Cycling hasn't always done well with gender equality and it's a fact that persists today. While men's races have histories dating back over a hundred years, many of the prestigious women's races began under 10 years ago, sprouting up as companion events to established men's races.
That has led to a sort of sharing of the history of each race's unique past between the men and women's professional cycling fields, and it has led to much more exposure for women's cycling and its riders. Perhaps the most significant strides have been made in recent days, however, with the announcement of a women's Tour de France in 2022.
The Tour de France Femmes will be joined by the 'Battle of the North' and the established Giro Rosa as longer, bigger races than the women's scene has seen before, and will see a proper calendar of high-profile opportunities for the women's peloton to tackle and create their own identity and history.
One of the riders set to benefit from the current momentum within women's cycling is Australia's young star Sarah Gigante. She's wowed cycling fans in Australia for years now, was selected to Australia's squad for the Olympic Games and the 20-year-old is just getting her first proper chance at competing in Europe, where all the best riders congregate for the biggest races.
Gigante spoke to SBS Voices about what effect the elevation of races like the Tour de France Femmes is going to have on the sport's status.
“I think it’s super important," said Gigante. "Everyone across the world knows the Tour de France, it’s like the Olympics in that way. Even if you’re not a cyclist you know what the Tour de France is. When I was at school, people would ask if I wanted to ride the Tour de France and I would have to say ‘no, the Tour de France is only for men, I’m not allowed to do the Tour de France’. Now I can say yes.
"It warms my heart to think of kids around the world, little girls and little boys watching women race. I did miss that when I was growing up, I didn’t follow the Tour as much as I would Anna Meares or Annette Edmondson racing at the Olympics.
“Cycling’s a niche sport already and to show only half of it doesn’t make sense.”
SBS will broadcast La Course by Le Tour de France, this year a one-day race that will be run ahead of Stage 1 of the Tour de France on Saturday. While Gigante won't be competing this year as she recovers from a nasty crash sustained during her last race, Australian fans can expect to see the Melbourne product as a mainstay of the racing action in the future.
"La Course, it’s a one day this year, but next year we’ll have the women’s equivalent of the Tour de France. There will also be the Tour of the North in Scandanavia and the Giro (Rosa). Plenty of cool one-dayers as well," enthused Gigante.
Gigante isn't just your run-of-the-mill rider, she won the Australian national championships road race at just 18 and has backed that up in subsequent years with consecutive victory in the nationals time trial. She brings an impressive combination of boundless enthusiasm, talent, and an infectious personality to the sport.
Already a favourite of the peloton and the Australian cycling public, Gigante is keen to bring her love of the sport to a new generation, whether that be on television from afar or up close and personal after races.
“I’ve definitely felt what it’s like to be inspired and anything I can do to pass that on to little kids I will do," said Gigante. "Whether it’s cycling or not, what it means to follow your passion and chase that goal. When I do have some fans at the end of races, especially when they’re little kids, that’s one of the best parts.
"Cycling’s not all about winning, but when you do win sometimes you get that little entourage at the end where you get to talk to the kids and ask them about their cycling. Their responses are really nice, how they’re excited about their club championships or how they’re nervous about stepping up into Under 13s."
The young rider is still having these moments in reverse, despite her ability to race with the best, it's still a case of suppressing her nerves when one of the stars of the women's peloton interacts with her at a race.
"One just recently was when Marianne Vos (multiple world champion across a number of cycling disciplines) messaged me after my crash at Fleche Wallonne. I was on some strong painkillers at the time and when I read my reply afterwards I was so over the top fangirling. ‘Thanks so much, it was worth crashing just to get a message from you.’ That was literally what I replied," Gigante said, almost hiding her face in her hands.
While La Course and the Giro Rosa won't be on the agenda for the Victorian youngster, the Olympics will be the next chance for fans keen to follow her progress to watch her race.
"I wanted it, but I didn’t dare to allow myself to dream of it," said Gigante. The goal’s been to keep trying hard and having fun and if that means I can go to an Olympics that’s great. I for sure didn’t expect it to be Tokyo. One year, two years ago, if you said I was going to Tokyo I would have looked at you like you have six heads.
"I can’t speak for others but for me, the Olympics is the race that I’ve always wanted to go and win. I’ve always dreamed about it. There are so many prestigious races to compete in these days, but maybe it was because I didn’t grow up with them.”
With the future looking brighter for women's cycling, maybe young aspiring female cyclists will grow up with ambitions of not just Olympic medals but of emulating the feats of Sarah Gigante in the women's Tour de France.
Every moment of the 2021 Tour de France will be live on SBS, with the ŠKODA Tour Tracker app, SBS On Demand and the SBS Cycling Central website the place to be to catch all the pulsating action from France from June 26 to July 18.