On Sunday, thousands of Parisians will be cheering wildly as Italian Vincenzo Nibali, who has a commanding lead just days before the finish, rolls down the streets of Paris to his first victory in the world’s greatest bicycling race, the Tour de France.
What fans won’t see as the cyclists complete the 2,200-mile race is a female cyclist. After more than a century’s worth of races, the Tour de France still doesn’t allow women to compete.
It’s not that women cyclists won’t be competing in Paris on Sunday.
In a scene that may be confusing to some spectators, women will roll across the finish line ahead of the men on Paris’s Champs-Elysees. But that will be solely because 120 of the sport’s top women cyclists, including three American teams with six cyclists each, will be riding in “La Course by Le Tour de France,” a one-day event organized by the Amaury Sport Organization, owner of the Tour de France.
It’s also not that the Tour has never allowed women to compete since the its first race in 1903. Because it has — but just in stages.
In the late 1980s, women rode in a handful of stages, which are what the individual day’s rides are called. The Tour now has 21 stages, with the final stage being a race down Paris’s most famous boulevard toward the Arc de Triomphe. Yet this year, just as in each of the 101 years the Tour has taken place, women will appear on the podium only to serve champagne and give flowers to the male victors.
Women, of course, already compete in their own events, including the Ladies Tour of Qatar and the Fleche Wallonne. And women have competed in Tour de France-style events, such as La Grande Boucle Feminine.
Having races of their own isn’t enough, however. Women cyclists want to ride the same course as the men in cycling’s premier event.
To help bring that about, four of the top professional women cyclists — Kathryn Bertine, Emma Pooley, Marianne Vos, and Chrissie Wellington — formed a group called “Le Tour Entier” that collected nearly 100,000 signatures on a petition calling for a women’s race as part of the Tour de France.
That effort fell short this year — women will compete in a one-day, 90-kilometer race through Paris on the last day of the Tour, not in the full 23-day, 3,664-kilometer event — but there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be allowed to ride alongside men.
Men and women can compete on equal footing in many sports. The marathon is one endurance sport where men and women compete right next to each other.
But, it wasn’t easy for women to reach this point.
For example, women have only officially competed in what may be the world’s most prestigious marathon — the Boston Marathon has been held annually since 1897 — since 1972.
Until then, Boston Athletic Association officials had been reluctant to welcome women to the marathon for irrational reasons, such as that women’s bodies couldn’t handle such a grueling, long-distance run.
But in 1967, Kathrine Switzer, a 19-year-old Syracuse undergraduate, filed the paperwork for the marathon and received race bib number 261. As Switzer recounts, because she registered as K.V. Switzer, she appears to have been inadvertently allowed to run, especially since during the marathon, race manager Jock Semple jumped into the pack of runners shouting, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” and attempted to pull Switzer off the course. (Roberta Gibb had jumped in and unofficially run the marathon the year before.) Switzer ran the entire marathon.
With women now fully accepted as marathon runners, the fastest men and women marathoners are separated by just minutes over the 26-mile, 385-yard race. Moreover, having women run on the same course at the same time as the men doesn’t affect the race in any way. In fact, Boston officials accommodate the more than 20,000 official entrants by staggering the starting times.The elite women start running about half an hour before the men do, meaning that a woman actually crosses the finish line in Copley Square before a man does.
The Tour de France could do the same type of thing by, for example, staggering teams at the start according to their overall position. Having a team of women in the mix wouldn’t change any of the current protocols.
Moreover, the Tour also could take steps to make the race more welcoming to women and, at the same time, more exciting for spectators.
Just as the Tour de France does with the white jersey that the fastest young rider wears, the yellow jersey that the leader wears, and the yellow helmets that cyclists on the fastest team wear, the Tour could give a pink jersey to the women’s leader, a white jersey to the fastest young woman, and yellow-striped helmets to the fastest women’s team.
The point is that there’s nothing stopping women from competing in the Tour de France except the outdated views of the Tour’s organizers. Let’s hope that they will have become more enlightened than they are now by the time the cyclists roll out from Utrecht in the Netherlands on July 4 next year.