The revival of the women’s Tour de France is a reminder that “the fight for equality is far from over”

Former professional cyclist and filmmaker Catherine Bertina is cautious in choosing how to describe the Tour de France Women 2022, which concluded on Sunday with the Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten cruise to victory.

“Too many headlines read, ‘the first,'” says Bertine.

Other stories went with ‘inaugural’ which is more accurate – definition: “the first in a series of planned events” – but still misleading. “I think the general public just equates ‘inaugural’ with ‘first,'” she says.

For Bertine, this distinction is not only semantic. This is to ensure that history is not erased.

Progress in women’s cycling is not a straight line

If you want to talk about the “first” women’s Tour de France, you would have to go back to 1955. That year, 41 athletes took part in a unique five-stage race contested separately from the men’s competition.

Almost 30 years later, in 1984, Tour de France organizers held a women’s race in conjunction with the men’s event, marking the first official women’s Tour de France. The female cyclists competed on the same – albeit shortened – courses as the male riders.

“It didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t continue,” says American Marianne Martinwho won the Women’s Tour de France in 1984. “It was definitely like the start. And that was how it was going to be from now on.

This was not the case.

The women’s Tour de France was held five more times until race organizers dropped female athletes from the program after 1988. While other attempts were made to revive the event in the decades to come , the official name “Tour de France” was prohibited.

“We had to fight for women to even have access to the name ‘Tour de France’. Because that’s what ASO won in 1989,” explains Bertine.

1984 Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon of France and Marianne Martin of the United States celebrate on the podium. (AFP via Getty Images)

In 2013, Bertine — with Emma Poole, Marianne Vosand Chrissie Wellington — launched “Le Tour Entier” (French for “the whole tour”).

They submitted a petition – signed by more than 98,000 people – to the director of the Tour de France Christian Prudhomme demanding that women be allowed to race the Tour de France. “While many women’s sports face battles of inequality, road cycling remains one of the worst offenders: fewer racing opportunities, no TV coverage, shorter distances, and therefore inequality of wages and prices”, the petition Lily.

Bertine, whose film “Half the Road” examines gender inequality in professional cycling, says she heard from athletes who supported the petition but feared reprisals if they spoke out publicly.

“Many were afraid to rock the boat because they feared their own contracts with their teams were (in jeopardy),” she says. “A number of women have contacted us and said, ‘I support you 100%, but I have to shut up because I’m worried about my job’.”

Tour de France organizer ASO – after initially ignoring the petition – eventually created “La Course by Le Tour de France”, a one- or two-day women’s race held annually between 2014 and 2021.

It was this story that made Bertine think when she heard the words “first” or “inaugural” used to describe the Tour de France Women 2022.

“I want Marianne Martin to have her recognition. I want to make sure that we don’t forget the women of the 1955 Tour de France. And the women of “La Course”. Because it’s an important part of understanding how long it took for this race to come to fruition.

In return for the women’s Tour de France, reminders that the work is not done

While this year’s eight-stage women’s Tour de France was more than a “symbolic gesture”, the full mission of “Le Tour Entier” has yet to be fulfilled.

“I think being grateful is one of the worst things we can be,” says Lizzie Deignan, a professional cyclist for Trek-Segafredo. “That’s the trap a lot of women fall into…sometimes you have to be brave, bold and outspoken. It’s not always comfortable. »

One of the most glaring disparities between the women’s and (men’s) Tour de France is the number of race stages: eight for women, 21 for men. This is particularly striking when you consider the fact that when Martin won in 1984 – notably, the same summer that cyclists and marathon runners made their Olympic Games debut – women ran 18 Tour de France stages ( against 23 on the men’s side).

The peloton crosses the vineyards of Avize during the Tour de France Women 2022.
EPERNAY, FRANCE – JULY 26: The peloton drives through the vineyards of Avize during the 2022 Tour de France Women. (Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Many female cyclists also want to see a time trial added. This year’s Tour de France (men) included two.

“I think it would make the race a lot more dynamic and I think it would help create a more complete winner,” Kristen Faulkner says VeloNews.

But equality is not as simple as adding 13 race steps.

“There are complex issues to explain why the Tour de France Women is not yet three weeks away,” says Deignan. “It’s never about our physical ability to complete three weeks… Thirty-seven per cent of the women’s field aren’t being paid a living wage, so expecting them to compete for three weeks – while retaining a job – just isn’t realistic.”

Which leads to the question of the prize money: for her win, van Vleuten took home €50,000 (approx. $52,487) out of the women’s prize total of €250,000 (approx. $262,437). In comparison, the male winner from Denmark Jonas Vingegaard received more than $500,000 for his win last month, while the men’s purse topped $2 million.

When you control for the number of race days, women earned 29 cents on the dollar in prize money compared to their male counterparts.

This problem is not unique to the Tour de France. Cycling lags farther behind most sports when it comes to fair compensation, although corporate sponsorships – including that of presenting sponsor Zwift, as well as a recent commitment from Strava – have started to close the gap.

“It’s about having more professional women on the starting line,” Deignan said of Strava’s commitment. “And that’s what we’re missing: the next generation. These barriers to participation at the professional level are still enormous.

Annemiek Van Vleuten celebrates her victory after the eighth and final stage of the Tour de France Women 2022. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images)

There is also the issue of racing coverage. “They only give (the women) two hours, two and a half hours of coverage, starting in the middle of the race,” Bertine said of the women’s Tour de France broadcast. “That’s not right…especially if men get the full six hours of coverage.”

It’s a familiar problem in women’s sports, where less money and time has long been invested in coverage and marketing and then blamed on the players and the product for not generating a wider audience.

Deignan, who is currently pregnant with her second child, had a revelation while watching the UK National Championships at home from her sofa.

“(The show) was made with on-board motorcycle cameras. That was it. There was no helicopter footage…it was a very basic package and it wasn’t great to watch. And it was like, wow, this is what women’s cycling looks like watching most of the time because we just don’t have the same level of production, and production makes a huge difference Sport is a entertainment.

Deignan, who was born five months after the last women’s Tour de France in 1988, says she was inspired by Billie Jean Kingthe message not to settle for breadcrumbs.

“It took us my whole life to secure this race again…” she said. “We have to keep fighting because as soon as we rest and accept those small steps, that’s when progress stops again.

“The fight for equality is far from over.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

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