On 27th July 2014 La Course by Le Tour de France was born. A road race for women, it was run before the 21st stage of the Tour de France and was considered a groundbreaking step forward in establishing women’s cycling on the map. It was won by arguably the greatest cyclist of all time, male or female, Marianne Vos and was a huge success
In the consciousness of the general public, this is the biggest female race in the world and understandably probably the only one most have heard of. However there is also a race called La Route de France which is actually more like the Tour de France. It is held over multiple stages, albeit currently only three.
This is race which has had it’s share of trouble in it’s past. It was initially called Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale, which ran from 1984 to 2009 but constantly struggled for funding. This meant going to the towns which paid to host the race rather than those which provide to a good route. This in turn meant long transfers which made riders more fatigued and organisation became such a problem that in 2004 the race didn’t actually take place at all.
This ran alongside Tour de l'Aude Cycliste Féminin which had a similar format and ran from 1985 to 2010 (which Brit Emma Pooley won the final installment of.)
Both these 10 day stage races in France no longer take place and the sport is left with just La Route de France (three stages) and La Course by Le Tour de France (a single stage).
The question then is, where does female cycling stand? Is running a road race on the streets of Paris prior the final stage of the Tour de France really what the Sport needs?
Rochelle Gilmore is Team owner of Wiggle-Honda road racing team, and a former Commonwealth Game champion. She believes that La Course is a good idea. “It a difficult balance to make. Coming to Paris on the last day of the Tour is fantastic. The city is filled with cycling fans. The roads are already closed, police are already in place and most importantly, the TV and press are here anyway.” she says “If this wasn’t the last day of the Tour, I wouldn’t be commentating on this live on ITV4, it wouldn't be in the press and it probably wouldn’t be able to be held at all. The female side of the sport is still running at a financial loss so having the Tour de France subsidise the organisational cost is a godsend”.
Gillmore however concedes that these benefits are not without their drawbacks “The main issue I have is the crit format”. The course is basically a criterium (a criterium, or crit, is a race held on a short course on closed-off city centre streets.) “While this works well on the day it really doesn’t show the riders at their best. The men have climbers like Quintana, sprinters like Cavendish and rouleurs like Gilbert, the female peteton has equal variety and this isn’t really the best format to showcase them”
Gillmore didn’t implicitly say this, but until the final lap, La Course can be a bit of a procession. However, the 2015 race was anything but. Due a huge downpour, there were multiple crashes which allowed Anna van der Breggen of Rabo-Liv to break away and hold on for the win from Jolien D'Hoore of Gilmore’s Wiggle-Honda.
The flat, circular route means that world class climbers, aren’t given an opportunity to shine on the biggest stage which is a massive shame. The other main issue is also a strength which Gillmore mentioned. Positioning it before the men's race makes it feel like a warm up for the main act. Women’s cycling is an exciting unpredictable sport, often more so than the male version and to see it as a warm up act implies very little progress at all.
Millions of cycling spectators are also an issue. They have flocked to see the men in the Tour and this shows in the half-empty stands you can see on television for La Course.
If you compare this with the way the Tour of Britain and the Women's Tour work, the differences are stark.
They are staged completely separately, the men in September over eight stages, the women in June over five stages. There is relative parity, they are both televised, they both get hundreds of thousands out on the roads to watch and the women’s race is an attraction in it’s own right. It’s seen as a force for good and each stage has areas dedicated to getting girls into Sport. Not just Cycling, but Football, Tennis, Cricket, Rugby and countless other activities.
My sense is that because cycling is booming in the UK and these races are growing together, there is more parity in the public eye. Cycling is growing, but is still a fairly new spectator Sport to many. People who go to these races go to both and are just desperate to watch cycling. In France, this is clearly not the case. The Tour is the be all and end all and nothing comes close.
It’s such a difficult situation to manage. I think growth in public perception in cyclings heartlands of continental Europe will have to come from association with men's events in the short term. However real, fundamental growth will come from similar areas to the mens. Places where the sport is younger and people are less ingrained in their viewing behavior. Britain, Australia, the Middle east and America spring to mind.
There is no easy answer to the Paris debate. I would love there to be female tour run alongside the men’s of perhaps 10 stages, with a maximum of 120km’s per stage. This could be run with the same road closures as the men, but can really showcase the quality in the women’s peloton. Then maybe growth will be possible is cycling’s central European heartland as well.
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