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Tour de France Femmes: A women’s Tour returns

Words: John Wilcockson; Images: Jordan Clark Haggard

Women have been racing bikes ever since the sport has existed, but their fight to be regarded in the same way that fans extend to the men has always fallen short. Until now! Perhaps the key moment in the first Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift came with the words of stage 3 winner Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig right after she’d outkicked race leader Marianne Vos on the steep uphill finish in Épernay. Highly emotional because her FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope team had repeated setbacks the day before, Ludwig brushed back tears as she responded to a question about her team’s planned tactics for the stage. “If I had the legs I could try and go for the win,” she said, “and to actually do it and be a Tour de France stage winner…oh my god, it just doesn’t get better.”

“…and to actually do it and be a Tour de France stage winner…oh my god, it just doesn’t get better.” – Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig

Her thrilling realization that she was now “a Tour de France stage winner” confirmed everything that had been predicted about the promotion of a full-scale Tour de France for women. That’s “full scale” in terms of everything that makes the men’s Tour by far the biggest annual event in cycling: the world’s best teams, challenging courses, multiple competitions within the race, hours’ long television coverage via motorcycle- and helicopter-mounted cameras, a raucous publicity caravan, thousands and thousands of roadside fans and a worldwide TV audience numbered in the multimillions.

Helicopters and motos broadcasted the women’s race to the same level of the men’s.

Such attention for a women’s stage race has never previously happened in the 150-odd years that road racing has existed. The first long-distance road race was held on November 7, 1869, for riders on vélocipèdes—the first two-wheelers powered by pedals attached to cranks fitted to the front-wheel axle. The race started at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and covered 123 kilometers northwest to the center of Rouen. Among the 199 entries were six women, none of whom revealed their full names; one was from England, who said she was “Miss America.”

Only half of the entries showed up for the 7 a.m. start—greeted by thousands of spectators—and only one third of those finished the full distance. The winner was a 20-year-old English doctor, James Moore, while his blonde compatriot finished 27th to take the top female award. She rode the whole course with her husband, J.B. Turner, spending part of the night in the last town before riding to the finish at dawn.

Half a century would pass before another pioneering woman, Italian Alfonsina Strada, “invaded” what had become the all-male sport of road racing. Passionate about cycling since she grew up, she received a new road bike as a wedding gift from her husband, Luigi Strada, in 1915. She began competing in men’s road races, including the 204-kilometer Tour of Lombardy. When she was 33, the 5-foot-2 Strada was permitted to start the three-week, 12-stage Giro d’Italia. She survived the first two weeks, then on the rain-filled eighth stage of 296 kilometers, her handlebars snapped (and were repaired with a broken broomstick). She finished outside the time limit but race director Emilio Colombo was so impressed by Strada’s resilience that he paid her expenses for the remaining four stages so she could complete (unofficially) the 3,613 kilometers.

Fans came out in droves to watch the Tour de France Femmes.

Strada’s story was forgotten by the time French journalist/race organizer Jean Leulliot promoted a four-day stage race for women in the fall of 1955. It was titled Le Tour Féminin, had 41 starters and was dominated by a six-strong British team and its leader Millie Robinson. The team was organized by the Women’s Cycle Racing Association that was founded that year by English race official Eileen Gray—whose campaigning skills would result in women’s cycling being introduced to the UCI world championships in 1958. But that 1955 Tour Féminin wasn’t repeated; race founder Leulliot infamously said: “I will never organize this race again because women are different from men. They talk too much in the peloton…and they don’t rest after the race but go shopping.”

Two more decades passed before women’s stage racing became a true part of the international calendar. The United States led the way with the Coors Classic, which started as the Red Zinger Classic in 1975 and grew into a two-week race across Colorado and three other states, with women riding abbreviated versions of the men’s stages. In Europe, a similar concept was adopted in 1984 by Tour de France organizer Félix Lévitan—after some cajoling from his wife.

An iconic start to a race that’s sure to become an icon for years to come.

The inaugural Tour Féminin featured 18 stages (five fewer than the men), with most of the stages covering the final two hours of the men’s route. U.S. national team rider Marianne Martin took the yellow jersey in the Alps, where she also won the stage to La Plagne (where Laurent Fignon cemented his men’s yellow jersey two hours later). Overall, Martin beat Dutch team leader Heleen Hage by three minutes to win that first official women’s Tour de France.

The event was held in the same manner for five more years, with icons Maria Canins and Jeannie Longo repeating their earlier victories at the Coors Classic. The race was reduced to 11 stages before Lévitan decided it was no longer logistically feasible; it was renamed the Tour of the European Union and moved to September for four years and then closed. Now, after another 30-year gap, a true Tour de France Femmes has returned.

After a 30-year absence, a women’s Tour de France has returned.