The day before the start of the Tour de France Women on July 23, professional cyclist Ashleigh Moolman Pasio lay on a massage table in Clermont-Ferrand, France, marveling at the amenities around her. Thanks to the sponsors of her cycling team, AG Insurance – Soudal Quick-Step, she will participate in the women’s version of the famous cycling race through France accompanied by representatives of the media, coaches, buses, trucks and others. least five team cars.
In addition to Moolman Pasio, some 154 runners for 22 teams had gathered to take part in the 596.7-mile race, which would take place over eight stages, including the 110-mile ride from scenic Cahors to Rodez in the region Occitanie, and the grueling climb through the Pyrenees to reach the famous summit of Tourmalet. The race had signed half a dozen sponsors, including virtual cycling platform Zwift as title sponsor, and spectators had to line the course.
A 37-year-old South African rider, Moolman Pasio has been playing at the highest level of cycling for 14 years. But she had never seen such enthusiasm and support for her sport.
The Tour de France Women is a 2-year race, but it is a long time coming. Its emergence reflects a growing interest from investors, sponsors and others in professional women’s sport, including – at last – the highest levels of cycling.
While the men’s Tour de France made its debut in 1903, it wasn’t until 1984 that a women’s version was created. (A single event was held initially in 1955.) The women’s Tour consisted of 18 stages and covered 670 miles, paralleling the men’s race. Marianne Martin, an American cyclist, won the race. She received $1,000 for her efforts. French cyclist Laurent Fignon received more than $100,000 for winning the men’s race.
The official women’s Tour de France only lasted five years. Like most women’s sports, women’s cycling has not received enough support and investment. Attempts to continue the race have been met with financial difficulties, a lack of media coverage, reluctant sponsors and sexism. It was rebranded several times under different names, but never caught on.
In 2009, a group of professional cyclists formed La Tour Entier, an activist organization to defend women in their sport. They started to lobby Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), the company that owns, designs and organizes the best international sporting events, including the Tour. For a while she resisted: “The message we got time and time again was that it didn’t make business sense to have a women’s race,” recalls Moolman Pasio. “It wouldn’t bring sponsors and broadcast rights.”
That started to change in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This month of July, the ASO partnered with Zwift, the training platform for cycling and running, to organize a virtual Tour de France while the world was closed. In particular, the platform invited women to participate in their own Tour.
“It was the first time that women knew about equality in relation to the Tour de France name and brand,” says Moolman Pasio. “We ran the same stages and had equal exposure. It was really the turning point. »
At the same time, female cyclists had increased their social media presence and reach, a data point that ASO couldn’t help but notice. “These women have a tremendous following. It’s always meaningful,” says Cassondra Spring, global brand manager for Liv Cycling, a bicycle and cycling apparel company and major sponsor of the Tour de France Women. “It doesn’t take much to recognize that you have a lot of interest in the sport, even if you don’t have a lot of broadcasting opportunities. Seeing this is a point of proof for organizations like the ASO.
In July In 2022, more than three decades after Martin’s unprecedented (and unheralded) victory, women’s racing has resurfaced as the Tour de France Women with Zwift. At 65, Martin was in Paris to support a new generation of female cyclists. The race featured 144 participants in 24 teams competing across eight stages over 596.7 miles and was broadcast live in 190 countries on a variety of networks.
It was a huge success.
Some 23.2 million people watched the race unfold, according to a Nielsen Sports report, with an average viewership of 2.9 million per stage. (France attracted the most viewers, followed by Spain and Germany.) Social media interaction between fans and riders increased by 300% from 2021 to 2022 thanks to the exposure.
Like last year, the 2023 tour airs in 190 countries with 2.5 hours of coverage per day, although accessibility in the US lags. The tour is available to watch live only through NBC’s paid Peacock streaming service.
Remuneration is also still a predominant issue. For the men’s Tour, the winner takes home 500,000 euros (nearly $552,000) and an additional 2.5 million euros (nearly $2.8 million) in prize money is distributed to riders throughout the race. For the Women’s Tour, the winner takes home 50,000 euros (about $55,000) and the prize pool is 250,000 euros (not quite $276,000).
“Organizations like the Cyclists’ Alliance are working towards equal pricing,” says Spring of Liv Cycling. “There have been fundraising campaigns and brands have pledged to pay more. I see gradual changes. I hope there can be big changes.
Despite the financial inequalities, the growing appetite and support for women’s cycling is palpable on the ground in France. Throughout the race, fans lined the roads, ringing the traditional bells, cheering on the runners during the climbing stages and pouring in to greet them at the finish lines.
The final stage of the race will take place on Sunday, with cyclists competing in the individual time trial as they glide through the history-rich city of Pau.
For Moolman Pasio, who was in second place heading into the final race weekend, it all started when Zwift decided to put its weight behind sports. “We needed a really powerful company or brand to raise awareness and support women, first and foremost,” she says. “That’s what Zwift has done for women’s cycling.”