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Riding the Women’s Tour de France – that doesn’t exist

We spent a day with the InternationElles, a team of women riding the entire Tour route to campaign for the creation of a women’s version

Jamie Wilkins
26 Jul 2019

It’s the day before Stage 14 of the 2019 Tour de France. Tomorrow the pro peloton will take on a 111km route that includes the Category 1 Col du Soulor and finishes at the summit of the mighty Tourmalet in the Pyrenees. Today, however, these same mountains are the challenge facing the InternationElles.

Formed this year, the InternationElles are a team of amateur women who are riding the entire route of the Tour de France to campaign for equality. Unlike with many other sports, they are not campaigning for equal prize money or parity of television coverage. Instead, they are highlighting that, when it comes to the biggest event in cycling, a women’s version doesn’t even exist.

‘So many casual fans don’t even know there isn’t a women’s Tour de France. They just assume there is,’ Helen Bridgman tells us as we climb the Col du Soulor from the north. Riding alongside, her teammate Helen Sharp adds, ‘It’s 2019, there should just be a platform. Cycling is lagging way behind other sports.’

The InternationElles are following in the wheeltracks of an event called ‘Donnons des Elles au Velo J-1’, which started in 2015 when three French women rode the Tour route a day ahead of the men. They returned every year since, gaining more riders and sponsors along the way.

This year, the InternationElles formed to help spread the message further; the 10 riders are from Britain, America, the Netherlands and Australia, bringing a much-needed Anglophone voice to the cause. All have taken time away from family and jobs to do this.

The whole point of riding one day ahead of the men is to draw maximum attention to the cause, and it has a secondary benefit, too.

‘The support along the way has been fantastic,’ says Bridgman. Fans line the roads in readiness for the following day’s action – especially true for the mountain stages here in the Pyrenees – and they are in party mood. As we ride, it is to a backdrop of cheers and encouragement from the roadside.

The peak of Soulor is heaving. The French team are here, along with a commercial operator running paid-for experiences of the whole route, so the InternationElles are never alone on the road for long. The women even recognise some travelling fans from previous stages.

As each rider rolls up, they’re applauded, high-fived and offered a drink from some supermarket-bought party cups that have shifted from being a source of embarrassment to an emblem of their low budget endeavour.

Girls on Tour

How have the women of the InternationElles been finding the route of the Tour de France?

The immensely pretty Col du Soulor gets rave reviews, even from low-lander Carmen Acampo, who has only been riding for two years and never gone near a mountain, yet acquits herself admirably. However, opinions on other stages from the first two weeks are split between the climbers and rouleurs in the group.

La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges Mountains (Stage 6) is named as both the best and worst, with comments ranging from ‘So good, I loved it!’ to ‘Gruesome. I thought I was going to have to walk.’ But the ‘boring’ 230km Stage 7 gets most votes as the worst.

As with the climbs, the women take the descents at their own pace, then regroup. The descent we are on from the Soulor down to Arrens is among the best anywhere – fast, flowing, well surfaced and encouragingly cambered – and the grins confirm it afterwards.

Once down into Vallée Lavedan, the sight of the two support vans parked up signifies a welcome lunch stop under the shade of some trees. It isn’t quite WorldTour level nutrition – baguettes, cheese, ham, pasta, crisps – but it gets the job done and there’s simply no time to prepare anything fancier.

As Sharp explains, ‘After the transfer and then making and eating dinner, we’re usually going to bed at 11:30pm and breakfast is always at 6:30am, so we’re getting seven hours of sleep at best. We’re self-funded, so we’re staying in AirBnBs, sometimes five or six girls to a room, so we’re getting to know each other pretty well!’

Alex Chart says she feels like the fatigue has hit a plateau by this point: ‘It’s been getting better. Off the bike I feel horrendous, and then on the bike within half an hour I feel loads better once my legs are going.’

For Pippa Lyon, the lunch stop is also a chance for a cuddle with her 11-month-old son who is travelling around the whole route with her parents in a campervan. As a Brit living in Sydney, the Tour has provided some special family time as a bonus.

All too soon, crew member Rob calls out, ‘That’s 25 minutes. We roll in five!’ With such long days to get through, the discipline keeps them on schedule. As lunch is packed away, bottles topped up and Boa dials retightened, the French team sets off just ahead.

Before our legs have woken up again after the break, we’re into the beautiful Gorge Luz and rolling on asphalt so new it has yet to be painted and still smells strongly of tar. This pristine road surface has been laid specifically for the arrival of the Tour, such is the race’s importance to the regions around France.

Where there’s a will…

If the Tour can have new roads created every year, it makes it hard for organiser ASO to site logistics as the reason why it can’t hold a women’s version of the race.

True, the Tour de France is a travelling city, a vast operation that stretches the resources of host towns to their limits, especially when it comes to hotel beds. But it isn’t twice the work to have two races pass under every erected gantry and along every part of the meticulously planned parcours.

ASO has made some progress, but the feeling is that it is doing just enough to deflect pressure from the women’s sport, rather than leading the charge like the dominant power that it is.

There are women’s versions of La Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Tour de Yorkshire and Tour of Norway, but the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana only get short, one-day races that smack of appeasement. Paris-Roubaix, for all its versions, has no women’s race, nor Paris-Nice, yet both these ASO-organised events manage to put on sportives for amateurs.

Sharp sums it up succinctly: ‘I can see it’s difficult, but it can’t be beyond the powers of an operation such as ASO to put on a women’s Tour de France.’

Perhaps women’s cycling doesn’t need a Tour of Oman (nor, perhaps, want one) but La Grande Boucle is the very pinnacle of the sport – of all sport – and one of the most watched events in the world. What sort of message does it send that women are excluded?

In fairness, ASO is far from the only one falling short. The Velon organisation was created in 2014 to accelerate the development of road cycling and launched the Hammer Series in 2017, of which the first women’s race will only take place next year. Velon is owned by 11 WorldTour teams and part of the problem is that only five of them have women’s squads.

As we hit the Col du Tourmalet, legs softened by the drag up through the gorge, my computer is showing 35ºC and the road is heavy with traffic as fans pour onto the mountain ahead of the next day’s highly anticipated stage.

The Super Barèges ski station halfway up is packed with campervans and they line the road far above us, picking it out from the mountain like a highlighter pen.

I climb alongside new mum Pippa, who clearly wasted no time in regaining exceptional fitness. There are hundreds of other riders on the Tourmalet today, very few of whom have 2,000km weighing heavy in their legs, and we are overtaken by precisely no one. Male or female.

The team regroups at the summit, cheering each other home and downing drinks from the superb support crew. There’s little chance to revel in the moment, though. There’s a three-hour transfer between them and dinner, and the small matter of the even harder Stage 15 lying in wait.

The riding may be tough, but if one day there is a proper three-week Tour de France for women, then the InternationElles will be able to claim that they led the way.

You can learn more about the team here: internationelles.com