With its two-day “La Course” event in July, this summer marked the start of what women’s cycling advocates thought would eventually lead Tour de France organizers to offer a more robust competition for women. On Tuesday night, however, when organizers revealed the 2018 Tour de France agenda, they got a sad surprise: La Course will once again be a one-day event, held on the tail end of the 21-day men’s competition.
“I’m extremely disappointed that they’re not announcing a multiday stage race,” former cyclist Kathryn Bertine, who now is a vocal advocate for women in the sport, told CyclingTips on Wednesday, referring to “negative press” organizers received this year over the two-day event that many saw as too short.
Part of the problem was the format, which set the first day’s ride in the Alps and the second days in Marseille. The mountain stage made it so the race was all but determined going into the flat stage in the city, which made the results far less exciting. Organizers also limited the number of entrants allowed to compete in the second day’s race to just the top 19 finishers in the Alps and had them stagger their starts. Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten finished first, 1 minute 52 seconds ahead of her nearest opponent, Lizzie Deignan, who criticized the course afterward as “weird.”
“The format needs some work,” she said (via the Telegraph). “I’m open-minded to the concept, but it needs tidying up. . . . We got a lot of exposure for our sponsors, a lot of people talking, which is a good thing. But, from an athlete’s point of view, it was a weird race and difficult to really take it seriously when we didn’t know what to expect.”
Retired cyclist Joanna Rowsell Shand, who now works as a commentator, agreed with Deignan and advocated expanding the race to a multiday event, more like the men’s race, to even out the playing field and make things more competitive.
“It’s good that we’ve got prime-time TV on the last Saturday of the Tour de France, but we do need a proper stage race. We need mountain climbs, flat stages, time trials and a Champs-Elysees finish,” she told the Telegraph. “That would have a bit of everything, and I think that would get people excited about watching.”
Next year’s one-day race is the exact opposite of what these women and others have asked for. The Tour eliminated the flat stage completely in favor of staging a single stage in the Alps modeled off what will be Stage 10 for the men. While the 73-mile course, which features two significant climbs, will certainly prove a challenge, it will ultimately prove anticlimactic in the face of the men’s race, which will be just under halfway through its 21-stage race when La Course occurs.
“I’m also disappointed in the UCI,” Bertine said, referring to international cycling’s governing body, which has faced allegations of sexism before. “I understand that this is [Tour organizer Amaury Sport Organisation’s] race, but the UCI could be far more useful to the women’s movement by insisting that women have more equal representation at stage races held only for men.”
The longest race women might face in their season is the 10-stage Giro D’Italia Femminile. The men, meanwhile, race in the 21-stage Giro d’Italia. Even the Olympic road courses are different for men and women: Men can ride a maximum of 174 miles, while women must settle for a maximum-length course of 88 miles.
The reasons for the discrepancies are outdated and based on stereotypes and political beliefs established in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The men who made the rules thought women weren’t capable of multiday races, while others believed cycling gave women, believed to be submissive to men, too much freedom.
Tour organizers did not elaborate on why they decided to revert to a one-day race, although certainly those are not the reasons today.
The inaugural edition of La Course was held in 2014 directly before the final stage of the men’s race into Paris. The race was a one-day event consisting of 13 laps up and down the Champs-Elysees, totaling 55 miles. The race remained that way until this year, when organizers dropped the Paris event in favor of the two-day event. Next summer will mark the first time a one-day La Course will be held outside of Paris, a point Bertine suspects will work against the women’s race.
“It doesn’t make sense to take away a race that was very popular in the heart of Paris and move it to the mountains,” she said. “Instead we need to keep the stage on the Champs-Elysees and the mountain stage and build onto it.”