A women’s Tour de France: yes or no? This has been a hotly contested debate within cycling for a long time.
On one side, some argued that replicating men’s races wasn’t the answer to increasing the exposure of women’s cycling. The female peloton has its own uniquely marketable traits, they countered, these could be highlighted to sell the sport without a pre-existing platform. Others believed that the fanfare and legendary nature of longstanding men’s races would give exposure that couldn’t be found elsewhere.
Both sides of the argument have weight. In Zwift’s sponsorship of the Tour de France Femmes, though, the indoor training app may have reached the perfect compromise to keep each side of the party happy.
The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift will use the iconic Tour name, but Zwift’s sponsorship adds a twist to it. It is going to catapult the race into the modern era, bringing the gender equality that Zwift has championed throughout its virtual events into real life racing.
2020’s Virtual Tour de France
Asheligh Moolman Pasio was one rider who embraced Zwift as a platform during lockdown. While she championed the brand’s attitude to women’s racing, she also had some incredible results on Zwift, including a win in the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships.
She explains how the Virtual Tour de France that Zwift put on last year, in conjunction with Tour de France organisers ASO, was a game-changer for women’s cycling. “Zwift used their power and said to ASO: if you want to use our platform, it has to be equal,” she says. “I think this was a big eye opener for ASO. All of a sudden, they started to realize that women's cycling is popular too. For me, this was a real turning point.”
“To hear that Zwift has sponsored the women's Tour de France in the real world. It’s like, wow, these people get it. This is what cycling needs,” she says.Ashleigh Moolman Pasio at the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships
“It's going to feel fresh, it's going to feel very exciting,” explains Kate Veronneau, Zwift’s senior content strategist and former professional racer. Veronneau has played a crucial part in introducing more female cyclists to Zwift and has championed the brand’s women’s strategy.
Zwift’s sponsorship is perhaps, at first glance, an unusual fit. The men’s Tour de France is steeped in cycling heritage, it’s a homage to the oldest and purest days of cycling. Zwift’s virtual platform, on the other hand, is an example of innovation, it’s something we’ve never seen before and has introduced a new discipline that has changed the face of the sport.
The company’s popularity sky-rocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic, partly fuelled by an unprecedented growth in female users. In a time when we were all locked in our homes, Zwift offered a digital platform to continue to ride with friends and family, in a safe and fun way. The American business has long since been a trailblazer, creating a virtual reality that had purists of the sport bamboozled.
Zwift is certain that while the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift will take in some of the traditions of the Tour, it will be using its digital expertise to help to modernise the event. The company plans to invest heavily in content and fan engagement, both on the ground at the race itself and digitally within the Zwift platform. “It's going to have a different feel. There's going to be those iconic elements, but it's going to breathe some new life into the sport. We're hoping that this popularises the sport in a broader way.” says Veronneau.
The number of stages
One thing that will certainly give the future women’s Tour de France Femmes a different feel will, of course, be the length. While the men race for three weeks, the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift will last for 8 days. The race applied successfully for an exception to the UCI’s 6-day limit for stage races – a rule that is surely due a review as women’s cycling continues to grow exponentially.
The stark differences in length between the men’s and women’s Tour de France mean that the race has been doubted by some, dubbed a tokenistic gesture which washes over the real work that there is to do to improve women’s cycling. Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio disagrees with this.
“I don't believe that we have to completely imitate men's racing to make a success of women's racing,” she says. “I think, actually, that would be a mistake.” She explains that even her male colleagues have hinted that they would prefer shorter, more explosive racing, explaining that the men’s side of the sport can often be a little stuck in history. “I think that women's cycling has a great opportunity to try to break free of that,” she says.
La Course 2021 (Image: Aurelien Vialatte/ ASO)
There are only 9 Women’s WorldTeams in the peloton this year, and women’s continental teams don’t yet have the requirement of a minimum salary. This means riders often have to work part-time to subsidise their training. While they earn nothing, or very little, from their sport they are still expected to compete at the WorldTour level. “We need that depth to grow a little bit more before we're ready for a three-week tour. I believe we are capable, but I think maybe there would be quite a big distinction,” Moolman-Pasio explains. “I just don't think it's the right time.”
Zwift’s Veronneau shares that view. She explains that with Zwift’s four-year sponsorship of the Tour de France Femmes there is scope for growth. However, it needs to be sustainable. “Let's start where we can,” she says. “We can create a really successful and exciting event. That's a wonderful opportunity. Big prize purses, big stages, big, big media coverage and that's going to create the economy to grow the sport.”
Prize money and equal coverage has been at the centre of Zwift’s priorities since it introduced e-racing on its platform back in 2018 with the KISS Super League. “We were just like: this is Zwift,” she says. “We have a virtual world, we've already been disruptive and groundbreaking, we can create the world of cycling that we want to be a part of. We have this opportunity, we're going to do it our way and the audiences will come.”
And they did. Veronneau references the Virtual Tour de France, “The race was broadcast to millions in over 130 countries. That was the biggest win, it was the biggest number of views for any women's race ever,” she says. “Women brought it. The action, honestly, was better than the men's. The personalities came out, like Ash Moolman Pasio, she was crushing it. I think that it was just a wonderful opportunity to show the world how awesome it can be, but we just need to give that opportunity.”
