Richard Moore: Cycling’s most visible women are podium girls

Womens cycle  racing may at last be emerging from the shadows says Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Womens cycle racing may at last be emerging from the shadows says Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
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One of the many media ironies is that stories about sexism in sport take up acres more space than stories about women doing actual sport. Another is that this week’s sexism in sport story, following Andy Murray’s mild rebuke of a reporter, concerned a sport, tennis, that is far better than most at treating male and female players almost equally.

But isn’t it far easier, and also more fun on Twitter, to disparage a reporter for a sloppy question in a press conference than to challenge the institutional sexism of an entire sport?

Look at cycling. The Tour de France is entering its final week but on the eve of the race one rider, Jan Bakelants, gave an interview to a Belgian newspaper. He was asked what he would pack for the Tour. “A packet of condoms, for sure,” said Bakelants. “You never know where those podium girls hang out.”

His joke didn’t really translate in print. The Tour’s director, Christian Prudhomme, demanded an apology, which was duly forthcoming. But the story was, as these stories often tend to be, a Trumpian deflection from the bigger issue: that, as the broadcaster Orla Chennaoui put it, “the most visible women in cycling are not female cyclists, but podium girls”.

Cycling’s sexist roots go all the way back to the origins of the Tour, which was established partly to promote masculinity in a country humiliated by defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and alarmed at its falling birthrate (in stark contrast to neighbouring Germany). The bicycle became a symbol for France’s “crisis of masculinity”, since it represented, according to the historian Christopher Thompson, “a profoundly disturbing development: women’s emancipation”.

When a women’s Tour de France was proposed in 1909, six years after the men’s was established, the race’s founding newspaper, L’Auto, responded that they would have to “raze the mountains”. A decade later another French sports paper saw no objection to women riding bikes for fun, but “that women speed like giants of the road, no, one hundred times, no!”

In 1912 women were banned from racing – at one point in Paris they were banned from riding bikes altogether. But at the Tour women were not invisible. On the contrary, they fulfilled an important role: standing by the roadside waiting for a fleeting glimpse of their warrior-heroes. L’Auto described one woman’s “moist look, heavy with tenderness and inexpressible love” for her man, “a handsome fellow who leaves for the Tour a little as for war”. Women were to look pretty and provide emotional support for the men (you could argue that some of these ideas persist in the presence of podium girls).

In the 1960s a female journalist covered the race for Le Figaro and concluded: “The Tour is, with the stock exchange, the National Assembly and the Council of State, one of the last bastions that women have not really succeeded in infiltrating.”

There was a brief period of change in the 1980s when Félix Lévitan, the Tour’s co-director, championed a Tour de France Féminin.

First held in 1984, it ran alongside the men’s race for several years – the women even shared the podium in Paris with the men – but the Tour Féminin fizzled out after Lévitan’s retirement in 1987.

There have been a few false starts since, not all of them under the auspices of the Tour organiser, ASO, who in 1999 complained that the Tour Cycliste Féminin infringed its copyright. Nicole Cooke, above, won the race in yet another guise, as the Grande Boucle Feminine, in 2006 and 2007. Indeed, when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour in 2012 some claimed that it was false to claim him as Britain’s first Tour de France winner. In fact it was false, and another deflection from the real issue, to claim that Cooke had won the Tour de France.

And so to 2017. Women’s racing has developed exponentially over the past decade – helped, in a sense, by the fact that for so long it barely existed. In Britain there is a standalone Women’s Tour, established in 2014, that attracts enormous crowds and good TV coverage.

In terms of developing women’s racing ASO, the world’s most important race promoters, are hardly leading the charge. In 2014 they did finally get around to staging a women’s race – La Course: a circuit race on the Champs-Élysées on the final day. It was a bit like inviting female footballers to play ten minutes of five-a-side before the Champions League final.

This year, for its fourth edition, La Course is expanding. On Thursday there will be a mountain stage finishing up the Col d’Izoard and on Saturday a time trial in Marseilles, before the men complete the same course.

The format is innovative: only the first 20 on Thursday will do the time trial two days later. And they will start with the same time gaps, so the winner of the Izoard stage will go off first. Unlike other time trials, first across the line in the Stade Vélodrome (home to Olympique de Marseille) will be the winner of La Course.

Opinions are divided. Some liked the spectacle and prestige of the Paris race. Others are encouraged that the race is more than a day. “Maybe it’s a sign that we’ll get a multi-day event,” said Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, one of the favourites for Thursday’s first stage.

“I have mixed feelings,” she continued. “Is it a consolation prize? We were making a lot of noise about having no involvement in the Tour de France and they gave us a one-day race, but is it because they want us there or to shut us up? Are we the pre-show, the warm-up?”

All valid questions, but perhaps, as the Women’s Tour suggests, the best way to develop women’s racing is as a separate entity to men’s.

The Tour de France hasn’t changed much since 1903. Having 100 years’ less historical baggage gives the women’s sport an almost blank canvas. La Course might not be perfect, and may be tokenism, but, with its innovations, this year’s event could help point women’s cycling in a new direction, out of the shadow of the men’s sport.