The inaugural Tour de France Femmes is over

…and what a race it has been.

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Annemiek van Vleuten must be very pleased to cap off her career as the prestigious race’s inaugural winner before she retires in 2024. Her come-from-behind victory was punctuated by her relative lethargy in the first couple of stages; apparently she was suffering from sickness so bad, even if she already had thoughts of abandoning the race, she was too tired to pack her own suitcases. Van Vleuten hung on, steadily recovering, until the fearsome stage 7 with its three Category-1 mountain climbs…where she proceeded to outclimb a broken peloton, riding solo for the last 60 kilometers.

She repeated the winning feat on the eighth and final stage, set again in the mountains, and finishing at the formidable Le Super Planche des Belles Filles climb…even after suffering two mechanicals and two bike changes that forced her to drop behind the peloton midway. Van Vleuten’s late-stage resurgence was so comprehensive that she won the general classification by 3:48 ahead of compatriot Demi Vollering, who won the “Queen of the Mountains” polka-dot jersey competition. Multi-discipline cycling veteran Marianne Vos, wearing yellow for five stages, eventually ended the Tour with a solid grip on the green jersey.

The Tour de France Femmes GC podium.
L-R: Demi Vollering (+3:48), Annemiek Van Vleuten (winner), Kazia Niewiadoma (+6:35)
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The story of professional women’s cycling in the past ten years has been one of true “amateur” spirit, in the sense that amateurs, by the origin of the word, do their thing purely for the love of it. While things have steadily, slowly improved, unlike their male counterparts, most current professional female road cyclists sadly are not paid a living wage. As such, many of them have day jobs unrelated to cycling. Notably, the quiet Austrian underdog Anna Kiesenhofer, who won gold at the 2020/2021 Tokyo Olympic women’s road cycling race, is a professional mathematician. Van Vleuten herself has a master’s degree in epidemiology; when she retires in 2024 that will most likely be her job. Events such as the Tour de Yorkshire in the UK, notable for awarding the exact same prize purse for men and women (and even biasing more prize money for the women’s event), are the exception rather than the norm.

Whether this was due to lack of spectator interest, laziness, or a misogynistic bias dismissing women’s cycling as some sort of “pretend” version of the genuine article that the male peloton does, it was an obstacle that got in the way of real development of women’s cycling. So the ladies themselves decided to do something about it. Led by retired pro Kathryn Bertine and with Marianne Vos its highest-profile cheerleader, an long, hard-fought initiative was launched to finally give women’s cycling the same prestigious pinnacle, the same universally recognized Grand Tour the men had monopolized for so long.

Marianne Vos won the green jersey at the 2022 Tour de France Femmes.
Photo credit: de Waele/Getty Images

True, the Giro Donne, Paris-Roubaix Femmes, and Strade Bianche are ladies’ counterparts to similarly named pro cycling events, but there is a mystique to the Tour de France brand that is unmatched – and therefore has the best chance to raise the profile of women’s cycling and get people talking about it.

The inaugural Tour de France Femmes was never going to be a perfect Grand Tour; the first instance of anything rarely is. It also was always going to attract comparisons to the men’s event. The women’s peloton contested eight stages instead of the men’s traditional 21; none of the colossal “HC” (haute categorie) or uncategorized climbs – the absolute hardest ones – were on any of the stages; some may argue there was a lack of variety, as time trial stages were absent.

That doesn’t really matter, to be honest. Those matters can wait for the next outing of the women’s “Le Grand Boucle,” perhaps.

Lorena Wiebes winning the bunch sprint on stage 5.
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What matters most was that people were watching. On the stages themselves, lining the mountain roads; at the Champs-Elysees on stage 1; and most importantly, on live television. Here was a race that was too big to ignore. It was an unprecedented chance to end the likes of sprinter Lorena Wiebes looking up to Fabio Jakobsen for lack of relatable female athletes; this time, young girls could look at Wiebes’ incredible leg speed and explosive sprint and say “Hey, I wanna do that!”

It was an arena where the sheer sporting competitiveness of the women’s peloton – many times, even much more so than the men’s – was on full display, and a huge opportunity for the sport to gain fans, sponsorship, and much needed funding. In time, we may even see the end of the days of female pro cyclists being paid a pittance for their undeniable talents, now that the “secret” is out for all the world to see.

With the inaugural Tour de France Femmes, women’s cycling had finally gained its biggest stage. Long may it continue.

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