When EF Education-TIBCO-SVB founder Linda Jackson and I finally find a moment to chat during the chaotic days of the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, it’s 7.30am and she’s already rumbling through the French countryside in a van to the start of stage five. She’s been awake since 5am, fuelling up on pasta and ready to ride the stage ahead of the professional peloton. In an impressive show of enthusiasm for the first women’s Tour de France in 33 years, Jackson - along with a group of pals from California - has been riding ahead of every single stage.
“Riding the stages has given me a deeper perspective on the courses, more than just seeing the women race them on TV,” she explains, describing how stage four had really stuck out for her. “I thought the stage was amazing. I was so annoyed to read a comment from a DS that stage four was ‘too hard for the girls’,” shares Jackson. “Leaving the obvious sexism aside, I totally disagree.” Instead, she thought it showed the capability of the female peloton on gravel sectors and rewarded those with good technical skills. Putting it plainly, she adds: “If riders did their course recon, they were prepared.”
For Jackson, who quit a job in investment banking at the age of 35 to pursue her love of cycling, before going on to found EF Education-TIBCO-SVB, the eight-day Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift marks a game changing moment within the sport.
“This multi-stage TdFF is the single most important thing that has happened to women's professional cycling in the past three decades,” she declares. “The success of this race over the next several years will determine the future path of women's cycling for generations to come.”
Media exposure, and its role in driving additional sponsorship plays a significant part, she explains. “If the race is economically viable for ASO, they will continue to invest in future editions. If it isn’t economically viable, the race will likely go away, and our sport could falter,” she warns. She is positive though that the event has seen the levels of exposure to be considered a success.
The added exposure is something her team’s riders have also felt, she says: “They feel like they are in the spotlight versus being an afterthought. They are also feeling the increased level of racing here. Everyone has brought their A+ game…the racing is tough and aggressive.”
Seeing the support from the crowds, and the sheer numbers, in person has also been a highlight for Jackson. As she puts it, the level of turnout was an “unanswered question” going into the event. “The crowds were great in Paris, but we were benefiting from the men's race,” she says. “I wasn't sure what to expect on Monday for stage two when the women were on their own, but the crowds have been amazing”. She reminisces on the sights she’s seen en route and describes the packed finish lines and the vast number of spectators camped along the course for hours before the peloton come through.
Jackson also strongly believes that the Tour de France Femmes has the power to inspire and entice young women to think about cycling as a sport that they can do. “The roads and crowds are packed with young girls that are cheering the peloton on, and that’s a great thing.” More girls and women cycling will not only help with upping interest in the sport, it’ll also add to the future of women’s racing by deepening the talent pool, she claims. “Currently there are 792 women registered with the UCI as compared to 3100 men. That’s about 25%. We need to broaden the base of the pyramid to create more riders at the top.”
Jackson, a former professional racer herself, is also well regarded for her ability to spot cycling talent. It’s something that has become a strength for EF Education-TIBCO-SVB, she says confidently. “I look at results, I watch races, and I just keep my ears open. I am always getting messages from people telling me that I have to look at a certain rider,” she shares. But, it’s not just about spotting the talent she points out, there also has to be a true desire to develop the riders: “Taking riders on early has its risks, especially in North America, as quite often the riders don’t have the technical skills to navigate the European peloton. But I am willing to take the extra time to develop these riders because I believe in them.”
Of the current EF Education-TIBCO-SVB team, Jackson proudly praises their results so far this year, which include a top five result for Veronica Ewers during stage four of the Tour de France Femmes, plus a win at the Navarra Women’s Classic in May. “I think the team has done a terrific job this season and has really punched above their weight.”
She describes how the riders are thrilled to be taking part in the Tour de France Femmes. “Now, when they get that inevitable question from the public: ‘Have you ever raced the Tour de France?’, they can say ‘yes, I have.’ As Jackson puts it succinctly: “That's a powerful thing.”
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