fastest male cyclists, she attributes the barriers to women in cycling to “old-fashioned sexism, in my opinion.”
That type of gendered barrier in the sport is a major focus of “Half the Road,” a documentary by cyclist and filmmaker Kathryne Bertin that Pooley also appears in. While the number of pro women cyclists is much smaller than the number of male riders, the rewards for the women like Emma Pooley, Kristin Armstrong and Marianne Vos are a far cry from the hefty purses and generous sponsorships heaped upon men’s pro teams. A 2009 New York Times article estimated that “salaries for members of the women’s team ranged from ‘a jersey and a bike’ to about $100,000 a year. Men’s salaries are from $45,000 to more than $2.5 million.” Not to say there aren’t rigorous women’s races out there; here’s a full rundown of the 2013 women’s pro cycling schedule. But Pooley and other diehards who continue riding, training and racing insist that better exposure for the women’s sport — something like a Women’s Tour de France — is all it needs to attract more girls and younger women to cycling. The question is who will provide the sponsorship cash to fund teams and races in the meantime, when they could otherwise spend budgets on higher-profile men’s teams.
When the bicycle came around in earnest in the 1890s, it was more than just a transportation revolution for women. Even though bicycling riding horrified Victorian prudes who were scandalized at the notion of women straddling the saddle and going places unaccompanied, the bike won out. For that reason, suffrage trailblazer Susan B. Anthony considered bike riding, the “image of untrammeled womanhood,” and she believed “[bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” And what a powerful image of untrammeled womanhood it would be to see, one day, women riding in a Tour de France. Here’s hoping the bike can beat out old-fashioned sexism once again.