I spotted a Facebook post by Tour of Britain director Mick Bennett asking if there was an appetite for a women’s equivalent in the UK. The exact date escapes me, but I’d say it was late 2013. The response was, of course, overwhelmingly in favour, which is easily done on Facebook. Actually going out and organising the thing is another matter.
Bennett didn’t mess around. Within months, the Women’s Tour launched to widespread acclaim, a fine five-stage race starring Marianne Vos and the best riders in the world, with daily coverage on terrestrial TV.
Bennett and his Sweetspot organisation deserve massive credit for pushing through and making a pipe dream reality through sheer willpower. And now one of the world’s most prestigious women’s races takes place on British roads. Who’d have thought that five years ago?
The Amgen Tour of California is also making big efforts to bring women’s racing to the masses, with its four-day race running in tandem with the men’s event. It forms part, as does its British equivalent and the long-running Giro Rosa, of the new Women’s WorldTour, introduced by the UCI to give a much-needed boost to the female side of the sport.
The remainder of the series consists of predominantly one-days, the likes of Flanders, Strade Bianche and Gent-Wevelgem – all terrific races any rider would be honoured to take part in.
And what of Le Tour and La Vuelta? The women get to do laps of the Champs-Élysées rather than a lap of France. And in Spain, it’s a similar story: racing the streets of Madrid for one day only, nothing more.
If two relative newcomers to the top table of bike racing like Britain and the US can put on multi-stage races for women, how come two of the longest-standing cycling nations in the world come up so short?
ASO own both of these Grand Tours, so the ball is squarely in their court. It requires the bloody mindedness of someone like Mick Bennett to introduce a multi-stage race for women to sit alongside two of the biggest events in cycling. Whether ASO has the will to do it remains to be seen, but there has never been a better time.
The Tour Feminin in France, although not organised by ASO, finally ground to a halt in 2009 after years of financial struggle, and included Nicole Cooke and Emma Pooley among its illustrious roll call of winners. World champion Lizzie Armitstead and the next generation of talent also deserve to be seen in a properly funded week-long French stage race to show what they can do and give their sponsors some return on their investment.
The organisation of the richest bike race in the world needs to step up and stop avoiding the issue. Whenever the subject is raised, the ASO line refers to problems, rather than solutions. This thinking needs to be turned on its head.
Rouleur has a part to play, too. We need to up our game and show our support for a great and growing sector of the sport shamefully overlooked in recent times. We will do just that in the coming months.
And a women’s Tour de France, rather than a token glorified criterium around the Arc de Triomphe, would be a great place to start.
This article originally appeared in Rouleur issue 55.