Every year during July, former world time trial champion Emma Pooley hears the same question: Why aren’t you riding the Tour de France? And every year, the British cyclist is forced to give the same answer: Because there is no Tour de France for women.
“You get responses like, ‘What century is [it]? Why isn’t there a women’s race?’” says Pooley. “It’s a funny one, because to anyone who’s in the world of cycling, women just don’t race the Tour de France.”
Pooley wants to change that. Together with World and Olympic champion Marianne Vos, four-time World Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington, and three-time St. Kitts and Nevis national champion Kathryn Bertine, Pooley is petitioning the Amaury Sport Organization, which owns the Tour de France, to create a women’s race. Their goal is a women’s Tour de France that would run at the same time as the men’s race.
“My real dream is to see us doing the same race on the same course,” says Pooley. “I think that’s maybe a lot to happen next year or in the next few years. [But] at the moment, it’s perfectly possible next year to run a three-week race with the men with slightly shorter stages.”
With the petition, Pooley hopes to show the ASO that there is fan support for a women’s race.
“The principal argument is, we should have one, because equality,” said Pooley. “I firmly believe in that, but that’s not the kind of argument [they’re] going to listen to. Because they’ll say, life’s not fair, and there’s lots of things in life that’s not fair, so tough shit.”
Instead, the race organizers need to see that people would actually watch and support a women’s race. “If spectators want to watch it, then sponsors will want it to happen,” said Pooley. The enthusiastic response to the women’s road race at the London Olympics has been particularly encouraging.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that the best race they’ve ever seen was the women’s race at the Olympics,” says Pooley. “A lot of our races are like that, but you don’t get to see it. I’m not a big fan of TV, I don’t own one. I hate doing interviews and being filmed, but the whole point of pro sport these days is that it gets on TV.”
Women’s racing is caught in a vicious cycle. The sport receives limited media coverage, which discourages sponsors from investing in it. Then, teams suffer from lack of funding, and every year, major races drop off the calendar.
In 2010, the women’s calendar included two 10-day stage races. The following year, the Tour de l’Aude was canceled due to lack of funding. The Giro Donne—or women’s Tour of Italy, now known as the Giro Rosa—still takes place, but has been shortened to eight days.
“The race organizers, they’re the real heroes,” said Pooley. “They don’t get paid for it. They do it for the love of it. And they have a real job finding sponsors. They do a brilliant job in tough financial circumstances.”
A women’s Tour de France would be more than just another opportunity for female cyclists to compete—it has the potential to transform the sport, Pooley believes. The Tour is the most media-saturated race on the cycling calendar. Thousands of spectators line the roadsides along the route each day to watch the caravan and the race flash by them, and the Tour receives extensive television coverage around the world.
“If sponsors of women’s teams knew that we were going to have a Tour de France next year, and some of it would be televised… Can you imagine?” said Pooley. “That’s millions of viewers for our race. That’s a huge incentive to sponsors.” Budgets for the top-level women’s teams run in the mid-six figures, while WorldTour men’s teams are closer to the $6.5–13 million range.
In addition to the obvious logistical requirements of running two races in one day, a women’s Tour de France is not without its challenges. A women’s Tour would overlap with the existing calendar slot of the Giro Rosa, and Pooley is sensitive to the need to respect the races that already exist. But she also is not convinced that overlapping the Giro Rosa with the men’s Tour de France is the best way to showcase women’s cycling.
“The UCI is really at fault for that, because they finalize the calendar. And they really screwed up there,” said Pooley. “Ideally, our Giro would be the same time as the guys’ Giro and on the same course. I don’t want to damage the Giro, but I think it could go on at a different time of year.”
Another potential barrier: The UCI rulebook. World cycling’s governing body restricts women’s stage races to eight days in length, and there are also limits on the distance of individual stages. Road stages for women must not exceed 130 kilometers, while time trial stages are limited to 40 kilometers.
The UCI’s Management Committee can grant exemptions to those rules on a case-by-case basis. A powerful race organizer such as the ASO would likely have the leverage to gain the UCI’s support.
“The UCI could force all men’s races to have women’s races, but they’re not interested in it,” says Pooley. “They don’t really have a plan to help women’s cycling improve, and I think that’s largely because they’re not particularly interested in it.”
Between 1984 and 1997, there was a race known as the Tour Cycliste Féminin, which ran 10 to 15 stages. American rider Marianne Martin won the inaugural edition. In 1997, the ASO forced a name change by claiming the race infringed on the Tour de France trademark. In 1998, the race became La Grande Boucle Féminine.
The women’s Grande Boucle suffered organizational and sponsorship difficulties. In 2004, the race was not held. It returned in 2005, but in a much-diminished form, running only five stages to the original race’s 15. Emma Pooley won the final edition of the Grande Boucle in 2009. By then, it lasted only four days.
So far, the petition for a new women’s Tour de France appears to have fallen on fertile ground. In just a few days, it received more than 13,000 signatures.
As for Pooley, she is taking this year off from cycling to finish her Ph.D. in civil engineering, but hoping to return to full-time racing next year. And perhaps, if the stars align, she will get a chance to ride the Tour before her career is done.