Over the past nine months, since ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) announced the course for the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift in July 2022, I’ve received the same question over and over again: “Will you be racing at the first women’s Tour de France?” At first I would simply explain that I retired from professional racing in 2017. But then I realized how many people—reporters and cycling fans alike—were overlooking an important bit of history: Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift isn’t the first Tour de France for women. It’s the fourth.

Seeing an opportunity to combine history and humor, I started answering, “Yes, I’ll be at the first women’s Tour de France, which was in 1955, as soon as my time machine is ready. I’m working on my DeLorean, just waiting on the flux capacitor.” After launching into a brief lesson on women’s inclusion—then banning, then re-inclusion and rebranding—at Le Tour, I usually get some version of this reaction: Wait… Why did the women’s Tour de France races go away, and why did the comeback take so long?

The distilled answer: The reason ASO took so long to bring a stage race back to the Tour de France was apathy, laziness, and sexism. But I believe this year is different. We can absolutely make Tour de France Femmes stick around and, better still, grow.

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In 1955—more than 50 years after the first men’s Tour de France—women made their own Tour de France debut with a five-day stage race. Jean Leulliot, the race director, invited 41 cyclists to participate, with the intent of proving that women couldn’t possibly ride such a distance at such a prestigious race. After he was proved wrong, he is reported to have said, “I will never organize this race again... The women are different from men.” The event was dismissed as a “stunt race,” and the women’s race was discontinued for almost 30 years.

During that three-decade interval, British cyclist Eileen Gray successfully lobbied for the inclusion of women in other major cycling events, and ASO began to pay attention again. The 1984 Tour de France race codirector, Félix Lévitan, created an 18-day race for the women—Tour de France Féminin—which ran on the same days as the men’s event. The women’s stage distances were shortened so both men’s and women’s pelotons could roll through without impeding either event. Indeed, crowds flocked to the roadsides and mountaintops, thrilled to see two pelotons roll by.

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American Marianne Martin won the first edition of the race in 1984
Courtesy Marianne Martin

But the following year, in 1985, UCI—Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body—passed a rule that no women’s race could be longer than 12 days or involve “excessive distances.” Lévitan tried to skirt this rule, but ASO wasn’t impressed. It let him go as race director in 1987, and the subsequent director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, discontinued the women’s race after 1989.

ASO also banned other race directors from creating a separate Tour de France for women, as it would not grant access to the name “Tour de France.” Other race directors tried to fill in the gap in the 1990s with such races as Tour of the EEC Women, Tour Cycliste Féminin, and Grande Boucle Féminin Internationale, but sponsorship was sparse. It wasn’t the Tour de France brand, and the other names just weren’t marketable.

For years I pestered ASO on my own and got no response. It made no sense to me, an aspiring pro cyclist in 2009, that no women were at the pinnacle race in professional cycling. And as a journalist and filmmaker, I began filming the documentary Half the Road in 2012 and interviewed superstar athletes Emma Pooley, Marianne Vos, and Chrissie Wellington. They all affirmed that they wanted to see—and race—a Tour de France for women.

So we banded together and created Le Tour Entier (“the whole tour” needs women too), as a pressure group to target ASO. It was a website, manifesto, and business plan to bring women back to the Tour de France. We created a petition for our cause in 2013 on Change.org that gained nearly 100,000 signatures. The media became our allies, hounding ASO leadership for a response. At first, ASO ignored us. But not forever.

In September 2013, we had a secret meeting with ASO to establish a women’s race. We were under a gag order that prevented us from discussing the work being done; ASO negotiators wanted complete control to promote a narrative that any efforts to include women in the Tour would be due to their hard work. (ASO isn’t exactly into sharing credit with women. To this day, we’re still not acknowledged anywhere on ASO’s sites.)

