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“We want to be catalysts for change”: Riding stage two of the Tour de France Femmes with Zwift and the women’s peloton

The women’s Tour de France was reborn this year as an eight-stage race covering more than 1,000km. SportsPro travelled to Meaux for the second leg of the event to see how the landmark occasion was embraced locally and to talk to some of those involved about the impact it will have on women’s cycling.

12 August 2022 Sam Carp

Getty Images

There are still several hours until the final stage of the 2022 Tour de France, but already the pavements of Paris’ Champs Elysees are lined with fans. Only this isn’t a case of overkeen spectators arriving early to secure their spot for a decent view of the conclusion of the men’s race. Instead, they are here to witness a historic first.

These people have gathered for the depart of the inaugural edition of the Tour de France Femmes, an eight-day race starting in the French capital and traversing more than 1,000km across the country, ending with a brutal final climb up La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges mountains. When the 144-strong peloton crosses the start line under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and head in the direction of the Arc de Triomphe, there is a sense that this is different, that this is new and, perhaps most pertinently, that this is overdue.

Because while this might be branded as the inaugural instalment of this particular incarnation of the women’s Tour de France, technically speaking it is by no means the first. There have previously been other attempts to establish a female equivalent of the world’s most famous cycling race, initially as a one-off in the 1950s, then again between 1984 and 1989, and then under various different guises up to 2009. But those efforts have regularly been undone by financial challenges and a lack of promotion from stakeholders.

Then, in 2014, under pressure from Le Tour Entier, an activist group founded and led by some of the most high-profile riders in the women’s peloton, including Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley and Kathryn Bertine, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) launched La Course by Le Tour de France, a one-day race held alongside the men’s event.

But that did little to appease those who wanted to see more meaningful investment in, and a better long-term plan for, women’s cycling. Critics claimed that La Course was merely a tag-on to the Tour de France, arguing that a single day of racing wasn’t sufficient to match the prestige of what stands alone as the sport’s marquee occasion.

Throughout this the ASO, which was formed by the Amaury family in the early 1990s to handle the organisation of the Tour, maintained that it was logistically not possible to operate a women’s stage race alongside the men’s and that any female equivalent had to be financially sustainable. Today, though, amid a period of rising investment in women’s sport across the board, there can be no such excuses.

Indeed, this is the first of at least four editions of the Tour that will be backed by Zwift, the connected fitness platform that became the title sponsor of the race in 2021. The event is being beamed to around 190 countries and the prize purse of €250,000 (US$258,000), while still considerably lower than what the men receive, matches the biggest payday in women’s cycling.

There is still time for that number to increase as the event matures. But given that it has been a decades-long struggle just to get to this point, it is little wonder that Kate Veronneau, Zwift’s director of women’s strategy, describes seeing everything finally get underway in late July as “surreal”.

“It’s the only way to describe it,” says Veronneau, who herself previously competed professionally. “It happened to be a perfect day outside. You had that perfect sky and backdrop of the monuments, everything that’s just so synonymous with cycling.

The peloton lines up under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower ahead of stage one

“This event is so massive. There’s so many elements to it, there’s so many elements around it. We have so many team partnerships, we have rider partnerships, and activating all of that and making sure that we make the most of this opportunity is a ton of work.

“But it’s the best work that we could ever do.”

Something in the air

There is still a palpable buzz on the morning of stage two when SportsPro arrives in a humid but blustery, overcast Meaux, a commune to the east of Paris which is the starting point for a 137km stage finishing in Provins. The overhead conditions set the scene for what will ultimately be a chaotic day of racing.

Before the start, a quick stroll through the cyclists’ village reveals both the scale of the operation and some of the challenges still facing women’s cycling at the top level. Of the 24 teams taking part, 14 compete on the UCI Women’s World Tour, which currently dictates that riders be paid a minimum €27,500 salary. The remaining ten are second-tier Continental outfits, who do not have the same obligations, meaning some cyclists in the peloton do not receive a wage.

People are clamouring for it. Audiences want to watch women’s cycling, they expect to see as much of a stage as possible. So that’s a really powerful thing.

