“Change is happening” – Is women's cycling gathering momentum?

With the first Tour de France Femmes fast approaching this summer, is gender equality in cycling gathering momentum? Graham Willgoss asks the pros and the amateurs

“We're not asking for anything special – we just want the same opportunities the men get.” 

Louise Vardeman has done more than most to make the call for a women’s Tour de France heard. As captain and founder of all-female amateur cycling team the InternationElles, she led them through every stage of the 3,460km men's route in 2019, one day ahead of the pro peloton. 

They hoped riding what was billed as ‘the highest Tour in history’ would highlight inequality in the sport and show there is a serious appetite for a women's multi-day race that benefits from the same level of attention and coverage as la Grand Boucle. Now, with the first Tour de France Femmes (finally) happening this July, can Vardeman and her team say they have got what they wanted? 

“It’s a start,” she says. “When we first heard about it, I know I was a bit disappointed it was only eight days. It's not really a Tour de France, it's kind of like a 'Tour de North-East France'!”

Vardeman’s description is amusing – and accurate. The race begins in the same place and on the same day as the men’s ends: on the Champs-Élysées, on July 24. The route heads out to Provins, Reims and then Épernay, through the vineyards of Champagne, then ramps up with back-to-back mountain stages in the Vosges. That means a final stage finish on the Super Planche des Belles Filles – the ‘Super’ indicates the savage gravel section at the top is included – makes a grand total of 1,029km.

Related – Tour de France Femmes: "It's going to breathe new life into the sport"

You do not, however, need to be superwoman to ride it.

Internationalelles cycle up the Box Hill mural "Momentum"

InternationalElles cycle up the Box Hill mural "Momentum"

“We decided to ride the entire route of the Tour in 2019 to prove that [if] amateur – very amateur – women with day jobs and kids can ride it, then absolutely the professional women should have a chance to have a prestigious race like the Tour de France,” says Vardeman. 

“We were prepared as you ever can be doing something like that and juggling jobs and all of the rest. And it was amazing and horrific, because it was just crazy. And we did everything. We did the full Tour, [in fact] we did more elevation and length than the pros because the men had got caught out by the weather and decided to stop.”

A hailstorm and landslide forced the men’s pro peloton to cut short Stage 19 to Tignes on the descent of Col de l'Iseran, while Stage 20 was shortened from 130km to 59.5km. That meant the pros did not have to tackle either the category 2 Côte de Longefoy (6.6km at 6.5%) or the category 1 Cormet de Roselend (a 19.9km ascent at 6%) because the extreme weather conditions had made the roads unsafe.

Meanwhile, the InternationElles had a point to prove.

“We didn't know we were allowed to stop, so just pedaled through it,” says Vardeman. “And we got worldwide coverage. It was unbelievable! There are five of us from the UK, but we have Australian riders, Americans and a Dutch rider, so we had press from all those countries and people at the roadside were cheering us on. They just didn't realise there wasn't a women's Tour de France – they just thought maybe they hadn't seen it on TV.”

As Vardeman’s team entered the second week of their own tour, ASO announced they were putting a committee in place for a women’s race. 

“We were like: 'Shall we just go home now?'” Vardeman jokes. “But we kind of had to finish riding the whole thing to prove that it was possible. We knew that just putting a ‘committee’ in place wouldn't necessarily do anything. It was just chat. So we carried on campaigning and we hoped it would come.”

Now it will be here before you know it: the richest race on the women’s calendar, with a prize fund of €250,000 and €50,000 up for grabs for the ultimate winner of the yellow jersey. Discovery has confirmed it will broadcast the Tour de France Femmes via Eurosport, discovery+ and GCN+, with a ‘Home of Women’s Cycling’ campaign to raise awareness of lower salaries and gender bias.

Related: Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift Preview

Louse Vardeman of the InternationalElles

Louse Vardeman of the InternationalElles

“It's great,” says Vardeman. “There's coverage, which is fantastic. There are sponsors on board, which is amazing. So, this year a bunch of us are going to head down to just be hype girls – we're just going to party and support!”

The next stage

Vardeman is savvy enough to recognise the importance of sponsors in the women’s peloton. We are speaking at the launch of performance eyewear brand SunGod's campaign to celebrate the rapid growth in women’s cycling, at the top of Box Hill, Surrey, with a new mural painted on the Zig Zag Road. A total of 21 metres long, it simply reads ‘MOMENTUM’.

SunGod sponsors UCI women's team Liv Racing Xstra, home to Dutch climber Sabrina Stultiens. She has high hopes of being on the Tour de France Femmes start line in Paris come July.

Related: Women's WorldTour Calendar 2022

“For me it’s really special and I’m really excited,” says Stultiens. “All the teams want to be there in the best shape, everyone is doing a recon of the parcours, so you feel everyone is excited about it. TV in 170 countries, so you see it’s so fast growing, women’s cycling.

“You see all the teams are growing, more companies are interested in women’s cycling and it’s nice to see that they also believe in the growth of [that side of] the sport. Our races are getting more exciting – they’re great to follow.”

Stultiens says she’s really happy with the parcours for this summer’s women’s Tour, even if there is room for expansion. 

“It has a bit of everything,” she explains. “A flat stage for the sprinters, gravel, also two really big climbing races with La Planche des Belles Filles, so it's not that there's no big climb in it. I think for the coming years maybe it can grow into a longer stage race. 

“But at this moment, the teams are not that big yet to have a two-week stage race. Because then six riders have to focus on that stage race and the rest of the season it's maybe not possible for them to race – or not the whole season – but you are a team with 10, 12, 13 riders. So I think the first step is the WorldTour teams have to grow. But you see already so many girls are coming through. So over the years, it's really possible.

