Essay: On the Women's Tour
(2016) Until recently it had been deemed unhealthy for women to huck themselves off a ski jump. It was even defended by IOC President Jacques Rogge by stating their hips couldn’t handle landing from such a height. Or something like that. An even more subtle approach was made by Russian coach Alexander Arefyev who stated ski jumping would distract women from housework. So naturally with the Tour de France nearly one week henceforth, it’s no surprise the Women’s Tour de France conversation is getting louder.
After ninety years of trying, women gained Olympic status in ski jumping in 2014. On the first day of competing, not one pelvis snapped. I’ve stood at the top of the ski jump proper as well as the top of the landing hill. What possesses someone to hurl themselves off such a superstructure is beyond me, be it male or female. I will watch it, however, to be entertained.
And entertained I was last July when the Tour organizers gave the women the right to race on the Champs Elysees. Though sparsely published, the women rolled out onto the cobbled main thoroughfare of Paris, undaunted by the heavy precipitation and slipperiness of the cobbles to put on a show. There were pileups because of the torrential downpour that cleared out prior to the men’s race. There was a full gas approach; women know they have something to prove, so they cannot lollygag until the final four laps of the Champs Elysees. They also had no time to emulate the near Team Sky crash led by Richie Porte during a photo-op approach to the Champs Elysees. Team Sky's arms around each other whilst pedaling is hardly the definition of full gas.
In truth women have had several Tours of France. Starting in 1984 and terminating in 2009– with three years of hiatus – women raced around France. Though struggling to find sponsorship and fighting stereotypes, the race held out for an impressive twenty-three years. The struggle also reared itself in the ever-shrinking stage count. This generation's women persistently want to also create entertainment through sport.
I’ve witnessed firsthand the power of compensation. In the 2009 edition of the Philadelphia bike race, the men were accused of tantruming because the race was not televised. They displayed their displeasure by having one of the slowest opening kilometers in the race’s history.* This was also the year Daniel Holloway developed a nine-minute solo lead before officials nuetralized the men's race. It was so slow that the women partaking in the Liberty Classic, who had started five miles back, determined to show their whatfor, forced organizers to neutralize the field to allow the women’s race to pass the men's. This swelled Holloway's lead to twelve minutes. Holloway would eventually DNF. So it goes.
Men have the luxury of choosing not to ride hard. Women take advantage of every opportunity to prove their moxie. Women are trying to accomplish a century's worth of progress in decades. I’m sure this harkens back to the days when men professional cyclists had to return to their jobs on Monday to romanticize winning one while working in the mines.
UCI president Brian Cookson recently echoed Jacques Rogge’s comment by stating women aren’t physically capable of handling multi-stage races. If he truly believes that, he should put on an event to prove his point. Though be prepared for an alternate outcome. The capability to handle a multi-stage race is an odd one considering not one single Tour de France has had 100% of its competitors finish. Doesn't that suggest men aren't physically capable either if they drop out at any given time?
And finally there’s the idea that a women’s Tour would be a logistical nightmare. While it is apparent a lot goes on behind the scenes of the Tour de France, which I’m sure the casual observed merely sees the finished product (probably a scant 2% of what’s actually going on), I find it hard to believe the in-place infrastructure can’t be utilized each day. That is, organize the race so that the men and women head towards each other. The men depart from the women’s finish; the women depart from the men’s finish. With maths it can be calculated when the two races would possibly cross and send each race in alternate directions for an allotted time. Time trials are a moot point. The roads are typically closed all day anyhow; why not use them twice instead of once?
The Tour de France is more than a bike race. It’s a big tourism campaign as well. Those sweeping helicopter shots aren’t just for viewers to ogle over. They’re meant for people to consider touring France by bike or otherwise. They’re also meant for the viewer sitting at home to consider opening the wallet and attending the Tour the following year. Why wouldn’t the organizers jump at the chance to add more tourism footage?
If I’m more likely to see two cycling events by staying in one town, I may just consider visiting a host town. Imagine my itinerary: morning breakfast in a quaint French start town, followed by the men’s rollout, lunch, coffee, then selecting a spot on the fence for the women’s finish. That feels a lot more bulbous than watching a rollout or finish and going home.
Women want to compete, let them race. But for god’s sake, the organizers should stop making it their Achilles’ heel when asked for the female event. And they should also stop with the archaic reasons.
*Other arguments as to the slow start of the 2009 TD Bank Philadelphia bike race include race length and three Pro Tour teams arriving late Friday night, according to quotables made by participants, one of whom being the winner, Andre Greipel of (at the time) Columbia-High Road.