The week that changed women’s sport

We’ve seen seismic shift in attitudes towards women in sport as the Tour de France Femmes returned for the first time since the 80s and England’s Lionesses become European champions

I’m not ashamed to say that my eyes brimmed with tears as Annemiek van Vleuten crossed the finish line on the final stage of the Tour de France Femmes. To admit I couldn’t maintain composure despite being at the race in a professional sense as a journalist and that I wanted to hug every other woman in the room and say: look, we’ve done this. It’s here. We’ve started to change things.

It was a moment that is hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced years of feeling like you don’t belong while doing something that you love. Since I was ten years old, I’ve raced bikes as a woman. I did it despite my friends at school not really understanding why I was interested in competing in a traditionally boisterous sport. I did it despite knowing, even as a teenager, that it wasn’t a career path that would make me rich, perhaps even let me earn a liveable wage. I did it despite often being the only girl at club rides or training sessions. Despite rarely seeing women’s racing on TV. In my bedroom, I had a poster up of Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France. I looked at it as motivation to train hard everyday, despite understanding that I’d probably never get the chance to fight for a yellow jersey myself.

When I stopped racing a few years ago, I started working as a journalist, and I still felt like I didn’t really belong. When I covered Paris-Roubaix for the first time, there was only a sprinkling of female journalists there, and I couldn’t help but feel like I needed to act differently, dress differently or wear less makeup to be taken seriously in the circles I found myself in. Like I had to work harder to make sure my work was up to the highest standards, be certain that the questions I asked in press conferences were always clever and well-considered, because I knew I’d be held to a different standard as a young woman in the press room.

Last week changed everything. The cohort of journalists at the Tour de France Femmes was overwhelmingly female in an industry which has long had barriers to entry for women. For the first time, we were the majority, and it felt good. It felt like we deserved it. It felt like an accumulation of hard work by all the generations before us. It took until 2022, but it finally happened.

Image: Zac Williams/SWpix

But what the Tour de France Femmes has done for society is far bigger than me and the tears I shed after the peloton crested the top of the Planche des Belles Filles. It’s about the young kids who stood cheering by the side of the road, or watching on TV, who will grow up thinking that this is normal. It means that they can have a poster of Annemiek van Vleuten in yellow on their walls, and aspire to be like her. To do what she does.

On that very same day, when people lined the roads to roar on the women’s peloton as they raced furiously up one of the most famous Tour de France climbs, crowds went wild in Wembley stadium. They watched a nail-biting, nerve-wracking, skillful, impressive, tense Euro 2022 final, and the football players were all women. It was England’s Lionesses who took a historic win, putting an end to the country’s years of misery. Finally, they brought it home. It was the first major trophy won by an England senior football team in 56 years.

Just as the women’s peloton did at the Tour de France that day, England’s women’s football team took centre stage. They were the main story, they made the biggest headlines, they were front page news. When I was in school, we never even played football in PE classes. It wasn’t something that girls did, or were taught that it was possible to do. The Lionesses winning in Wembley finally gave English football its success story, something the men’s team haven't been able to do for decades.

With the fans that the Lionesses reached through their emphatic performance on the world stage, women’s football has changed forever. They’ve raised the profile of the sport by making themselves impossible to ignore and have done it with the support of a nation behind them. They’ve converted many to the world of women’s football, and breaking down barriers and changing society for the better. 

The same can be said for those who finished in the Tour de France Femmes a few hundred miles across the border. The women’s peloton were finally given the stage to prove that, like football, bike racing is bike racing, regardless of the gender of the person who sits on the saddle. They were trailblazers, inspiring people in all facets of society, be it me, a journalist working on the race, the old woman who I saw wearing a yellow blouse as she lent out of her balcony window to watch the race storm by in rural France, the kids who wore polka dot t-shirts as they grinned on the side of a mountain. They did it for all of us, and for the generations who will come next.

Things are changing, momentum is building, and women’s sport will never be the same again.

Cover image: Getty images

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