26 September 2023

Women return to compete in the Tour de France

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Jessie Tu* looks at the historic return of women to the Tour de France.

It’s been 33-years since the world last saw women competing in the world’s most-watched sporting event, but this year 24 teams of six female cyclists will compete in the eight-day Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

Since 1903, women have only competed in the official Tour de France a total of five times.

On Sunday, the first of eight stages commenced, covering 640 miles (1030 kilometres) across two mountain stages, finishing in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France.

Dutch rider Lorena Wiebes won the first stage, marking the start of the women’s competition which was last held between the years 1984 to 1989.

It was subsequently cancelled due to a lack of funding support.

This year’s “Tour de France Femmes” competition was sponsored by US cycling app, Zwift, who are offering a prize purse of roughly 250,000 euros ($AUD 369,100) — one of the highest figures in women’s cycling racing history.

The winner will take home 50,000 euros ($AUD73,820) in total.

The men’s competition has a 2.3 million euros ($AUD3,395,731) prize purse, with 500,000 euros ($AUD738,202) going to the winner.

Former pro-cyclist and Zwift’s director of women’s strategy, Kate Veronneau, said: “For the women to take the stage, to be elevated through that platform that they deserve, is really the key to unlocking so much more audience, investment and growth in the sport at all levels.”

“Women’s sports is trending hard because the companies that have invested in sports are seeing fabulous returns,” Veronneau told The Washington Post.

“For little girls growing up and seeing themselves in a variety of sports … that’s powerful.”

“Female athletes take their responsibility to be role models extremely seriously because they have to fight for every sponsorship dollar that they have.

“They know everything they do is going to impact the opportunities that come after them.”

Most female cyclists competing in this year’s Tour are under 35, though not all of them will receive a salary.

Out of the 24 teams, only 14 are licensed under the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Women’s WorldTeams Tour, which mandates that teams must offer a minimum salary of 27,500 euros per year ($AUD4,060) to their riders.

Olympic bronze medalist Lily Williams, 28, a competitor at this year’s race with the U.S.

Human Powered Health team, said: “I think certainly if there had been a women’s Tour de France, I would have started cycling a lot earlier…and I think my career arc would look a lot different.”

Salary has become a significant deciding factor in women making the decision to compete, with many often working secondary jobs on top of their 25 to 30 hour training weeks.

Wiebes, the 23-year old Dutch rider who won the first round over the weekend, said she was “really happy” to be able to race on the Champs-Elysees.

“It was a hard race, a fast one.

“It feels really special to ride here around Paris and even more special to wear the yellow jersey.”

The Team DSM rider beat former Olympic champion Marianne Vos, who came in second, and Belgian cyclist Lotte Kopecky, who came in third.

The women’s tour will conclude on July 31 at La Super Planche des Belles Filles in eastern France.

*Jessie Tu is a journalist with Women’s Agenda. Her debut novel, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020. She is also a book critic at Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au.

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