Kate Veronneau, Director of Women’s Strategy, Zwift

The disparity is illustrated by the fact that some of the better resourced teams, such as Movistar and Canyon–SRAM, have pitched up in huge buses carrying their equipment and support staff, while others are preparing for the day ahead in more modest setups. It serves as a reminder that such marquee events will have a key role to play in driving further professionalisation of the sport and growing the profile of the entire peloton.

“We want to be catalysts for that change,” says Veronneau. “We announced the €250,000 prize purse. Shortly after, the Giro Donne [announced a] €250,000 [prize purse]. That’s incredible. So you’ve seen so many race promoters up their coverage of the race, up their prize purses, more teams invited, it’s a really good time. There’s just great momentum right now and it does take that [effort] across the industry, it can’t be just one person.”

There is warm applause for the cyclists as the teams are introduced individually on stage in Meaux before taking to the saddle. It isn’t long before this correspondent is hurried into the back of a Škoda being driven by Chantal Beltman, a Dutch cyclist who herself enjoyed a long professional career, featuring at two Olympic Games, and is now an ambassador for the ASO.

While there were strong crowds for stage one, there is a feeling of uncertainty going into day two, which will be the first real test of whether the local public will embrace the Tour de France Femmes in the same way they have the men’s event for so many years.

But if there were any concerns over crowd fatigue following the conclusion of the men’s Tour, they soon prove to be unfounded. There is little crossover between the routes of the men’s and women’s races and there are strong turnouts on the road to Provins as the peloton passes through the communes of Tigeaux, Villeneuve-le-Comte, Coubert and Blandy.

Strong crowds were a feature throughout the Tour de France Femmes

It isn’t just locals, either. Dutch, English, German and American accents can all be heard when wading through the crowds, while there is also a loyal Danish contingent who make themselves known by their giant flags. Along the route there are fans sporting cycling attire, others in fancy dress, as well as the occasional caravan and picnic table at the side of the road in some of the more secluded parts of the stage. Even a rogue Crystal Palace shirt, which has wandered well outside its natural habitat, is spotted among the masses.

Unusual outfits aside, what’s clear is that these clusters of people – many of them young girls and boys at the start of their summer holidays – are all here to catch a glimpse of the women’s peloton.

“It was great to launch the race on the final day of the men’s because you know that global audience is now paying attention and knowing this is happening,” Veronneau says. “But now Monday comes and it’s all for the women, all eyes on the women, all eyes on the action.”

Given the reception the race is receiving in a country where cycling has long been a national obsession, it’s difficult not to ask: why hasn’t this all happened sooner?

“I think that there needed to be more confidence that people were going to tune in and watch,” Veronneau answers. “I mean, anybody that follows women’s cycling closely knows how action packed it is and how dynamic the personalities are. But because there hasn’t been much broadcast over the years, you haven’t been able to build the fanbase.

“So I think that with this increased visibility, that’s what really pushed us over the edge where people are clamouring for it. Audiences want to watch women’s cycling, they expect to see as much of a stage as possible. So that’s a really powerful thing.”

Providing a platform

Just over an hour into stage two, shortly before the cyclists take on the first climb, four riders break away from the rest of the peloton, with SportsPro in close pursuit. The early attackers are stalked by a sizeable convoy of vehicles transporting officials, support crews, spare parts, medical supplies and cameramen capturing pictures for host broadcasters France Télévisions and Eurovision Sport.

On the back of one of the motorcycles is Iris Slappendel, who is reporting on the breakaway from inside the peloton for Eurosport. The Warner Bros Discovery-owned broadcaster is showing the event in certain territories across Europe, Asia-Pacific, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and ahead of the summer committed to co-producing the men’s and women’s races, ensuring that the Tour de France Femmes would receive the same quality of coverage.

That ultimately included new augmented reality (AR) analysis tools and the use of the Cube, Eurosport’s virtual studio environment which has previously been seen across its broadcasts of the Olympic Games and tennis. There is also punditry from familiar faces who feature across its regular women’s cycling content, including a weekly show dedicated to the sport.

According to Guy Voisin, who as Warner Bros Discovery’s senior director of cycling and golf heads up production of Eurosport’s Tour de France coverage, everything across the two races – with the minor exception of swapping in a fresher crew to avoid fatigue – “is identical”. In his words, the Tour de France “has become four weeks instead of three”, with the same number of production control rooms in operation during the women’s race across the company’s various markets, three different reporting crews supported by producing and camera teams, and a reporter inside the peloton.

