Women Ride Tour de France… for a Day?

One of the cool things about sports is that they’re a perfect arena for uncovering and challenging culturally imposed gender limitations.

Kathrine Switzer famously snuck into the 1967 Boston Marathon, registering under a man’s name, and became the first woman to run it. She was attacked by the race director, but finished anyway, and the physiological grounds for barring women from participating in the marathon had to be reexamined.

Women have historically been encouraged not to engage in intense physical activity. We were (and still are) told that we’re not capable of the same level of athleticism as men. This notion is abandoned in sport after sport as women increasingly compete in male-dominated arenas. But cycling seems to be behind the times.

The Utah Film Center recently showed a film called Half the Road that offers a glimpse into the world of women’s professional cycling. Directed by professional cyclist and activist Kathryn Bertine, it explores the addictiveness of chasing goals, the dynamics of riding in teams and, especially, the sexism that persists in professional cycling.

When it comes to gender parity, cycling organizations are making small concessions, but it’s not enough, Bertine says in her film — it’s motion, not action.

Today many cycling events are still men-only. The Tour de France has remained closed to women for over 100 years and there is no comparable women’s event. Brian Cookson, President of Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), tells Bertine in Half the Road that this is because women don’t have the same level of endurance as men. After he says it, he looks as if he wishes he hadn’t.

Of course men and women have physiological differences. But each sex has physical advantages that level the playing field in almost every sport. It feels stupid even saying that because it’s so obvious. It’s also obvious that many of women’s physiological disadvantages are imaginary.

The UCI currently restricts women’s stage races to 8 days. Thus, there could be no women’s Tour. But if women weren’t capable of the same feats of endurance, how to explain the Tour Féminin – a women’s spinoff of the Tour de France that spanned two decades and was sometimes 10 to 15 stages?

Following the 2013 production of Half the Road, Bertine, along with pro cyclists Chrissie Wellington, Emma Pooley and Marianne Vos, formed a group called Le Tour Entier (“The Whole Tour” in French). They petitioned for a women’s ride in the Tour de France – same days but separate courses. They gathered almost 100,000 signatures.

The outcome: this year women were granted a one-day, single stage 55-mile course lapping the Champs-Elysées. La Course, it was called, took place on Sunday July 27, 2014 – the last day of the Tour – before the men’s peloton rolled in.

Marianne Vos won the race.

And someone in the New York Times wrote: “It’s a tiny step, given that the women will ride only 2.5 percent of the Tour course, but it’s actually a huge step for a male-dominated sport with a history of sexism.”

The Tour organizers themselves also called it huge.

Was it huge?

Did you know that female professional cyclists are paid significantly less than male professional cyclists? On the subject of many major cycling events lacking a comparable women’s component, such as the Tour de France, they are told it’s because there isn’t sufficient commercial demand or public interest in women’s cycling.

One wonders: why not?

On Le Tour Entier site, they explain it this way: “The main reasons for the lack of a women’s Tour stem from lack of sponsorship, political will and media coverage – a circular, self-fulfilling prophesy. It is also impacted by culture and tradition, and the fact that road cycling is very slow to change in its attitudes relative to other cycling disciplines and other sports.”

And: “These rules restricting length and duration of races are based on tradition and assumptions that are not substantiated by evidence from respected sports physiologists.”

The viral #likeagirl video does a good job of exposing sexist stereotypes in sports. It has certainly been my experience that in social settings, and in popular health media, men are encouraged to push themselves to their physical limits, while women are handed a pair of Barbie weights. Never mind the fact that many women actually lift heavy nowadays.

One of my favorite moments in Half the Road is when a female cyclist describes the joy of pushing past one’s limit and discovering that your limit is actually much further than you thought.

While it’s rare that I ever out-pace a guy on a bike ride, I’ve surprised myself a few times. The above photo was taken a few years ago on the way to a cycling event called Little Red, where I rode my first 60-mile ride. I had signed up for the 30-mile course but kept going. Although I felt total muscle failure around the 45-mile mark, I managed to finish.

With Half the Road, Bertine not only exposes the need for gender parity in cycling, she also reminds us that our perceived physical ability is sometimes a product of what we’ve been told. What does it mean to cycle like a girl? Does Brian Cookson know?

I’m not saying that all women want to ride hard. But then, neither do all men. To limit what female professional cyclists can do just seems odd.

So was La Course a huge victory? By having a one-day women’s stage, is the Tour “innovating cycling” as they claim on the website? It seems like a very small victory to me. Perhaps even more motion than action.

Bertine’s group said on Le Tour Entier site “a sideshow is better than no show.” But, while they had anticipated a gradual build-up to a full Tour length, they were clearly aiming to start with more than a one-day ride.

I hope they take a much bigger step next year. What do you think?

P.S. The following are some responses on Twitter, where Kathryn, the creator of the film, retweeted a link to this post along with my question “huge move or paltry gesture?”

“I think pretty good given short turn around for @BrianCooksonUCI. Guess we’ll find out over the next couple of years”

“Incredible venue, global live coverage, professional organization, = prize money. Good launching pad for more in 2015.”

“Glad there are no women-don’t-have-as-much-endurance limits in ultracycling/randonneuring”

“Considering it was @BrianCooksonUCI‘s impetus (on the UCI side), I’d say 2014 was a success.”

All in all, female pro cyclists seem hopeful. Check out the film at halftheroad.com – there are still some upcoming screenings around the U.S. And cheers to the Utah Film Center for showing it in Salt Lake City.

About

I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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