Ten female cyclists have just set off on the toughest ride of their lives – cycling the entire Tour de France route a day ahead of the male professionals to highlight the inequality in the sport.
France’s most famous cycling race kicks off in Brussels on Saturday (July 6).
But you won’t see any women battling it out over the 21-stage race. That’s because not only are women not allowed to participate in the main event, an equivalent high-profile stage race for women doesn’t exist.
Made up of ten amateur riders from around the world, including five from the UK, the InternationElles team wants to change that.
Their epic challenge kicked off this morning (July 5), when each member of the team headed out the first leg of the official tour. They’ll do the same 2150miles (3,460km) route in 21 day-long segments, or stages, over a 23-day period with just two rest days, just like the male pros.
The newly-formed team hope the challenge will highlight the need for a women’s multi-day race that gets the same level of attention and media coverage as the tour gets each year.
British rider Helen Bridgman explained: “Whether you’re a cyclist or not, everyone’s heard of the tour. Most of that is down to the fact it dominates the media every year, with live coverage and race reports broadcast around the world throughout the event.
“Yet there’s no stage race that even comes close to that kind of attention in the pro women’s cycling calendar – nor one that offers anywhere near the same prize money. It’s disappointing. How can we expect women’s cycling to flourish if it’s not given the same opportunity to?
“There are loads of amazing female pro cycling role models out there, but there’s a total lack of exposure around them because there aren’t the big races to support them.
“We want this challenge to empower more females to ride bikes, but we also want better representation for the amazing female riders we have at the top levels of the sport so that more women and girls can see them and be inspired by them – because you have to see it to be it.”
Currently, the only event women can compete in at the tour is a one-day race called La Course by Tour de France. While the men ride 3460km over 21 stages and to battle it out for a total prize pot of £2million, La Course is 120km (75 miles) and has a total prize pot of just £19,000.
The InternationElles team will be riding each day alongside female team Donnons Des Elles Au Vélo J-1 – the group of French riders who launched the riding challenge five years ago and have continued every year since.
But this year, the teams are hoping their new collective power will send a clear message to the sporting world – to give women’s cycling the equal opportunities it deserves.
Neither team will be in for an easy ride though – the 2019 Tour route will be the most mountainous in the event’s 106-year history. And unlike the men, the female teams will have to cycle alongside cars and other vehicles that wouldn’t ordinarily be permitted during the official tour.
British rider Louise Gibson said: “It’s no longer a question of whether women can complete events like this – we’ve already proved that. The question is when will we be given the opportunity to compete in them. There was once a stage race for women in France, so why not now? Or why not work with the professional female teams and invest in creating something new?”
The InternationElles also hope that the success of the Women’s World Cup this year could act as a much-needed catalyst for change in attitudes to women’s cycling.
Gibson continued: “We have to question why aren’t we seeing more coverage of women’s cycling events. You just have to look at women’s football to see the ‘no one watches women’s sport’ excuse just doesn’t work anymore.
“The Women’s World Cup semi-final between England and the USA was the UK most-watched TV event of 2019 so far – 11.7million people tuned in. Ten years ago they’d have said women’s football could never attract those kinds of numbers.
“Attitudes are shifting, and we have to stop using the tired excuse that the interest ‘just isn’t there’ to justify not covering events. Because if cycling doesn’t progress, we’ll soon be left in the dust while sports around us do.”
The women also hope to highlight the huge disparity in men’s and women’s prize money in existing races.
Bridgman explained: “The Giro Rosa is probably the biggest stage race in the women’s calendar. Currently it’s a 10-stage women’s race and happens in Italy at the same time as the tour – and is usually completely overshadowed by it in terms of coverage.
“What’s more, last year the winner of the Giro Rosa took home about €1,140. The winner of the equivalent men’s Giro d’Italia got around €115,600. The winner of the Tour de France gets €500,000.”
The InternationElles team was formed in February via the internet as an international arm of the French team Donnons Des Elles Au Vélo J-1. The ten riders of the InternationElles hail from England, Scotland, Australia, the USA and Netherlands, and most have so far only been in contact via Facebook and WhatsApp. The whole team met for the first time in Brussels the day before they began their three and a half week adventure.
The team members range in age from 27 to 46 years old and come from a variety of professional backgrounds – from accountants to marketeers, game designers to consultants, journalists to scientists.
They’ll be helped during the event by a four-person support crew.