As the Tour de France peloton steams towards its finish in Paris on Sunday, up ahead of them 144 women riders will do battle on the Champs-Elysees on a momentous day for the sport.
For the first time in 33 years and after a long campaign, Tour de France organisers ASO have granted the top female professionals an official multi-stage race of their own to showcase their skill, endurance and courage.
Sunday’s 81.7km opener around the streets of the French capital will be no warm-up act for the men’s race that will reach Paris later in the afternoon.
It is the first of eight stages covering a total of 1,033km over mountains, flat terrain and gravel, ending on the brutal climb to La Super Planche des Belles Filles on July 31.
The assembled cast is loaded with quality including an armada of Dutch riders headed by Olympic time trial champion Annemiek van Vleuten and former Olympic road champion and multiple world champion Marianne Vos.
— Le Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift (@LeTourFemmes) July 23, 2022
Poland’s Kasia Niewiadoma and Italian Elisa Longo Borghini also have their eyes on the coveted yellow jersey but whatever unfolds on the roads ahead, victory is already assured for women’s cycling after living so long in the men’s shadow.
A women’s race in France was held in 1955 with five stages in Normandy but was regarded as a novelty and was a one-off.
In 1984, the Tour de France Feminin was held over short portions of 18 of the 23 men’s stages and was won by American Marianne Martin but publicity was minimal, media attention almost non-existent and ASO pulled the plug in 1989.
With the ASO refusing to allow naming rights, a women’s stage race called La Grande Boucle Feminine ran on and off until 2009 before, in 2014, Vos, English cyclist Emma Pooley and triathlete Chrissie Wellington successfully petitioned ASO to grant a women’s race, albeit over just one stage.
As pressure grew and the depth of quality in the women’s peloton increased, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme announced in 2021 that a women’s multi-stage race would return.
With cycle training app Zwift on board as a title sponsor, a women’s record 250,000 euros prize pool and 170 countries broadcasting the race, the women’s Tour is set for lift off.
Italian Longo-Borghini, this year’s Paris-Roubaix winner who rides for Trek-Segafredo, said those on the start line on Sunday owe a debt to women like Vos who have battled so hard for a Tour de France of their own.
“Something I always underline is that this won’t be the first Tour de France,” she told Eurosport. “Many women have already ridden the Tour de France.
“They did something that in the end played out a big goal for us. This shouldn’t be forgotten. Now little girls can see us, and that is amazing.”
FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope team’s Danish rider Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, a contender for the general classification, said she had been “pinching herself” in the build-up to Sunday’s depart.
“Is this really happening? Are we racing the Tour de France? It’s huge, a dream, and something we’ve been working hard on for a long time,” she said.