The Tour de France is truly the flagship of the sport of cycling. It’s the race everybody’s heard of, cycling fan or not.
That’s why cyclists Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley, Kathryn Bertine and four-time Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington, met with Tour organisers, the ASO in October 2013 to create La Course, a women’s race at the Tour de France.
“It’s not that women’s cycling ‘needs’ the [equivalent of] the men’s races,” Katryn Bertine told me back in June. “But they do need the equal opportunity the men’s races create, for example, in broadcasting and media.”
“We went in on the platform of full equality,” the former US pro cyclist emphasised. “All of us were doing 10-day races like at the women’s Tour of Italy. But back in the 1980s, the Tour de France did host a three-week women’s race so they knew a women’s race in the modern day was viable."
I spoke to Bertine about the then upcoming 2017 La Course that would feature a mountain stage, and a time trial pursuit style stage in Marseilles. Back then, Bertine called it shapeshifting - i.e. it wasn't two stages, but a mountain stage 'plus'. She also gave me a quote I almost instantly wanted to put on t-shirts.
"Shapeshifting is not progress."
In what will be its fifth edition, La Course is back to a one-day race, held on 17 July a few hours before the men's stage 10. It's a reworked version of the men's stage that day: a 118 kilometre course with the same finish - featuring Col de Romme and the Col de la Colombiere passes before the downhill run to Grand-Bornand.
Bertine this week told Ella Cycling Tips she believed this change meant La Course was regressing, not building on momentum.
“I’m extremely disappointed they’re not announcing a multi-day stage race after all the negative press they received in 2017... I’m also disappointed in the UCI. I understand that this is ASO’s race but the UCI could be far more useful to the women’s movement by insisting that women have more equal representation at stage races held only for men.”
I'm not really interested here in criticising the ASO or its intentions or motivations. I don't know them. Nor am I indifferent to the ASO's desire to watch the bottom line.
“It’s difficult to tell the boss we will lose money with an event,” Jean-Marc Marino, ASO’s La Course director told cycling magazine Rouleur in June. “The problem is it is very hard to find money for women’s cycling.”
I get that. But I also believe if they added more than one day and therefore more opportunities for investment, then maybe investors would come. And there was a day back when, the men's version of the race wasn't exactly a cash cow. It's taken time. My heart and head asks, if they risked it for the men, why not the women?
Bertine can also point to directors of races that have added a women's race and said it reaped rewards. Logistics aren't really a problem either as, like Bertine told me, most women would sleep in a field if it meant they could ride the Tour.
But these aren't really the arguments I want to push. For me it's as simple as this: (bear with me).
I was stunned by the crowds that lined the streets in Marseilles and cheered on the women riders as they competed in the time trial pursuit style event. In a lot of places out on the route, these were crowds you're more used to seeing on mountain finishes, not for a race format never before tested.
It was a captive audience. They weren’t there just to cheer on the men. They were there because it was the Tour de France.
This number of fans would unlikely line the street for a race that wasn't the Tour, for men or women.
It's a unique event that captures a nation's imagination. It's like a three-week mobile version of the Palace of Versailles - it's everything that's beautiful about France. Its vistas, its food, its culture, its thinking. Its people are damn proud of this race and their towns and they want to line the streets and show everyone.
And caught up in all that somehow is bike racing; what dreams are realised and shattered each day.
And it captures the world's whimsy, attracting numbers both out on the road and in lounge rooms unequalled for the rest of the season.
Why wouldn't women want to be a part of that? Why can't they be?