• Australian cyclist Chloe Hosking won last year's La Course competition. (Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images))Source: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)
Women want to do more at the Tour de France than just kiss the winners: we want to race competitively for the duration of the main event. Rachel de Bear explains why the Tour organisers should give women more cycling spotlight.
Rachel De Bear

14 Jul 2017 - 1:34 PM  UPDATED 14 Jul 2017 - 2:11 PM

At the start of this year's Tour de France, one of the world's biggest annual sporting events, a participant joked in a press interview about ‘bedding’ podium hostesses – women employed by Tour de France organisers, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), to kiss the winners, hand out yellow jerseys and point VIPs in the right direction.

You'd be forgiven for thinking this out-dated phenomenon is the only role women play at the Tour de France, even if many of us females rent a late-night space on the couch in July to watch the event or…wait for it…ride bikes ourselves!

But as lycra-clad men race around France this month for the 104th time, the involvement of women in the Tour - in a racing capacity - is slowly but surely starting to change.

A women’s race at the Tour de France

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 four influential women, two with world champion and Olympic medal status, met with 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, one of the four original La Course co- founders tells SBS. “But they do need the equal opportunity the men’s races create, for example, in broadcasting and media.” 

And so, five years ago, the four co-founders decided to campaign for a three-week Tour race, same as the men. “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.

“It’s not that women’s cycling ‘needs’ the [equivalent of] the men’s races...But they do need the equal opportunity the men’s races create, for example, in broadcasting and media.” 

So it was that La Course was born. The only thing was that it would run for one day, not three weeks.

But, says Bertine, the women took what they could get marking it as an achievement and “one step forward”.

On the final day of the men’s 2014 Tour de France, over 100 women raced 89 kilometres around the streets of Paris including the iconic Champs-Elysées. It was declared a success.  

Olympian Gracie Elvin gives us a crash course in road cycling. Excuse the pun.
Two-time national road champion Gracie Elvin is a natural ambassador for cycling. Here she sheds some light on what spectators can expect as they tune in for the women’s Olympic road race.

There’s still some work to do

Despite the growth in popularity and global reach of La Course, and women’s cycling in general, the ASO has not expanded the length of the event as the co-founders originally intended.

This year, the fourth edition of La Course will be raced on the same day and finish as the 18th stage of the men’s race: 20 July. They’ll race 67 kilometres and finish atop iconic mountain, the Col d’Izoard.

This year, ASO did add an extra day of racing, but it’s excluded to just a handful of women, the top 20 finishers on the mountain stage. But Bertine doesn’t believe the extra day at this year’s event equals growth or expansion of the event. “It’s shapeshifting. We must never confuse shapeshifting with progress.”

Despite the growth in popularity and global reach of La Course, and women’s cycling in general, the ASO has not expanded the length of the event as the co-founders originally intended.

This mountain stage at next week’s La Course will suit the abilities of Australian pro cyclist Carlee Taylor, but she isn’t too fussed about the second day of racing.

“I feel they just added another day due to the complaints they were getting when they made La Course another one-day event after saying they were going to expand it into a Tour,” Taylor tells SBS. 

Equality is good for business

The ASO cites money and the bottom line when asked about expanding La Course.

“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 recently. “The problem is it is very hard to find money for women’s cycling.”

But Bertine believes equality is good for business.

“We can point to any of the men’s cycling events that include women (example, the Tour of Flanders) and those race directors will be the first ones to tell you that including a women’s field increased their return of investment,” Bertine says. “It’s a no-brainer.

“If ASO’s premier objective is to promote the Tour de France and grow it to its best capability, it makes no sense they’re not including women: it’s 2017, not last century.”

“The problem is it is very hard to find money for women’s cycling.”

The gender equality campaigner says she still wants a three-week Tour and believes it is possible to achieve by 2027, after a staggered phase of event development and expansion. Taylor says she would settle for 10 days.

But it can’t be done without the ASO. It’s copyrighted any construction of the use of Tour de France, which has seen every re-birthed version of the late 1980s women’s race be run without the proper Tour branding, including the iconic yellow jersey. It’s also important to note that the official title of La Course is not called the women’s Tour de France but instead ‘La Course by the Tour de France’.

Taylor and Bertine both agree; women deserve more. And they’re going out and grabbing it.

To start with, two Australian women who are team press officers at the Tour de France, including Phoebe Haymes, the press officer for Richie Porte’s team, BMC Racing.

As women’s cycling goes  from strength to strength with time, it’s expected that more and more women will fill traditionally male roles at the Tour de France itself, occupying jobs that are far beyond that of podium accessory: a progression in gender equality, helped along by some of the passionate females who refuse to give up. 

To find out more about La Course, visit the website.

You can watch Tour de France every stage, every night LIVE and exclusive on SBS. Stage times vary so check your local guides for start times. You can also catch up with daily stage replays and highlights on SBS and SBS VICELAND in HD. Replays are on at 1pm daily on SBS and 3pm daily on SBS VICELAND. To find out more on how to watch Tour de France on SBS and SBS On Demand, click here.

Watch Tour de France stage four replay below on SBS On Demand. 

Tour de France champion comes out as a transgender woman
Philippa York, who won the 'King of the Mountains' competition in the 1984 Tour De France in (finishing fourth overall), has now publicly come out as a transgender woman at the age of 58.
Is being frank about money the last female taboo?
Instead of telling women to ask for more money, it’s time to change the culture that constructs a shameful taboo around our finances and teaches us to endlessly question the value of our work, writes Neha Kale.
Female authors are speaking out about the everyday sexism they experience
Author Heather Rose used her Stella Prize win to highlight challenges faced by successful women, as the hashtag #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear takes off on social media.