From long transfers to sleeping in a barn: Linda Jackson on riding past versions of the women’s Tour de France

The EF Education-TIBCO-SVB boss believes that the Tour de France Femmes is already helping to attract more interest to the sport.

Photo: Ashley Gruber & Jered Gruber | Gruber Images

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The women’s Tour de France has had many incarnations over the years. Some have been official, like the version in the 1980s, and some less official, like the Grande Boucle Féminine.

What many of them have had in common is that they were run on a shoestring budget with conditions not ideal for helping peak physical performance. From poor accommodation to ridiculously long drives between stages, racing some of these events was not for the faint of heart.

EF Education-TIBCO-SVB boss Linda Jackson rode the Grande Boucle Féminine, which was also known as the Tour Cycliste Féminin, for its first six editions. She appreciated what the organizers were trying to do and was grateful for the experience, but she’s glad her own riders won’t have to go through that.

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“The accommodation we stayed in, the transfers, the lack of support: you had to have a major passion for the sport to be doing it. It was brutal,” Jackson told VeloNews.

“My first one was 1994 and I believe my last one was ’98 or ’99. Let’s start with accommodation. I think one time we were in a barn kind of setting. I mean, it was horrendous. The food was terrible, the neutral [sections] would be huge, and after the stages, we would get in the car and drive for, like, five or six hours to the next stage city. We’d get in at midnight or something.

“You’ve eaten sandwiches in the car, there’s no time for rubs because you’re exhausted and you just want to get to bed. It was ridiculous.

“I say that but thank God I had the opportunity to race it because I’ll never forget those years. The support comparison between what ASO is going to provide and what we raced, there will be no comparison. I’m not slamming the previous organization. They did what they could with the budget they had and the starting cities that they could find. It’s all about budget.”

The Société du Tour de France version of the women’s race started off in 1984 as an 18-stage affair, though it only covered 1,058 kilometers across the whole event. By the time it came to its premature end, the race was 12 days — one of which was a prologue — and totaled 786 kilometers.

In addition to its notorious transfers, the Grande Boucle Féminine version had far longer stages than the official event in the ‘80s. At its peak, it was 14 days long with a total distance raced of 1,581.4km but it was only four days long for its final edition.

The 2022 Tour de France Femmes is shorter than the longest Grande Boucle Féminine editions. However, at 1,029km across eight days, it’s almost as long as the original packed into half the number of days.

Jackson would like to see a longer event but doesn’t think it needs to be as long as what’s currently on offer for the men’s peloton.

“I don’t think that women need a three-week race. Can it be a little longer? Sure. But when it was a one-day race, I think women were just grateful to have the one-day race. I personally am tired of being grateful,” Jackson said. “The women are incredibly talented, the racing is fantastic, and it’s great to watch. They deserve more and now they have more.

“Whether it is a 10-day day race or a 12-day race, I don’t think is really that important. They’ve got a huge opportunity now, with this eight-day race to make for some super exciting racing, get the fans excited, and show them what they can do. Hopefully, it’s just onward and upward from here.”

A huge moment for women’s cycling

Jackson’s EF Education-TIBCO-SVB squad is one of several that made the jump to the WorldTour for this season with five squads successfully applying. The Canadian former racer was determined to make the step no matter what but convincing her existing sponsors to up their investment and also attract new financing was made far easier by the inaugural edition of the Tour de France Femmes.

The Tour de France brand brings worldwide attention like no other race and Jackson believes that the new women’s edition will have a big impact.

“It’s the reason you’re seeing teams apply for WorldTour licenses, isn’t it? For all of my partners, TIBCO, Silicon Valley Bank, and EF it was a primary reason to push ahead with WorldTour status,” she said. “The message of equality for women that the Tour de France promotes has got everybody excited. So, it’s a huge moment for the sport.”

Having raced through the ‘90s and managed her own team for the best part of two decades, Jackson has been well placed to watch how women’s cycling has changed dramatically. She’s seen the sport go from living hand to mouth to riders getting guaranteed minimum salaries, and much more, but she says it’s only the beginning.

“There’s just so much improvement in every aspect of the sport. When I look at when we first started going to Europe, the quality of the races has definitely increased. All the infrastructure around the races has improved. The fields are definitely getting deeper, and I think that’s one thing that the UCI requirement for minimum salaries has done,” Jackson told VeloNews.

“Now potential riders look at the sport and realize that maybe it can be a self-sustaining thing. I think that we’re building the base of the pyramid and I think that’s what has to happen before we push further progress.

“Because if you look at the total number of women in the sport, versus the total number of men in the sport, men’s numbers are much higher. So, the field isn’t as deep in the women’s side of things.

“We need to see more entry into the sport that’s going to filter through to the top of the pyramid. I think that’s what the UCI minimum salary mandates will help happen. Television for the sport is increasing and the overall quality of the sport for women has progressed from being an afterthought to being a main attraction.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.