“Lack of funding” isn’t a good enough excuse for not holding a women’s Tour de France race, which is why these female cyclists are campaigning for change.
The roaring success of England’s Lionesses in this year’s Women’s World Cup is helping to rip apart sexism in professional sports. But another internationally renowned sporting event, beginning in July, is illustrating that further conversations are needed around the prevalence of sexism in sports.
The Tour de France is perhaps the most recognised competition in cycling, but everyone wants to know: why isn’t there a female equivalent of the big race? There was a (shorter) women’s version of the tour - the Tour de France Feminin - which ran alongside the men’s race for five years from 1984. But lack of investment and funding meant that the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), which organises the Tour de France axed it.
The closest thing that female cyclists have to the Tour de France today is La Course which was set up in 2014. However, this has usually been a one-day ride compared to the men’s three-week event.
La Course came into existence thanks to campaign group Le Tour Entier, spearheaded by cyclist Kathryn Bertine, who told the BBC: “It should be a five to 10-day race minimum by now. They probably don’t even see it as sexism, but you could also say that it’s just very lazy. The very top of the sport is where sexism is still strongest and that’s what needs to be dismantled.”
This year, two teams of women cyclists (a French team, and an international one) will cycle the route on 19 July, a day ahead of the male team. Helen Bridgeman, who is one of the five British riders, spoke about the importance of highlighting the inequality between men and women’s cycling during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Asked why the women’s tour hasn’t been properly reintroduced, she said: “It’s one definitely for the organisers to answer. We hear an awful lot of excuses to be honest, and one of the main ones is that it comes down to money [and lack of sponsorship]. I’m not under any illusions, it’s a massive feat to put on such a big race but this is the one event in the cycling calendar that everyone has heard of.
“Not having a female equivalent doesn’t give females the platform to show what they’re capable of, which is a real shame. But we know it’s not impossible because of Giro Rosa, for example, which is the female equivalent of the Italian race and is a 10-day stage race – so it isn’t impossible, other people are doing it.”
The question of money was explored in a recent BBC article which reported that the ASO made €45.91million (£41,037,063.66) in profit in 2016. According to Bertine, this is proof they could already afford to invest in a women’s Tour. “The revenue generated in terms of sponsorship, publicity agreements, media exposure and advertisements would absolutely come back to those who invest,” she added.
Many other female cyclists have vocalised their disappointment in the sport’s gender disparity.
Former British cyclist and 2004 Giro Rosa champion Nicole Cooke told a parliamentary select committee last year that cycling is a sport “run by men, for men”. And Britain’s former world champion Lizzie Deignan says a lot of women “may be put off speaking out about sexism” because of reactions they have had.
“I sometimes get frustrated that I am asked about politics rather than my performance,” she told BBC Sport. “But I am a passionate feminist and I understand people won’t get to watch without me pushing for change with my voice as well as my legs.”
Bridgeman says that although “the speed of change needs to quicken up”, in a few more years things will hopefully change. Hopefully, organisers will see the success of the Lionesses in women’s football and follow suit.