Where Is The Women’s Tour de France?
Vive Le Tour
My husband got me into watching the Tour de France. He’s followed professional cycle racing for years and is a veritable mine of random information on Tour history. Up until recently, the Tour de France was the only race I really watched. Not least because when I worked as a teacher, the Tour coincided beautifully with the start of the summer holidays in Scotland.
Watching the Tour de France was where I learned who was who in the pro-peloton. I learned the names of the riders and the names of the teams (and therefore the names of the sponsors).
My interest in the Tour de France also stems in part from my love of Chasing Legends. I almost never watch films more than once, yet I have watched Chasing Legends hundreds of times, mainly whilst on the turbo trainer. The soundtrack is my race warm up music of choice.
Where Are My Legends?
The Tour de France is a men’s race. For over 100 years there has been a men’s Tour de France.
While I enjoy watching the Tour de France and am in awe of the riders, they aren’t my legends, they aren’t my role models or my daughter’s role models.
So, where are the women? Where is the Women’s Tour de France?
Well, it turns out there is a story to that.
The Women’s Race
There has been a women’s race in France, sometimes linked with the Tour de France and it’s organisers ASO, sometimes not. Sometimes it has been a stage race, sometimes not.
It is not easy to trace the history of the women’s race. Several name changes which sometimes seem to be used interchangeably, and a lack of media coverage have led to confusion and gaps in the history.
This is my effort at making sense of it all.
The First Women’s Tour de France
The very first women’s Tour de France style race was held in 1957. It was actually more of a ‘Tour of Normandy’ with just five stages…all in Normandy, and the organisers were not the same as the men’s Tour de France.
The race was organised by Jean Leulliot, a journalist and race organiser who also ran Paris-Nice at the time.
Forty-one women competed in the race and it was won by Millie Robinson, a British rider. That’s 57 years before Sir Bradley Wiggins became ‘Britain’s first Tour de France winner’.
It’s not easy to find out much about the 1957 race. Writer Isabel Best has been trying to change this with her book, Queens of Pain (definitely one on my reading list). You can hear more about it in her interview on the Cycling News podcast from July 2019.
The Tour de France Feminin (1984 – 1989)
In 1983, one of the Tour de France organisers, Felix Levitan, pushed for a Women’s Tour de France to be run alongside the men’s event. It wasn’t a popular plan, but it came to fruition in 1984.
The 1984 edition of the Tour de France Feminin covered 1,083 km, with 18 stages over 22 days. Although the stages were shortened (at the insistence of the UCI), the women rode a similar course to the men, and finished each stage around two hours before them. The women competed in national teams of six riders. There was considerable doubt amongst the press as to whether women would be capable of finishing such a race. Yet all but one of the riders finished, and the one who pulled out did so after breaking her collarbone.
The 1984 tour was won by American rider, Marianne Martin. She received a trophy for herself and $1000 prize money for her team. By contrast, Laurent Fignon, the winner of the men’s race received over $100,000 in prizes. Fignon himself was notably not a huge fan of the concept of a Women’s Tour de France:
“I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else,”
Marianne Martin is an incredible lady. The sheer joy she found in bike racing is apparent in everything I have read and watched about her. Racing left her in debt but she doesn’t seem to resent that at all. She gave up bike racing the year after winning the Tour de France Feminin and built a career as a professional photographer. She is absolutely one of the greats and deserves to be a household name.
In 1985, the Tour de France Feminin was another epic event despite the UCI dictating limits and insisting on a maximum of 12 stages. In responmse, Levitan organised two races, with a rest day in between the two and a proviso that riders had to sign up to both of the races. This effectively gave a 17 stage race. It was won by an Italian, Maria Canins, also known as ‘La Mamma Volante’ (the Flying Mother).
The third edition of the race, in 1986, was shortened to two weeks. It was also won by Maria Canins.
1987 brought a French victory from Jeannie Longo. The year also saw Levitan sacked by the Tour organisation, something which no doubt contributed to the gradual dwindling of the race. Jeannie Longo was to again win in 1988 and in the final edition of the Tour de France Feminin in 1989.
A lack of media attention always limited the Tour de France Feminin. Without media attention, there was little or no sponsorship. Without sponsorship there was no money in the race, and without money there was limited interest in putting on the race.
Tour Cycliste Feminin / La Grande Boucle Feminin International (1992 – 2009)
There is some confusion over the race name ‘La Grande Boucle’ (‘the Big Loop’) and some articles seem to use the name for all versions of a women’s stage race in France. The name is also sometimes used as an informal name for the men’s Tour de France which adds to the confusion.
Once the Tour de France organisers – ASO – bowed out of the Tour de France Feminin, the race was re-formed with no direct ties to the Tour de France, and named the Tour Cycliste Feminin. In 1998 the name was changed to La Grande Boucle Feminin International after ASO objected on trademark grounds.
The race was held in August and it took on the role of a women’s Tour de France, without the name or the prestige. It frequently featured long, difficult stages, including some of France’s iconic climbs. The 1995 edition ended with a mountain top finish on the Alpe d’Huez.
From the start, the race suffered from a lack of funds. With little or no media coverage, it did not attract the following of the men’s Tour de France. This meant that few towns were willing to bid for stage starts and finishes, so transfers between stages could be very long.
