Women’s Tour de France revival is reminder that ‘the fight for equality is far from over’

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Former pro cyclist and filmmaker Kathryn Bertine is careful when choosing how to describe the 2022 Tour de France Femmes, which concluded on Sunday with Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleutencruising to victory.

“Too many headlines are reading, ‘the first,'” says Bertine.

Other stories went with ‘inaugural’ which is more accurate — definition: “the first in a series of planned events” — but still misleading. “I think the general public just equates ‘inaugural’ with ‘first,'” she says.

For Bertine, this distinction isn’t just about semantics. It’s about making sure history isn’t erased.

Progress in women’s cycling isn’t a straight line

If you want to talk about the “first” women’s Tour de France, you’d have to go back to 1955. That year, 41 athletes competed in a five-stage, one-off race that was contested separately from the men’s competition.

Nearly 30 years later in 1984, Tour de France organizers hosted a women’s race in conjunction with the men’s event, marking the first official Women’s Tour de France. Female cyclists competed on the same — albeit shortened — courses as the male riders.

“It didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t keep going,” says American Marianne Martin, who won the 1984 Women’s Tour de France. “It definitely felt like the beginning. And this was how it was going to be from now on.”

It wasn’t.

The Women’s Tour de France was held five more times until race organizers dropped female athletes from the program after 1988. While other attempts were made to revive the event in coming decades, the official “Tour de France” name was off limits.

“We had to fight for women to even have access to the name, ‘Tour de France.’ Because that’s what ASO took away in 1989,” Bertine explains.

1984 Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon of France and Marianne Martin of the United States celebrate on the podium. (AFP via Getty Images)

In 2013, Bertine — along with Emma Pooley, Marianne Vos, and Chrissie Wellington — launched ‘Le Tour Entier’ (French for ‘the Whole Tour’).

They submitted a petition — signed by over 98,000 people — to Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme demanding that women be allowed to race the Tour de France. “While many women’s sports face battles of inequity, road cycling remains one of the worst offenders: fewer race opportunities, no televised coverage, shorter distances, and therefore salary and prize money inequity,” the petition read.

Bertine, whose film ‘Half the Road’ examines gender inequity in professional cycling, says she heard from some athletes who were supportive of the petition, but concerned about retaliation if they spoke out publicly.

“Many were afraid to rock the boat because they were nervous that their own contracts with their teams could be (in jeopardy),” she says. “A number of women reached out to us and said, ‘I’m behind you 100% but I have to remain quiet because I’m worried about my job.”

Tour de France organizer ASO — after initially not publicly engaging with the petition — eventually created “La Course by Le Tour de France,” a one- or two-day women’s race that was held annually between 2014 and 2021.

It is this history that gave Bertine pause when she heard the words “first” or “inaugural” used to describe the 2022 Tour de France Femmes.

“I want Marianne Martin to have her recognition. I want to make that we don’t forget about the women of the 1955 Tour de France. And the women of ‘La Course.’ Because that’s a huge part in understanding how long it took for this race to actually come to fruition.”

In return of Women’s Tour de France, reminders that the work isn’t done

While this year’s eight-stage Women’s Tour de France was more than a “token gesture,” the full mission of “Le Tour Entier” has not yet been met.

“I think being grateful is one of the worst things we could be,” says Lizzie Deignan, a pro cyclist for Trek-Segafredo. “That’s the trap that a lot of women fall into… you have to sometimes be brave and be bold and be outspoken. It’s not always comfortable.”

One of the most glaring disparities between the Women’s and (Men’s) Tour de France is the number of race stages: eight from women, 21 for men. It’s especially stark when you consider the fact that when Martin won back in 1984 — notably, the same summer that female cyclists and marathoners debuted at the Olympics — women raced 18 stages at the Tour de France (compared to 23 on the men’s side).

EPERNAY, FRANCE – JULY 26: The peloton passes through Avize vineyards during the 2022 Tour de France Femmes. (Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Many female cyclists also want to see a time trial added. This year’s (Men’s) Tour de France included two.

“I think it would make the race a lot more dynamic and I think it would help create a more well-rounded winner,” Kristen Faulknertold VeloNews.

But equality isn’t as simple as just adding 13 race stages.

“There are complex issues around why the Tour de France Femmes is not three weeks yet,” Deignan says. “It’s never about our physical ability to complete three weeks… Thirty-seven percent of the women’s peloton aren’t being paid a living wage, so to expect them to compete over three weeks — whilst maintaining a job — is just not realistic.”

Which leads to the issue of prize money: For winning, van Vleuten took home €50,000 euros (approx. $52,487 USD) of the total women’s prize pot of €250,000 euros (approx. $262,437 USD). In comparison, men’s winner Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard received more than $500,000 for his victory last month, while the men’s purse topped $2 million.

When you control for number of days raced, women made 29 cents on the dollar in prize money compared to their male counterparts.

This issue is not unique to the Tour de France. Cycling is further behind than most sports when it comes to equitable pay, though corporate sponsorships — including the one from presenting sponsor Zwift, plus a recent pledge from Strava — have started to bridge the gap.

“It’s about having more professional females on the start line,” Deignan said of Strava’s pledge. “And that’s what we’re missing: the next generation. Those barriers to participation at the professional level are still huge.”

Annemiek Van Vleuten celebrates her win after the eighth and final stage of the 2022 Tour de France Femmes. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s also the issue of race coverage. “They’re only giving (the women) two, two-and-a-half hours of coverage, starting in the middle of the race,” Bertine said of the Women’s Tour de France broadcast. “That’s not ok… especially if the men are getting a full six hours of coverage.”

It is a familiar issue in women’s sports, where there is a long history of investing less money and time in coverage and marketing — and then blaming the players and product for not generating a larger audience.

Deignan, who is currently pregnant with her second child, had a bit of an epiphany while watching the British National Championships at home from her couch.

“(The broadcast) was done with onboard motorbike cameras. That was it. There was no helicopter footage… it was a very basic package and it wasn’t great to watch. And it was like, wow, this is what women’s cycling is like to watch a lot of the time because we just don’t have the same level of production, and production makes a huge difference. Sport is entertainment.”

Deignan, who was born five months after the last Women’s Tour de France was held in 1988, says she’s been inspired by Billie Jean King‘s message of not settling for bread crumbs.

‘It’s taken my full lifetime for us to secure this race again… ” she says. “We have to keep fighting because, as soon as we rest and accept these small steps, that’s when progress pauses again.

“The fight for equality is far from over.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC