Last month, as Caroline Soubayroux set off on her first cycling expedition, she was struck by the solidarity of her 12 fellow women riders, all of whom had embarked on a mission to complete the gruelling Tour de France route, roughly the distance from Leh to Kochi. Instead of trying to out-pace each other across 3,484 km, the women mostly rode together. They cheered each other while pedalling up steep pitches of the Alps, Massif Central, Pyrénées, Jura and Vosges. The fastest riders waited at the summit for the last one to arrive. “The first rule we follow is to always go together in the climbs and the descents,’’ said Soubayroux, who works as an investment banker in London.
Be it cycling the daily distances of at least 150 km, waiting by the side of the road to let a herd of livestock pass or doing the laundry in between strategising their next day’s move, the women’s Tour was far from the highly competitive all-male world of the Tour de France. Unlike the men’s professional road-cycling peloton, where fans and media throng in packs to watch and celebrate the nail-biting last-mile finish, the women were greeted by a handful of supporters. As they arrived at the finishing line after three weeks of cycling, with wobbly legs and pounding hearts, they celebrated their collective victory with hugs, kisses and champagne, forgetting about the virus for a while. There was no winner, and no one set a record with the fastest cumulative time. But they had won, after all.
Since 2014, the France-based all women’s cycling group Club Omnisports de Courcouronnes Cyclisme Féminin (COCCF) has been uniting women cyclists of different styles and levels, under the Donnons des Elles au Vélo (DDEV, which translates to “let’s give the girls a bicycle”) project, to draw attention to the absence of women in the race — by cycling the same route ahead of the men’s event. This year, they have successfully pushed the Tour’s organisers and the world governing body of cycling, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), to announce a women’s version of the race in 2022.
Feted as one of the greatest endurance sporting events in the world, the Tour inspires millions of people, but in its 107 years, the professional race has largely remained a male domain. Women were allowed to race intermittently and cautiously. In the first Tour de France Féminin held in 1955, 41 women participated and finished the challenge but the race was cancelled the following year. It was revived between 1985 and1989, with a two-week route and slightly shorter distances than the men’s race, but with no TV coverage the women’s race had few spectators and interest. In some form or other, women were allowed to race until 2009. But women riders in the race were deemed boring, slow and unglamorous, driving away hype, media coverage, and, most importantly, sponsorship.
This absence bothered Claire Floret, 34, a physical-education school teacher who started the DDEV project. “The Tour race gives visibility and is a career-making stint for the cyclists. But there are no women here, that’s probably also why there are few women in cycling,’’ she said.
Floret wanted to drive home the point that women have the skills and endurance for the three-week gruelling schedule. The women who have joined Floret over the years — growing gradually from three to 13 — ride in a spirit contrary to that of the Tour. Each cyclist seeks to finish the 21-stage Tour in record time and wear the coveted maillot jaune, the yellow jersey, as the leader of the fastest team. But for Floret, this is not a race. “We are not here for individual targets. We wear numberless jerseys.”
Although most women’s sports attract less attention, road cycling is considered to be one of the worst fields: fewer race opportunities, lesser televised coverage, shorter distances, and, therefore, salary and prize money inequity. Sponsors are not as enthused about investing in women cyclists or funding their training. Even in cycling clubs, if at all women athletes are given an annual salary, it is a pittance compared to their male counterparts.
Pete Geyer of Cycling Fans, a media portal tracking world cycling news and one of the first sponsors of the DDEV project, said he never saw any value in the argument regarding women’s cycling being “slow” or women lacking the endurance for the race. “Fans have often complained of the dominance of certain men’s teams and riders in recent years. If speed is what makes it exciting, then you are also arguing that a race filled with doping riders going faster is more exciting. That is not sport; it lacks integrity,” he said.
While the Tour has been rocked by doping scandals, Geyer believes the greatest potential in the years ahead is in women’s cycling. “Reforming the sport to fully embrace the women’s side with health and safety as priorities will help solutions to emerge,” he said. So far, DDEV has been an all-white women’s endeavour but the women hope it will attract cyclists from Africa, Middle East, Asia and Latin America once the official Tour unveils. “We need more fun in the race, which is smeared by claims of doping. It will be very important for the women to stay clean,” Soubayroux said.
Karine Geneau de Lamarliere, a management consultant from Paris, and a first-time rider, says growing up in France, the spirit of the race inspired her but as a girl she could not aspire to take part in it. She knows that cycling full-time professionally is a tough choice and very few women will succeed in it as a career. Like her fellow riders, Lamarliere, too, won’t be participating in the professional’s race when it is unveiled in a few years. “What will eventually matter is that a women’s race will exist and women will be able to compete. It will inspire and change the next generation of girls, and prove that cycling is not just for men,” she said.
Shweta Desai is an independent Indian journalist, based in France
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