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Paving the way for a full women's Tour de France

Genevieve Whitson
24 Apr 2019

Cyclist spoke to Kathryn Bertine about her efforts to get a full women's Tour de France onto the racing calendar

Imagine watching the best women cyclists in the world sweep into the Champs-Elyees after three weeks of intense racing. It sounds like a fairy tale, but once upon a time women competed in a full Tour – in the 1980s the men’s and women’s courses were very similar, although the latter was slightly shorter.

However, in 2019 the women’s event runs for just two days because the race's owner, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), along with the UCI have yet to be convinced that women are capable of riding a three-week Tour. They also are yet to agree it would be worth full media coverage and equal prize money.

This is despite women continuing to excel in endurance events, and part of the growing argument in the cycling community that women are fully capable of tackling a three-week Tour.

Taking on the challenge

This is where Kathryn Bertine steps in. A former professional cyclist, she became so unimpressed with the state of professional women’s cycling that she decided to do something about it, setting up the Homestretch Foundation.

A non-profit organisation, it provides temporary housing to professional or elite athletes, with a primary focus on females. The main goal is to level out salary discrepancy in sport, so female professional athletes have the same wages and equal opportunities as males.

In 2013 Bertine combined forces with three female powerhouses in the world of professional sport: Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley and Chrissy Wellington.

The four of them lobbied for and successfully debuted La Course by Le Tour de France – a one-day event in conjunction with the men’s full Tour de France. However, this wasn’t the end goal. According to Bertine, the original agreement with ASO in 2013 was for the race to grow incrementally each year by three to five days.

If this plan had gone ahead, women’s cycling could have a full Tour de France by now. Instead they have a two-day event, while the men have 21 stages.

Bertine believes getting a women’s full Tour comes down to challenging ASO’s attitude of 'apathy & sexism.'

'This is ASO’s race, they need to create the change and stick to the plan we agreed on in 2013,' she explains.

She adds that the UCI could put pressure on ASO to increase the race length for women by issuing a mandate but aren’t currently pursuing this, despite UCI President David Lappartient recently saying the women’s race should be at least 10 days long by now.

The Tour de France is also not the only race that excludes women; some of the iconic Spring Classics do as well, such as Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo.

Money matters

If a three-week Grand Tour for women went ahead, there are financial issues to overcome to ensure female cyclists can complete the training required.

A full three-week race would mean riding up to 160-200km per day, which requires a dedicated training schedule. And this is where the difference between men’s and women’s cycling can become apparent.

Many prrofessional female cyclists, particularly those outside of the top tier teams, receive lower salaries or in some cases no salary at all, and many female cyclists work several jobs to survive – leaving them less time to train.

This leads to the next money-related issue – would the prize money be the same? In 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas rode away with a cheque for around €500,00 on arrival in Paris. If they ride the same distance, surely the winning woman should receive the same.

Bertine says it comes down to media coverage to ensure that the female peloton can expand and grow professionally. Sponsors want to know that they are going to get air time and in order for that to happen, there needs to be a mandate in place for equal coverage of both men and women’s races.

'It’s much harder to attract sponsors for races that are not covered in the media. But the main reason is the UCI’s role in the matter. They do not mandate equal coverage or equal prize money, but they could,' she says

The UCI has acknowledged that the pay gap issue needs addressing with urgency, recently confirming its plans. 'As of 2020, UCI Women’s WorldTeams will be required to pay their riders a minimum salary (not including prize money),' it said in a statement.

'The salary will be €15,000 in 2020, €20,000 in 2021, €27,500 in 2022, and then, from 2023, the same as that paid to existing men’s UCI ProContinental Teams.'

This is a long overdue step forward for female cyclists but it doesn’t address the fact that women’s races aren’t promoted the same way men’s races are.

In 2012 the women’s road race at the London Olympics drew 7.6 million viewers – the men’s race drew only 5.7 million viewers. The audience for women’s cycle racing clearly exists, and Bertine is positive more should be done to engage with and promote the women’s peloton.

Bertine says, 'The women of the pro peloton are fascinating, interesting and some of the most highly educated people in the sport. We need the UCI, every national governing body and every race director to invest in promoting women. Equality will lift the whole sport to a better place.'

She also believes that the riders need to speak up to keep the fight for equality moving forward.

'Change must come from within the sport, just like Billie Jean King did for tennis and Kathrine Switzer did for the marathon. We need our women of cycling (and the men!) standing up for their rights. Together we all move forward,' Bertine says.

Until then, Bertine will continue to use her resources at the Homestretch Foundation to bridge the gap for female athletes, in the hope that someday she can watch the women’s Tour de France on TV, seeing women receive the same recognition as the men.

She also hopes someday soon the Homestretch Foundation won’t be necessary because the Women’s WorldTour riders will secure a base salary.

The Homestretch Foundation

The Homestretch Foundation was founded in 2016. It has assisted 50 athletes from 12 different nations in five different disciplines of cycling: road, mountain, cyclocross, track and triathlon.

To date, three of its elite athletes have received professional contracts. Find out more: homestretchfoundation.org

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