When cyclist Geraint Thomas crossed the Tour de France finish line on Sunday, he was met by the cheers of an excited crowd and a 500,000 Euro prize. But Thomas wasn’t the first to complete the 3,351 kilometer-long (approximately 2,080 miles) route last weekend.
A group of 13 amateur female cyclists finished the same 21-stage course on Saturday; however, their accomplishments received none of the same fanfare or media coverage as Thomas’.
But by riding the same course ahead of official race, the women hope to draw attention to the gender inequality that persists in the sport.
The Tour de France is one of the world’s most prestigious bike races, yet 115 years after the race was first held, it remains closed to female athletes.
“We want a women’s stage race with the same media coverage and the same attention as men have,” cyclist Tetiana Kalachova told the Associated Press. “Not necessarily the same roads and not necessarily the same quantity of dates, but with the same appreciation.”
There is currently no equivalent of the Tour de France open to women. The closest, comparable race is La Course, a one-day, women-only race managed by the organizers of the Tour de France.
But as Anna Barrero, one of the 13 women, pointed out, "[it’s] a race of one day, but that's not an equivalent," Barrero said. "It's unfair. We want to show the rest of the world, that women are perfectly capable of doing and finishing the Tour de France. We want to have exactly the same opportunities as men.”
The Tour de France is an extremely challenging three week-long race over mountains and varied terrain, but for the women — known collectively as “Donnons des Elles Au Vélo J-1,” meaning “let the girls ride the day before” in French, according to the Telegraph — the ride was especially difficult.
The course is shut down during the Tour de France to allow cyclists to race safely and unencumbered, but because the women were not part of the official race, they cycled alongside cars and had to stop for traffic lights.
Paralympic gold medalist Dame Sarah Storey, who joined the women for one stage of their race, said the she believes the biggest barrier to establishing a female equivalent of the Tour de France is the cultural attitude around the sport.
“People [think] this is the status quo — that the men are superior, the women aren’t interesting and therefore the women should just shut up,” she told the Telegraph. “There shouldn’t be that attitude of ‘Here you go little ladies, that will do’. We would like to be able to race in the same iconic races and have that platform because 50% of the population deserve to be inspired.”
The “Donnons Des Elles Au Vélos” initiative began three years ago with just three women and has steadily gained traction each year. And though there were no prizes to be won at the end of their race, the women say people are finally taking notice.
“When it happened the first year, no one knew. Then people started to recognize. Last year we had some mentions on French TV,” Kalachova told the AP. “Now when we come, people scream and encourage. They prepare food for the breaks or on arrival. They write our names on the climbs and this is pretty awesome.”
People are also praising their feat online and joining their call for greater gender equality in the sport.
"A women's Tour de France is possible, and we have proven it," Barrero told Global Citizen.
Incredibly proud of these amazing women. Riding all 21 Stages of the Tour De France, even though there is no female race. Thank you for cycling for equality, for women all over the world, & for letting us tell your story. What a month, what a campaign. #ThisIsOurTime#TDF2018pic.twitter.com/cyOv1UzA7y— Loriley - GF Sesh (@lorileysesh) July 29, 2018
Absolutely. Why on earth can't there be a women's event at the same time?— Tom Lawton (@LawtonTri) July 29, 2018
Triathlon doesn't pretend women can't cope with the distance - there's no excuse in cycling. https://t.co/1dW6ElSLy9
In honour of the 13 women who rode every stage of the Tour de France. ‘Ride Like a Girl’ They rode the same distance ahead of the men, for no podium or prize money. The name of the team ‘Donnons des elles au velo’ means ‘give women wings to cycling.’ I wonder how much longer before the sporting world will wake up. 🤔 #cycling #tdf #tourdefrance #tourart #aerialviews #womensports #grimmhewitt
Geraint Thomas encouraged the current Maindy Flyers to dream big. Jess, who’s 11, told me this morning her dream is to win the women’s Tour de France - when there is one.— Mark Hutchings (@markhutchings1) July 30, 2018