The Women's Tour de France
Every July the world goes crazy as the world’s best cyclists travel to France and ride exhausting distances almost every day for three weeks. In Australia, where the action happens in the middle of the night because of the time difference, people spend those three weeks zombie-like and bleary eyed from staying up until 2am watching it. My partner usually tapes every stage on his special, 5 hour Tour videotape then runs them constantly while he gets ready for work and when he gets home of an evening, ensuring that he finishes the tape just before the 6am update comes on so he can watch that too. Just before I started writing this article, I made a ‘French’ dessert for a Tour party I’m attending this Friday evening for the first mountain stage. Basically, anyone who likes cycling (and some who just like nice legs and who think Lance Armstrong is cute) follows the Tour de France. Europe lines the street for it, Australia misses sleep because of it. The boys ride their little hearts out (or more accurately, their large and awesomely efficient hearts), the sponsors slap down the cash and the world watches.
This year, for the first time, and probably because I now spend every day thinking women in the outdoors, I wondered why there’s no women’s Tour de France. Now, it’s true that when I was riding to work today I did get overtaken by a 40 year old and a 60 year old, but that’s probably more an indication of my fitness and the fact that it’s Friday and my legs are tired from their daily trip up that bloody mountain (I do much of my work at the top of a 350m ‘mountain’ and I live at sea level), rather than the fact I’m a woman. I’m sure there are women out there who kick the cycling butts of those two old guys, no matter how fit they were (although I’m sure they were very fit, they did have matching lycra like the Tour boys). I admit that women couldn’t compete in the men’s Tour - not because they couldn’t physically, but because they couldn’t compete against men in a sport that is based so much on strength and endurance. So why isn’t there a woman’s Tour de France? I decided to do a little research and find out.
Finding Number 1: there IS a women’s Tour de France! However, due to the men’s Tour de France trade marking the word ‘tour’ (perhaps I should trade mark the word ‘GO!’?), they call it the Grande Boucle. Unofficially (of course) it’s referred to as the women’s Tour de France, or the Tour Feminin.
Finding Number 2: this year, 2009, the Tour Feminin was won by Emma Pooley, a cyclist from the UK who also won a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics last year.
Finding Number 3: the Tour Feminin was only a miniscule 4 stages long in 2009, compared to the men’s Tour which has 21 stages this year. At its longest the Tour Feminin was 15 stages.
Finding Number 4: in 2004 the Tour Feminin wasn’t even held!
Well! If there’s anything I’ve learnt from GO! Girls Outdoors, it’s that women can do anything. What’s more, they don’t tend to like it much when people say they can’t do something. So why on earth do female cyclists put up with their little Tour Feminin? The answer to this is, of course, because they don’t have any choice. And why don’t they have any choice? The rather depressing answer is, money.
The reason I hadn’t heard of the Tour Feminin or the Grande Boucle is because it doesn’t attract as much attention and therefore sponsorship. This is the unfortunate story for women’s cycling in general, and in fact many other sports in which women and men compete. Emma Pooley’s win in the 2009 event was reported by the newspapers (for example, online here in the The Times and the Guardian) but if you look at these articles you’ll only find a paragraph or two about Emma and her win. In the Guardian’s article Emma doesn’t even get a photo and the last paragraph of the article is about the men’s Tour. On SBS’s Cycling Central I couldn’t find anything about the Tour Feminin, although Cycling.com does have a Race Home for the event.
As for the measly 4 stages, it’s certainly not because the women couldn’t physically do more than that. It’s because the race organisers struggle to get sponsorship every year and just can’t raise the funds for 21 stages - in 2004 they couldn’t even get the race off the ground. What’s more, the four stages tend to be far apart (wherever the sponsorship money came from would determine where the stage was), so the athletes had to travel long distances by car, sometimes several hours, between cycling days. The men, on the other hand, rarely travel far between stages.
Unfortunately cycling is not the only sport in which this sort of thing occurs. Women have struggled for years to get their competitions sponsored and into the public eye, and although things have improved a little over the last 20 years or so, there are a lot of sports that are still pretty unfair. It seems that people would rather watch men ride bikes, or play cricket and rugby - and what the people want to watch determines where the sponsorship money goes.
If you’re a Tour de France fan, enjoy the show (I know I will). But spare a thought for the women who were riding the Grande Boucle Feminin last month, more or less out of the public eye. Feel encouraged that women can ride bikes well too, and be inspired by Emma Pooley and her contemporaries. Go Girls!
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