From October 2013, we worked diligently behind the scenes with ASO, secured “Tour de France” naming rights, created the course, set the team invitation structure, planned the marketing, obtained TV rights, and in 2014 ultimately built La Course by Le Tour de France, marking the third time a women’s race would be held at the Tour de France.

la course by le tour de france
Riders in action during ’La Course by Le Tour de France’ on July 27, 2014 in Paris, France. In this historic first edition of the event, female professional riders will race 90km on Champs Elysees prior to the arrival of the Men’s Tour de France final stage.
Doug Pensinger//Getty Images

The bad news: The race would be shorter than it was in 1955 and 1984–1989. ASO officials were too apprehensive to believe that viewers would watch women’s racing, so they allowed one day only. The good news: The naming rights were back, and the race was in place the very next year after our petition. La Course, held for a single day of racing, ran from 2014 through 2021. And this year it morphed into the eight-day Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

When we created La Course by Le Tour de France, we requested that the race be augmented annually by three to five days until it reached equity with the men’s 21-day race. In 2014, ASO verbally promised that it would add more days to La Course. Then it did nothing. For eight years.

Despite wide viewership in 2014 for the first La Course—it was broadcast in 157 countries and on 25 different networks—and despite the demands from fans for more coverage and requests from riders for more stages, ASO was content to keep the women’s one-day presence as a token gesture. After all the (voluntary) work we did in creating La Course, I approached ASO in 2015 with a more sustainable plan. “We need to grow the number of days. Hire me to seek sponsorship and investors for a full-fledged women’s stage race,” I said.

“We do not have that position,” said ASO’s director of Marketing and Business Development at the time.

“Exactly. So let’s create that position.”

“We’re, uh, not hiring… but if you do find investors, please send them our way.”

While La Course by Le Tour de France remained a single-day event for the next eight years, ASO’s profit margin steadily increased. The Amaury family—the “A” of ASO—takes home €30 million annually, roughly equal to $30 million as of this writing. (Keep those multimillion profits in mind as you hear ASO proclaim that its €250,000 prize purse at Tour de France Femmes will be the biggest ever in women’s racing!)

Which brings us to equality math: The men’s prize purse at the end of 21 days is €2,282,000. Eight days of men’s racing totals €869,333. So the €250,000 payout for the women’s eight-day race? That’s just 29 percent of what men earn at the Tour de France. ASO has the resources to change this percentage, just as we have the resources to keep the pressure on until that happens.

While it would be easy to wallow in this inequity and in the ASO’s indifference, the future of women’s cycling is getting brighter at the Tour de France. Zwift committed to a four-year sponsorship of Tour de France Femmes. Viewership is on the rise. The female pro peloton is at its strongest. If we band together as fans, patrons, and voices for change, the future of women’s cycling at Le Tour is brighter still.

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Marianne Vos of Netherlands and Jumbo Visma Women Team celebrates winning during the 1st Tour de France Femmes 2022, Stage 2 a 136,4km stage from Meaux to Provins
Dario Belingheri//Getty Images

Together, we can take an active role in making Tour de France Femmes stick around for a long, long time. Here’s how we can all make a difference:

  • Turn on your TV or streaming device; views and metrics matter. If your provider offers coverage of the men’s race and not the women’s, let that provider know you want to watch the women and that you’ll cancel your subscription if it doesn’t oblige by 2023.
  • Buy products of the sponsors: Liv Bicycles, Tissot, Shimano, Strava, Skoda, Century 21, and a few more here. Tell them your patronage is because they support Tour de France Femmes.
  • Be a social media warrior. Share, like, and post on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok about why the women’s race is so awesome.
  • Want to express your views on the awesomeness of women at Le Tour and/or the inequity still at play? Do it, but if you want to see real progress, be kind and professional. Write, call, contact ASO.

If we stand united supporting the 2022 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift this July 24–31, I firmly believe we won’t see any ASO cancellations or subsequent reincarnations of women’s races at the Tour de France. Let’s celebrate the progress, but keep pushing for equity. ASO may be slower than molasses, but 50 years from now, I believe women will race equal days to men at the Tour de France. And yes, I will absolutely be on that future start line. My DeLorean is almost ready.

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Kathryn Bertine

Kathryn Bertine is an author, activist and retired pro cyclist. She is the founder of  Homestretch Foundation, a non-profit, charitable organization dedicated to ensuring  equity for women in sport. Her recent book, STAND, was a 2x finalist for Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Facebook & Twitter: @KathrynBertine; Instagram: @kathryn_bertine; Web: www.kathrynbertine.com.