La Course gives much-needed exposure and more for women’s cycling
The first riders who bump onto Champs-Elysées cobblestones on July 27th at the Tour de France will be women. They’ll be racing in La Course by Le Tour de France, a new one-day women’s event run by Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO).
Like the men’s field scheduled to arrive later that day, the women will represent some of the fittest athletes on the planet, athletes who as kids dreamed of speeding past roaring crowds along the most famous boulevard in professional cycling. This year that dream will become reality for these women while the world watches on the sponsor-valued medium of television.
For proponents of women’s cycling the emergence of La Course is nothing short of colossal. Factoring into the grand tour’s extensive media platform addresses what many call the biggest priority in women’s cycling today: the need for visibility.
“In my opinion there’s a lot of great races for women already on the calendar,” says Kristy Scrymgeour, owner of the Specialized-lululemon team. “But the problem is, in women’s cycling, much of that racing doesn’t get seen…”
That invisibility shuts out potential fans and sponsors, reduces value for sponsors and ultimately inhibits growth and professional careers.
La Course is a step toward changing that. The ASO’s announcement about the event mentions live broadcast on France Télévisions and Eurosport International. Viewed by audiences in 190 countries, the Tour arguably presents the biggest opportunity to get eyes on women’s cycling. Even people who don’t closely follow cycling watch the Tour.
Team TWENTY16’s Alison Tetrick says the new competition also shows that women’s cycling is gaining traction. Tetrick is a member of USA Cycling's Professional Committee, which is among the many sources contributing to the sport’s momentum. Last year, she was one of the women who, instead of competing in a separate event from the men, joined the USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial Championships for the first time in the event's 28-year history.
The inclusion of pro women in the professional national championship gave American women increased recognition, something La Course will supply on an international scale.
Tetrick views the cycling community as a unit, like a family. “So I would like to see my races have just as much importance as the men’s, because to me we’re all part of that cycling family. When I get to race alongside my male counterparts, the professional men, then I feel valued as a rider.” Referring to La Course, she adds, “So I think it’s a huge step in that way, and it means a lot to the cycling community as a whole that there is opportunity for all, male or female.”
Along with visibility and recognition, the new French competition should spin off additional benefits.
Fuel for the journey
Karen Bliss raced in the 1980s and 90s, works as a marketing executive in the cycling industry, and is a member of the new UCI Women’s Commission. She’s observed women’s cycling advocates laboring for decades behind the scenes to bring more attention to the sport.
For her, La Course represents a rallying point, a showcase for all of their work.
She lists the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition (OIWC) and Executive Women in Cycling, both of which she participates in, as well as the recent League of American Bicyclists’ Women Bike initiative as examples of the many advocates.
Racers and others have unleashed a perfect storm of advocacy in the past six months alone. Here’s a partial list. The Women’s Cycling Association launched last August. Kathryn Bertine released the documentary “Half the Road”, a look at the passion and struggles of female professional cyclists. An international group of riders under the organization Le Tour Entier published an online petition calling for a women’s Tour de France; it received almost 100,000 signatures. Also in the fall, the UCI revoked the women’s team age limit of 28, appointed its first female vice president in Tracey Gaudry, and formed its new Women’s Commission. And the UCI plans to televise the women’s Road World Cup series this year. Tack on the second day of women’s racing the 2014 Amgen Tour of California just added.
Bliss, who is also a member of USA Cycling’s Professional Road Committee, as well as the organization's women's focus group, describes the new Tour race as “almost a watershed moment to really promote women’s cycling.
“I think the women’s Tour race is such a crucial moment, and is huge,” Bliss says. “There are so many groups, it really is a great moment to bring all these people together who share the same interest; we haven’t really had that before.”
The French race is a validation of their work. Refreshment to continue the effort.
Scrymgeour points out that people who work tirelessly for a cause, often in their spare time, can feel like they’re making no progress. An opportunity like that presented by La Course provides a super-charged boost. “You get that extra enthusiasm to get behind the things you are already doing to make them bigger and better,” she says.
That kind of inspiration can extend to the entire cycling community as well as other women’s sports where people also work tirelessly for something they believe in.
Tetrick feels that increased media exposure for women’s cycling like that expected from La Course creates opportunities for women in sport generally because it should highlight athlete role models, “offering empowerment for women that they can go out and compete in a variety of sports and feel valued for who they are,” she says.
“I think it helps create a story for women’s cycling. And by creating a story you create heroes and role models and personalities for people to follow. And I think that’s important to develop the sport.” When fans know an athlete’s story, Tetrick believes attachment to the sport builds. And that leads fans to support the sponsors.
Can one special day of racing really accomplish all of this? It’s pretty optimistic for a sport that’s born its share of disappointments in the form of canceled races and more. A 1980s women’s Tour de France didn’t last.
But there are reasons for optimism. La Course – which Scrymgeour feels the ASO intends to continue going forward – can unveil further possibilities. Since the ASO’s announcement, Vuelta a España leadership has proposed a women’s race for 2015.
Scrymgeour thinks women’s cycling has evolved into a stronger era, in part due to more women working in the industry and the expansion of cycling in countries like the U.S., Australia, and U.K. She’s a twenty-year veteran of cycling, as a racer, marketing professional, and now team owner.
“I’ve seen just a massive change in the last couple of years, a big push for women’s cycling to really grow. And I haven’t really seen that before. I think before it was like growing really slowly, but now there’s just a big push.” And the pressure needs to continue on all levels, she states, from “not just one group of people who can change women’s cycling, just everybody who’s doing their bit all around the world.”
Many opportunities for progress still exist. For some that means a Tour stage race instead of a single day. Or it means equality with male professional cyclists. Or both.
The way Scrymgeour sees it, equality can denote something other than replicating men’s racing.
“I think that equality is basically having the opportunity to grow your sport in the way that you want to grow it,” she says. “There are women who are doing great things to grow women’s cycling, and I think that we’ll find equality when we are happy with what we’ve got…the kind of sport that we want women’s cycling to be.”
Right now the thought of winning on the Champs-Elysées is making many women pro cyclists buzz with happiness. That includes Evelyn Stevens, a rider on Specialized-lululemon. “I have always watched the Tour and the final stage, the TdF transcends cycling and becomes a global inspirational event,” she wrote by email.
“As a cyclist, it is something you dream about (even as a woman) and to finally have the chance to participate in one stage and to be a small part of it, is so exciting, the thought of it gives me goose bumps.”by Mary Topping
This Article Updated March 6, 2014 @ 04:25 PM For more information contact: