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Much ado is being made about this year’s ‘inaugural’ Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, but it’s not entirely fair to call it the first Tour de France for women.
Yes, this Tour is the first women’s stage race in France produced by the modern-day Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), the organizer of the men’s race. However, other promoters have tried — and regrettably, failed — to bring an equivalent French stage race to the women’s peloton for over half a century.
Let’s take a look.
The first attempt at TdF equivalency for the women’s peloton happened in 1955, when French sports journalist Jean Leulliot launched the first ‘women’s Tour.’ Leulliot, who became notable for directing Paris-Nice for 25 years, hoped for seven stages of 80-100km apiece but had to settle for five.
At the time, there was no women’s road world championships, and the French Cycling Federation had only held four national championship races for women.
This historical precedent did not bode well for Leulliot’s race — although 41 women lined up (with Manx cyclist Millie Robinson winning), the race was a one-off, with no successor until the 80s.
1984–1989: Tour de France Féminin
In 1984, the Société du Tour de France, the then-organizer of the men’s Tour de France, introduced a women’s version of the Tour. For six years, the Tour de France Féminin was run alongside the men’s event, as a sort of curtain raiser.
The women’s race featured shorter distances, with both races using the same stage finish locations. The first edition had 18 stages, but dwindled to 11 by its final year in 1989.
American Marianne Martin won the first edition of the race in 1984, Italian Maria Canins won the second and third, and French phenom Jeannie Longo won the final three races.
In 1989, Jean-Marie Leblanc, the director of the Tour de France, halted the race in its current format, citing — wait for it — the economic cost of organizing the race with limited media coverage and sponsorship.
1990–1993: Tour of the EEC Women/Tour de la C.E.E. féminin
Without the backing of the Société du Tour de France, other people stepped in to try and keep a ‘women’s Tour’ alive. The Tour of the EEC Women ran from 1990-1993. This race ranged from nine to 12 stages long and was first won by four-time world champion Frenchwoman Catherine Marsal.
Not much is written in the history books about these years of the race, perhaps because the Société du Tour de France — which became part of the ASO in 1992 — chose not to acknowledge it.
1992–2009: The Pierre Boué races: Tour Cycliste Féminin (1992–1997) and Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale (1998–2009)
In 1992, another French journalist, Pierre Boué, launched the Tour Cycliste Féminin to fill the void left by the axed women’s Tour de France.
While the race ran with moderate success for over a decade and a half, it often lacked stable sponsorship and suffered chronically from issues like poor accommodations, unnecessarily long neutral starts, and unpaid prize money. Boué had trouble finding towns willing to host stages, which led to long transfers and an inconsistent number of stages over the years.
Then, before the 1998 edition, the ASO claimed that the name of the race — Tour Cycliste Féminin — was a trademark infringement. From 1998 forward, the race became known as the Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale.
For the first 12 years of this stage race, women raced an average of 13 or 14 stages. Then, after a hiatus in 2004, it returned with a smaller size and scope. Only 66 riders lined up for the race’s final edition in 2009 — after a planned race start and three stages in Britain fell through, the race was only four days long.
The Grande Boucle ended after that year, citing insurmountable financial hardship due to lack of sponsorship, interest, and media coverage.
There were other stage races in France, like the Tour de l’Aude Cycliste Féminin (1985-2010) and the Route de France Féminine (2006-2015), that were successful for a period of time but that ultimately succumbed to the same old issues: financial and organizational dysfunction. Without a direct relationship to the ASO/Tour de France, it seemed that all races were doomed to fail at some point.
One light in that dark period has been the Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l’Ardèche, a weeklong stage race that has been held in southeastern France since 2003.
2014-2020: La Course
In 2014, professional cyclists Emma Pooley, Kathryn Bertine, and Marianne Vos, along with Ironman triathlete Chrissie Wellington, submitted a petition to Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour de France, demanding that women be allowed to race. The ASO responded by launching La Course by Le Tour de France.
The inaugural event was held as a one-day circuit race on the Champs-Élysées on the final day of the 2014 Tour de France. Subsequent editions were also short and sprinter-friendly.
In 2017, race organizers experimented with a two-day event: day one ended with a summit finish on the Col d’Izoard on the same day as stage 18 of the men’s race. It was followed by a time trial in Marseille. Annemiek van Vleuten won both stages and the overall title.
In 2018, the race shrunk back to one day and remained that way for its final editions in 2019 and 2020.
Initially praised for the exposure gained by ‘sharing the stage’ with the Tour de France, La Course was equally criticized for its brevity — both in duration and the distances of the parcours.
The ASO was also criticized for not doing enough to promote the race. The organization repeatedly stated that it would be logistically impossible to stage a women’s stage race at the same time as the men’s.
2022: Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift
After over 30 years and half as many excuses, the ASO is putting on a women’s Tour de France. Zwift has signed on as a four-year title sponsor, and the race has its own eight days on the calendar — beginning with a stage on the Champs-Élysées on July 24 before the men roll into Paris on the last day of their race.
When the route was revealed in October of last year, riders were mostly pleased with the parcours. A few VeloNews editors also agreed: eight days seemed like a promising start given the current situation of the women’s peloton (ie. its depth and resources, not the riders’ ability to race a longer event).
24 teams will ride 1,029 kilometers over the eight stages, and the race ends with a summit finish atop the Super Planche des Belles Filles.
Long the bane of women’s pro racing, TV broadcasting of the TdFF is locked and loaded. NBC Sports has rights to broadcast the race in the U.S. in both 2022 and 2023, and Europeans can watch on Discovery Sports and Eurovision Sport. ESPN will broadcast in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Australians can watch the action on SBS OnDemand.