The end of La Course
Moolman-Pasio explains that there was almost some disbelief among the women’s peloton when the announcement of a women’s IRL (in real life) Tour de France came afterwards. “It was like: are we just talking about it, or is it actually real? So for a while, there was a little bit of hesitation,” she says.
After La Course, ASO’s single-day women’s race that has run annually during the Tour de France since 2014, it’s understandable why the women’s peloton may have had some doubts regarding the quality of the future Tour de France Femmes. La Course has provided some enthralling racing, but poor marketing from the ASO means it has remained in the shadow of the men’s Tour de France since its inception.Demi Vollering wins the 2020 edition of La Course (Image: Getty)
“ASO never really associated the Tour de France name with women,” Moolman says. “It was La Course. There was no mention of the women on any of the Tour de France platforms,” she explains. She acknowledges the benefits of the live TV coverage which the race provided each year, but argues that many people didn’t even know it was happening under the noise of the men’s event.
This is a problem that both Zwift and ASO are working hard to rectify by the start of the Tour de France Femmes in 2022. The position on the calendar is a start: the Tour de France Femmes will begin as soon as the men’s event ends on the Champs Elysees, filling the void left for fans when the Tour de France ends. If marketed correctly, it could be an opportune way for women’s cycling to tap into an entirely new audience. “The men’s Tour de France, after the last stage, everybody doesn't know what to do on Monday,” says Veronneau. “That first stage of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift is going to completely leverage that incredible attention and excitement. Eight days of racing, in the mountains with that same circus, it's setting it up for success.”The iconic Champs Elysees (Image: Zwift)
Veronneau is hopeful that such huge exposure will mean the event is watched by fans worldwide, and will serve as inspiration for the next generation of female cyclists. “We want girls growing up to not know that there wasn't a women's Tour de France,” she says. “In that way, it perfectly checks the innovative, groundbreaking, unprecedented boxes that we know. It's going to feel fresh, it's going to feel very exciting.”
Moolman-Pasio notes that she would have benefited from a race like the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift as an aspiring cyclist, too. “I do remember in the summer holiday lying on the couch and watching through the Tour and thinking: it would be so amazing for women or young girls to be able to see women racing the Tour de France,” she says.
Zwift’s long-term women’s strategy
Getting more women on bikes has long been a focus for Zwift. The platform offers easy access to training and races, there are no geographical restrictions, and it’s a safe way to begin riding for those who might not feel comfortable going out on open roads. “We forget that so many women live in areas that aren't great for riding,” says Veronneau. “It's an intimidating sport, the group rides aren't always welcoming, there's not the support structure.”
She explains that Zwift places emphasis on creating women’s specific events to encourage participants to build a positive community around their training and racing. “My training was more social than it had ever been before,” explains Moolman Pasio when discussing her exploits on the virtual platform in lockdown last year. “It was also pretty cool, because all of a sudden I could have a training set with some hardcore intervals but I could do them with my mom,” she says.La Course 2021 (Image: Aurelien Vialatte/ ASO)
Veronneau explains she didn’t expect the unprecedented growth Zwift has had. “I could have never imagined five years ago that it would lead to our sponsorship of a real women’s Tour de France. It gives me great pride to know that this is translating so much bigger than the video game,” she says.
She is quick to point out that this hasn’t been Zwift’s doing alone, and lauds the work of The Cyclist’s Alliance and activist Kathryn Bertine in making the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift a reality. “They paved the way for this to happen in all their efforts to bang down the door and say, give us a chance,” she says. “There has been a lot of work done over the past couple of decades to reach this moment. And we're so happy to be able to use our influence in the sport.”
Both Zwift and ASO are keen to provide a challenging route that covers famous mountain passes on a par with the men’s stages. “The route will officially be announced on October 14 and we can't wait for all the details. But yes, mountain stages,” says Veronneau.
Moolman Pasio is well-suited to hillier terrain, winning a stage of the Giro Rosa this year (Image: Luc Claessen/Stringer/Getty)
Ashleigh Moolman Pasio is also optimistic that the route will be challenging enough for riders like her who specialise in climbing. “I think that the Tour de France would be doing themselves an injustice not to include a Queen stage for the women and, in time, to include the really epic climbs,” she says.
Although the race falls at optimum viewing time at the end of the men’s Tour de France, it is only a few weeks after the Giro d’Italia Donne, giving the women’s WorldTour two long stage races within one month. “I do think it will be difficult to target both,” says Moolman Pasio. “From a personal perspective, next year is my final year. So I will be retiring at the end of next year from road cycling, and I would really like to take part in the Tour de France, it would be my last opportunity.”
Moolman Pasio isn’t the only rider who wants to make an impact in the inaugural Tour de France Femmes. Teams like FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope have already explained the race will be a huge target for the team, highlighting the importance of the event among the professional peloton.
“It's a big moment in sport,” says Veronneau. “We're going to popularize cycling. This is bringing the sport into the modern world.”
Cover image: Tim De Waele/ Getty Images