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The Tour de France finally features women again — after 33 years

Marianne Martin, in the yellow jersey, winning the first women’s Tour de France in 1984. (Courtesy of Marianne Martin)

After a 33-year hiatus, women have returned to the world’s most-watched sporting event: the Tour de France.

On Sunday, 24 teams of six cyclists each lined up on the Champs-Élysées in Paris to begin the eight-day Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. The 640-mile stage race features two mountain stages and ends in the Vosges Mountains. In the 119-year existence of the men’s tour, women have competed in the official Tour de France only five times. The women’s tour lasted from 1984 to 1989 — and then was canceled because of a lack of financial backing. A women’s one-day race called La Course emerged recently, but some riders have said that it has been more of an insult than an opportunity.

This year, the women’s race was kick-started by sponsor Zwift, a cycling app, and will be one of the highest prize purses — around 250,000 euros in total — in women’s cycling racing history.

“For the women to take the stage, to be elevated through that platform that they deserve, is really the key to unlocking so much more audience, investment and growth in the sport at all levels,” said Kate Veronneau, Zwift’s director of women’s strategy and a former pro-cyclist. “For little girls growing up and seeing themselves in a variety of sports … that’s powerful.”

When U.S. cyclist Marianne Martin won the first women’s Tour de France in 1984 at 26, things looked a lot different for female cyclists. Notably, she had neither salary nor radio. During one stage race in Grenoble, France, she rode ahead of the pack for over 30 miles, she said.

“I didn’t know where they were, so I just pushed ahead, thinking, ‘They’re gonna catch me,’ ” Martin, now 64, recalled. But they never did. The 10 minutes she gained on the peloton during that pivotal stage race, she says, gave her the confidence to win the entire Tour — which was then an 18-stage race covering just over 600 miles.

When Martin was competing, widespread interest in women’s sports was limited. But that world looks different now.

“Women’s sports is trending hard because the companies that have invested in sports are seeing fabulous returns,” Veronneau said. Indeed, as The Washington Post has reported, female athletes are garnering more attention from fans and marketers — which is leading to a belief that women are one of the best investments in the sports industry.

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“Female athletes take their responsibility to be role models extremely seriously because they have to fight for every sponsorship dollar that they have,” Veronneau added. “They know everything they do is going to impact the opportunities that come after them.”

The majority of the 2022 female cyclists riding the Tour are under 35; most have never had the opportunity to watch other women ride this race.

U.S. Human Powered Health team cyclist and Olympic bronze medalist Lily Williams, 28, was inspired to start cycling after watching the men’s Tour de France on TV every summer with her family.

“I think certainly if there had been a women’s Tour de France, I would have started cycling a lot earlier,” Williams said, adding that she only started cycling a couple of years ago. “And I think my career arc would look a lot different.”

Williams said her mom, speed skating Olympian Sarah Docter, was a pro-cyclist in the 1980s who never had the chance to ride the Tour. “She got burned out really early,” Williams said. “A lot of that is probably due to the complete lack of support that women’s sports had back at that time.”

One crucial piece of support is a salary. This is the first year that Williams is riding as a professional cyclist without also having to work. “It’s been huge to have that time to rest and recover. That completely changes the sport when you have 10 or 20 teams of riders who are being paid a living wage,” she said.

But not all female cyclists in the Tour de France receive a salary. Only 14 of the 24 teams competing in the Tour are licensed under the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Women’s WorldTeams Tour, which requires teams to provide a minimum salary of 27,500 euros per year to each rider.

“It’s a very new concept for women professional cyclists to earn a required minimum salary,” Veronneau said. “The best of the best are making good money these days, but for most pro women, it’s still squeaking by and a challenging career choice. Most often have to work secondary jobs alongside their training of 25 to 30 hours per week.”

Zwift is funding a total prize purse for the women’s race of 250,000 euros, with 50,000 going to the winner. The men’s prize purse is 2.3 million euros, with 500,000 going to the winner. Compared with 1984, this is a 10-fold improvement in the women’s to men’s prize winnings ratio. Martin recalls winning less than $1,000 compared with the $100,000 the 1984 male champion, Laurent Fignon, took home.

Race organizers say the goal is to grow women’s cycling to the point where full parity is possible, but they are starting with what is most sustainable first. For now, that means eight stages instead of the 21 stages that men ride. Women’s cycling teams are smaller than men’s, Williams explained, making 21 stages exceptionally more difficult for the women’s teams to commit to from a financial, staffing and physical standpoint.

Williams also says that eight stages with shorter races allows the women’s races to be more dynamic, less predictable, and thus more exciting to watch.

“Every day in the men’s tour, there’s a four-to-six-hour race [in which] a group goes off the front to get media exposure, and then they’re reeled in, and the general classification contenders maintain their position,” she said. “In women’s racing, where races are three to four hours, people are fresher to attack throughout the race; breakaways might have a chance to stick. You have a wide variety of women who could be winning the race.”

Regardless of numbers, riders say the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift is a game changer for women’s cycling and will serve as an inspiration for young women and girls worldwide watching the event.

“We need the media to show more women in sports so that girls think about more options,” Martin, the former pro cyclist, said. “I mean, if they only see women in fashion, they’re going to only think about fashion. If they see women in sport, and it’s exciting, they’re going to see that as an option.”