The race sponsors withdrew in 2003 amid controversy over unpaid prize money, and there was no race of any name in 2004. It returned in 2005 on a much smaller scale and by 2009, the final edition comprised just four stages.
La Route de France Feminin (2006 – 2016)
In 2006, La Route de France Feminin was established. It was on a smaller scale and was not given the same status by the UCI, being classified as a 2.2 race – the lowest rank for a stage race. It ran each year apart from 2011.
In 2017 the organisers made a bid for the race to join the UCI women’s World Tour, but this failed. The planned race also overlapped with the European Championships, and untimately was cancelled.
In 2018, a planned six-stage edition was also cancelled when a host community pulled out of the event.
For an idea of the media attention given to this race, try googling it. I found a Wikipedia page for and the Cycling News articles linked above. That was it.
La Course by le Tour de France (2014 – ?)
In 2013, a campaign called Le Tour Entier (‘The Whole Tour’) was organised by Emma Pooley, Kathryn Bertine, Marianne Vos and Chrissie Wellington. They launched a petition to ASO calling for a women’s Tour de France race. The petition gained 96,825 signatures.
The outcome was La Course by le Tour de France.
‘La Course’ is run during the men’s Tour de France. In 2014, 2015 and 2016 this took the form of a one-day race, effectively a circuit race on the Champs Elysees.
In 2017, the format changed to a two-day race. This comprised a mountain stage which finished on the Col d’Izoard, followed by a time trial. Bizarrely, only the top 20 finishers on day one were allowed to compete in the time trial, leading to a bunch of climbers competing in a time trial. Retired German cyclist, Judith Arndt described the format as “pathetic and humiliating”.
In 2018 La Course was a single day mountain stage.
In 2019 La Course returned to the circuit race format, using a version of the men’s stage 13 time trial course. The women competing in la Course got one stage over 120 km, with a total prize pot of £19,000. The men competing in the Tour de France got 21 stages over 3460 km, with a total prize pot of around £2 million.
While the Le Tour Entier group accepted in 2013 that it would take time to build up a women’s race, and that a shorter version might be needed in the interim, they suggested a race of 3-10 stages in 2014.
In 2020, the race is one day.
The Virtual Tour de France (2020)
So far, 2020 has been something of a disaster for bike racing. Very few aspects of life have been unaffected by the situation with Covid-19. However, there has been a very big leap forward for the Women’s Tour de France.
Over the three weekends which should have been the men’s Tour de France (4th/5th, 11th/12th and 18th/19th July) a virtual Tour de France is running on Zwift. This involves a women’s race and a men’s race with each race run over the same course, the same distance, and with the same media coverage. This is huge news and I would encourage everyone to watch the coverage on YouTube and read any articles you can find about it. This has been an immense opportunity to showcase women’s racing.
A Hidden History?
‘…though you will search in vain for a mention of the [women’s] race or its champions in any of the usual histories of the Tour – there is no mention of it on the official website.’
Isabel Best. Telegraph article, 2019
To me, this failure to mention the women’s Tour de France on the ASO website speaks volumes.
Does Anyone Really Want a Women’s Tour de France?
Yes. That’s the simple answer.
Agreed, not every pro woman racer wants to ride a Women’s Tour de France. But then not every 100m runner wants to compete in a marathon.
Again and again, professional women road racers have asked for a women’s Tour de France. Again and again they have been told that a race on such a scale is not possible. Previously they were told that women were not physically capable of a race on such a scale.
It’s not just the riders. Women’s cycling has grown and continues to grow. The viewing figures for the Women’s Tour which began in 2014 demonstrate that there is an audience for women’s racing.
Every year since 2015, a French group of women, Donnons des Elles au Velo (Give the Girls a Bike) have ridden the entire route of the men’s Tour de France, one day ahead of the men. In 2019 they were joined by an international group of women the InternationElles. Both of these groups aim to highlight gender inequality in cycling, and to campaign for women’s tours to be run alongside the men’s. I would highly recommend watching ‘Taking On The Tour’. It is inspiring.
There are signs of progress. In May it was reported that a Women’s Tour de France is ‘possible’ by 2022. It will be interesting to see how that translates into reality.
Why Does It Matter?
Everyone has heard of the Tour de France. Even non-cyclists have heard of the Tour de France.
I’m willing to bet that most folk can also name some of the ‘big names’ of the Tour…even if that is Lance Armstrong.
For young cyclists, the Tour is where you find your idols, your role models – that is the whole premise of Chasing Legends. But what about young female cyclists? Where are their legends? How can we expect more women and girls to get into the sport and stay in the sport if the women’s sport is not visible?
That is why it matters.
Because the Tour de France is so huge. Because it is so important. Because it showcases the sport of road cycling, even to those who wouldn’t normally be interested. Because it creates legends.
Women’s road racing deserves to be huge. Because women’s road racing is so important. Because women’s road racing needs an arena to showcase how amazing it is. Because there are legends in the women’s pro-peloton and we should all know their names.
‘Woman is the equal of man. She is ready to contend with the hardest challenges in sport…With the Tour, we bring her an audience.’
Felix Levitan. Organiser of the 1984 Woman’s Tour de France.