Women Tackle France on Two WheelsJuly 20, 2012
Professional cycling enters the public eye once a year during the Tour de France, a three-week, 2,000-plus mile race held every July on some of the most difficult terrain in Europe. It’s a competition that brings together top talent from all over the world. Top male talent, that is. In 99 editions of the Tour, women have never officially participated in the grueling event.
Each year, race-related news inevitably turns to the gruesome crashes and rampant doping practices that the sport’s reputation comprises. But in 2012, there is another story worth telling: Six amateur women riders are tackling every last mile of the Tour de France course — one day ahead of the pro men. That’s 2,162 miles over 21 stages with 25 mountain passes in the French Alps and Pyrenees. It’s an impressive feat for the nearly 200 men who started this year’s Tour. It’s the accomplishment of a lifetime for a group of women who aren’t professional athletes.
“We are doing this because, as cyclists, it is the hardest thing we can imagine, and as athletes, we are hard-pressed to back down from that kind of a challenge,” writes Heidi Swift, one member of the Rêve Grand Tour team. “We are doing this for a million reasons that we don’t even understand yet. We hope that along the way we can inspire more women to pedal, increase awareness of cycling advocacy issues, and tell one hell of a story.”
And just in time, too. Women’s cycling in the United States and abroad is overshadowed by a long and storied — and sometimes controversial — history on the men’s side of the sport. On a professional level, opportunities are available for women to race on the same courses men use, but the events are shorter, smaller, and often held with less fanfare. There is only one Grand Tour, or multi-week European stage race, on the women’s circuit, and it competes for attention with the Tour de France. And though one brave woman was able to start the 1924 Giro d’Italia by disguising her name, such events haven’t broadly expanded their offerings since then.
It’s also a question of numbers. USA Cycling’s most recent member survey found that just 13 percent of license holders, or fewer than 7,500 competitive riders nationwide, are women. Even in the Washington, D.C., area, which has an active amateur cycling scene and plays host to several pro-level events each year, race promoters have had to cancel women’s races — or sometimes they choose not to offer them in the first place. The prize purses are often lower for women’s fields than for men’s, and the registration numbers are small enough that it’s not unusual for all women to race together instead of being separated out into categories based on skill and experience. Under USA Cycling rules, women are allowed to enter men’s races that are one category lower than their own, which some do if a women’s race isn’t offered. But it isn’t the same as competing against your peers.
Thankfully, women are stepping up and demanding their place on the start line, and promoters are listening. For the first time in four years, the Exergy Twilight Criterium in Boise, Idaho — which attracts high-profile riders even a casual cycling fan might recognize — will offer a pro women’s field with the same amount of prize money as the men’s race. As the sport continues to grow, we can encourage other races to follow suit.
The Tour de France wraps up this weekend, as does the Rêve women’s journey. While they won’t get the warm welcome on Paris’ Avenue des Champs-Élysées that defines the final stage of the men’s race, we can still cheer them on!