“It’s just great sport,” Voisin says of the women’s race, “and you have to cover it properly”.

Eurosport’s backing of the Tour de France Femmes forms part of its broader efforts to forge a reputation as the home of women’s cycling, a mission which Voisin points out started several years ago. The broadcaster now shows all 24 events on the World Tour, in addition to a further 15 women’s road races.

While flagship events like the Grand Tours are important, it’s equally significant that there is somewhere for those that latch on in those spotlight moments to follow the stories of the athletes throughout the year. Like Veronneau, Voisin hopes that Eurosport’s investment will encourage organisers and rights holders for other races – he namechecks the ASO, Flanders Classics and RSC Sport – to invest more in their women’s events.

“We’ve got to do better,” he says. “We weren’t doing good enough, we’ve got to do better, and we’ll keep going at it. But the only reason we’re doing it, in my mind, is because it’s good sport.”

The peloton races through Saint Méry during stage two as it closes in on Provins

Just the start

It is perhaps fitting that stage two is eventually won in a sprint finish by Vos, roared to the finish line by a mob of fans making themselves heard by slamming the surface of hoardings at the side of the road adorning the logos of sponsors such as Liv, LCL and FDJ. The Dutchwoman has achieved virtually all there is to achieve in cycling, but the way she embraces her teammates afterwards suggests this particular victory was about more than just a race.

It is, however, Vos’ compatriot Annemiek van Vleuten who eventually claims the inaugural yellow jersey. Her victory, which comes after being struck down with a stomach bug during the early stages of the race, is somehow symbolic of the obstacles that female cyclists have had to overcome just to get here. After securing the title, the champion told Eurosport that the eight gruelling days of competition felt like “the start of something”.

Indeed, the broader triumph, it seems, is for women’s cycling. The Tour de France Femmes averaged 2.5 million viewers domestically on France Televisions, with coverage peaking at 5.1 million during the finish of the final stage, representing a 45.6 per cent audience share. The event reached more than 14 million people on Eurosport, whose coverage delivered the broadcaster’s best-performing women’s race ever across Europe.

While there is time to toast a job well done, attention is already turning to how the Tour de France Femmes can get bigger and better. Speaking after the event, race director Marion Rousse hailed the reception from the public, media, audience and sponsors, but also said the race “can improve”.

Annemiek van Vleuten won the inaugural Tour de France Femmes but the event was also a triumph for women’s cycling 

“We’ve already learned a lot,” Rousse said. “There are some questions to answer – some things we can improve on for next year. But looking at the popular success, the size of the TV audience, the interest in the race, the quality of the racing, it’s going to get bigger in the coming years.”

There are already plenty of opinions on what that growth should look like. Voisin, for one, hopes the ASO will distribute more live coverage of the race to its broadcast partners going forward. This year, Eurosport received around two hours of live pictures per stage, but Voisin believes that being able to offer “line to line” coverage would be “a win for everybody”. After all, more airtime would mean more exposure for sponsors which would be another way of driving greater investment in the event.

The most public-facing question, though, is around introducing new or longer stages and extending the race to more than eight days, pushing it closer towards the three weeks that it takes to complete the men’s Tour. The general consensus on the ground, however, seemed to be that expansion should coincide with greater professionalisation, which would help improve team budgets and ultimately create a larger pool of riders to sustain a bigger event.

It’s just great sport and you have to cover it properly.

Guy Voisin, Senior Director of Cycling and Golf, Warner Bros Discovery

All of that is to be determined and Veronneau suggests that many of these things are under consideration. But whatever shape it takes from here, the hope is that the Tour de France Femmes has already changed women’s cycling for the better.

“We really look forward,” Veronneau states. “We are committed, we are in it for the long term. We definitely look forward to working with ASO, the World Tour teams and the UCI teams and talking to them and finding out what is the best evolution of the race. Is it more stages or do we need a rest day? Do we need a time trial? More climbing stages? We want to really take a deep look at the race each year and evolve it each year.

“This is just the start. We have this campaign called ‘New Rules’ and it’s about doing things differently and rethinking how we look at the sport. One of the rules is ‘the finish line is just the beginning’.

“Because we definitely want to grow this race, we want to grow this audience.”

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