Sabrina Stultiens of Liv Racing Xstra

Sabrina Stultiens of Liv Racing Xstra

How does she see the Tour de France Femmes shaping women’s cycling for the next few years?

“You see already a lot of change in the past [few] years. I started cycling when I was seven years old, and I never heard about the possibility to become a professional cyclist. I never saw a woman cyclist, actually. I just went with my brother and my father with the touring group in my small village. I was the only girl in it. And now young girls can follow it live on television. And I hope to be an inspiration for the younger girls, and that they believe in themselves – that it’s possible to become a professional cyclist.” 

Growing up, however, Stultiens says, it didn’t bother her that there wasn't a Tour de France for women.

Related: Six reasons to look forward to women's cycling in 2022

“I wasn't following cycling that much at that point,” she explains. “I was just riding – riding circles! And as I got older, then became a professional, it's been growing so fast. And then we're thinking: 'When's a Tour de France coming?' Also, people are asking you the same thing. Or: 'Are you doing the Tour de France?’ And we always had to say: 'There is no Tour de France!' And then at that point, you're going to think about it: 'Hmmm... I also want to do that.' 

So, now it’s a real possibility, what are her hopes?

“It's really special that it's come true. I hope I can be at the start line. And of course, with my team, to go for a stage win and for the best result possible [in the GC].” 

Knocking privilege on the head

In a piece about the growth of women’s cycling in the lead up to the first Tour de France Femmes, it might seem (at best) tone deaf to include a man’s voice. Then again, it’s something David Walters, manager of the Bianchi Hunt Morvelo women’s team he founded in 2015, is happy to confront head-on.

“Men involved in women's cycling? I'm a middle-aged, slightly overweight ex-cyclist who still rides my bike. But I never had to scratch around trying to get an invite to a bike race. There was always going to be a bike race for me somewhere I could get to. That doesn't happen for women's sport.

"I raced bikes for 20 years, raced for a French team, came back to the UK, set up a blokes’ team – under-23s – because that's what I knew. Then I was hijacked by Exeter University to be their performance manager and set up a women's team. The world changed when I set up a women's team – for the better. We've grown from three riders up to a current nine. We had our best ever early season result – coming second in the Lincoln Grand Prix with Alice [McWilliam, on 8 May].”

Walters says the first issue men have to address is recognising there is a gender equality problem.

Bianchi Hunt Morvelo

David Walters runs the Bianchi Hunt Morvelo women's team

“Not enough men in sport recognise there is a problem when it comes to equality for women's sport in general,” he explains. “I'm privileged. I need to knock that privilege on the head and make sure it's not a privilege anymore. So if we can somehow address all the good things that men's sport has and cascade that down to where women's sport is currently and raise the level of women's sport to above where men's sport is, then we've done our jobs because the privilege doesn't exist anymore.

Related: Anna van der Breggen on the future of women's cycling

“And we need to really focus our efforts on shining a light on the existence of the problems of exposure in the sport, equipment supply – and I could go on and on about expectation levels in women's sport. How they aren't there. Whereas expectations levels are there in men's sport. Appreciation levels aren't there in women's sport. They are in men's sport.”

There is, Walters says, a need to really accept that female cyclists, all sportswomen and women in society get every opportunity their male counterparts do.

“So, if I can do my little bit on that, in knocking down any privilege I have as a male bike rider so that all the team, and the teams that we compete against all have the same opportunities in racing, then that's a big tick in the box,” he says. “That's part of what we set out to do.”

What men can do to break down barriers? Walters has a few ideas on that, too.

“We've just got to do something,” he says. “It's very easy not to do something. Whether it's liking an Instagram post from a female team, following them on social media, demanding more from sponsors… support the brands that support women's cycling, tune in to women's events, and demand more. Email GCN and say: 'Where's the full race coverage? Not just the last hour.' Keep pestering for more and more. And we'll get there. We'll get more coverage. We'll get equal coverage.The Momentum Mural on Box Hill

The Momentum Mural on Box Hill

“And when we get coverage, sponsorship grows, exposure levels grow; that helps me develop the team, helps the riders get more and more support. And, one day, our team would like to turn professional. Who knows whether that will come or not?

“In terms of racing, we need a pyramid of riders at the bottom in sufficient numbers to feed into the top, combining groups and making contact with other like-minded people is really important. I come from a region – the south-west – where we've had no road racing planned at all this year for women. We've tried it. I've put on races. There's a lot of institutional barriers we all know about. It's an ongoing problem. But the more people see women on bikes, the better it will be. We just need to grow the numbers at the base level.”

Social climbers

Stultiens is also convinced that the power of social media can help elevate the sport: “Post things on it! We see now also the difference. We get more attention on it. People want to have a photo with you. Fans are coming to races and recognise you. For us, it’s a nice motivation that we see that.”

Vardeman echoes the sentiment. “Everything you can do to watch the race, talk about women's cycling, get involved, get your friends involved – it all makes a difference,” she says. “You have more power than you realise with social media and stuff like that.”

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The Tour de France Femmes will only encourage the shares and the likes. It’s a small but important part of the equation for the change in cycling that needs to happen for women to be able to say they truly share the road.

“Change is happening,” says Vardeman. “There's still so much to do. So much. The thing that really winds me up is that if you take a little boy and a little girl, I won't stop trying harder until the little girl believes she has the same opportunities as her brother. And that's why we'll keep going.

“Because how can we expect women’s cycling to flourish if it’s not given the same opportunity to?”

Find out more about SunGod's Momentum campaign here