The overwhelming consensus in the world of women’s cycling is that the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift has been a highly successful event. “It was better than I expected,” said French national champion Audrey Cordon-Ragot who has been representing the country’s flag on her jersey for the past week. She went on to say that the organisation and professionalism of the race has been a cut above anything else she’s raced in her career, describing it as “incomparable.”
For fans too, the race has been a great spectacle, be it on TV or watching on the roadside. The start and finish towns of each stage have been packed with spectators and there’s been people watching along most of the route of each stage. “We did not expect the big crowds coming and cheering us on this much,” continued Cordon-Ragot.
But while acknowledging the huge step this race is for the sport and appreciating the organisation finally giving women’s platform they deserve, there is always space to look for improvement in years to come. At the end of the race, Rouleur spoke to riders to understand what they would like to see from the women’s Tour de France in the future and how they see the race developing.
The introduction of a time trial
While a gushing Cordon-Ragot was reluctant to even venture into the territory of criticism about her home race, the Frenchwoman did note that she hoped to see the addition of a timed event in the future. “Time trials and team time trials. I think this would be super exciting and I think it's also nice for the public to see time trials because you can see each rider one by one. Also you can talk about one each rider and discover more about the personalities of everyone,” she explained.
Her teammate and reigning time trial world champion Ellen van Dijk agrees with this sentiment, telling journalists that it was the “only thing that’s missing” from the event. In the men’s Tour de France, time trials are included every year, and it's an event known to be the most “honest”, just a rider against the clock. Van Djik herself began the #womenagainsttheclock campaign alongside former Hour Record holder Joscelin Lowden to try and push organisers to include more timed events in the women's WorldTour calendar.
Ellen van Dijk during stage five of the Tour de France Femmes (Image: Getty)
One issue with time trials is that they can highlight the current disparity between teams in the current women’s WorldTour peloton when it comes to equipment. Many of the gains in individual time trials and team time trials come from optimising aerodynamics in the wind tunnel and having the budget to invest in the most advanced kit. However, it is a discipline which is one of the most well-respected and loved in cycling, and perhaps the introduction of one in the Tour de France Femmes would encourage sponsors to invest more heavily in providing riders with equipment optimised for a race against the clock.
One of the main talking points during the Tour de France Femmes was the high number of crashes in the opening days. Jesse Vandenbulcke of Le Col-Wahoo commented that these could have been avoided by better road markings from the race’s organisation. "I'm from Belgium and the safety there we have BoPlan, the yellow, big things that you see on television, making a lot of noise, so you really see an obstacle coming up. Here, they only have something pink on the road.”
Jolien d’Hoore, an ex-professional rider turned sports director for Team AG Insurance-NXTG agreed with Vandenbulcke’s comment. “In the men’s Tour there were also a lot of crashes because of that, so maybe that is something they could change for next year,” she said.”Maybe they could add a few people to point out the dangerous obstacles but I know it’s hard as you need so many people.”
Riders like Ellen van Dijk also commented that the large number of crashes this year could have been a product of rider nerves as it was the first Tour de France with by far the biggest media attention of any other races in the calendar. It could be that next year, when the riders can be sure of what to expect, there will be less tension in the bunch. “”Everyone is nervous and taking more risks than normal but I don't think it’s necessary. I’d like to ask for more respect in the peloton,” she said to Rouleur ahead of stage five.
The crash on stage six of the Tour de France Femmes (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
More prize money
The winner of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, Annemiek van Vleuten, will receive 50,000 euros for her victory, whereas Jonas Vingegaard received 500,000 euros for winning the men’s Tour. This means that Van Vleuten will take home 10% of what Vingegaard did, despite winning a race with the same stature. Even when making the argument that the women’s peloton race for one week while the men raced for three, this still doesn’t add up. Based on that, Van Vleuten should have won roughly 166,666 euros for her efforts.
While Van Vleuten doesn’t particularly need this money and giving it to a rider who is already at the top of the sport won’t solve any funding problems, the huge disparity still sets a precedent of inequality. It suggests that the efforts of the female peloton are lesser than the men’s and isn’t an inspiring statistic. “Hopefully this is something that they can improve each year, as it’s for sure nowhere near the men,” said Vandenbulcke.
Line to line coverage
For fans and media covering the race alike, things would be made easier with live coverage that kicked off when the riders roll off from the start line. Some of the most exciting racing to watch in the men’s Tour de France this year was when riders were fighting to establish a breakaway, but we weren’t able to watch the women’s peloton doing this. When Annemiek van Vleuten attacked at the bottom of the first of three climbs in the race’s Queen stage, this wasn’t televised. Rider reports came of frantic chases to get back on terms with the Dutchwoman, all of which we were unable to watch on TV.
Image: ASO/Fabien Boulka
When live pictures from the race helicopter eventually began to pop up on our screens that day, they focussed on the Vosges Forest rather than the peloton who were then just 500 metres from reaching the top of the Petit Ballon climb. Race organisers and TV directors were aware that the stage would likely kick off early on as the first chance for the GC contenders to show themselves; it was no surprise that the race broke up as early as it did. To gain a full picture of the storyline in a race, seeing the decisive attack of the day is imperative. With this in mind, live coverage from the start of each stage to the end would be a big improvement from ASO in the years to come of the Tour de France Femmes.
An increased number of days?
The inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift can hardly be described as a tour of France, as only a tiny section of the country was covered in the eight days the race was run. While this shorter format worked well for the first edition, providing punchy, exciting stages, there is hope from riders that it will be extended to more days as the women’s peloton evolves.
“Having a longer Tour that’s maybe ten or twelve days in the future would be great, and then 15 days and then, maybe in 10 years, we have three weeks,” said Cordon-Ragot when questioned if she’d like to see the race extended. Kasia Niewiadoma of Canyon//SRAM shares this sentiment, telling the press that she could see the race turning into a two week stage race in the future.
The general agreement is, though, that the increasing number of days will come with time, increased team budgets and larger team rosters that give a blogger pool of riders to choose from.
“An eight day stage race is not a bad place to start. We're talking about how positive this is for cycling, and that will grow the depth of women’s cycling. But, you know, maybe we need that depth to grow a little bit more before we're ready for a three week Tour,” Ashleigh Moolman Pasio told Rouleur a few weeks before the event.
“I believe we are capable, but I think there would be quite a big distinction. We have to be honest that there still are a lot of teams making up the numbers who don't have the luxury of a minimum salary and maybe still have to have a part time job on the side. So until that really filters right down, I think we don't really have the depth to have 100 riders finish a three week tour. It's not because I don't think we're capable. I just don't think it's the right time.”
Cover image: ASO/Thomas Maheux