The Women’s Tour de France
The inaugural Tour de France Femmes, starting on 24 July 2022, was not the first attempt at staging a Tour de France for women. The early days of the sport were marked by opposition and restrictions aimed at women’s participation. Be it the constricting clothing expected to be worn by female competitors or the perceived threat of the “ugly bicycle face,” a supposed medical condition affecting mostly women caused by athletic exertion, it was not made easy for any women to race. There was not much diversity, sponsorships, or prize money on offer, nor proper coaching available. Nevertheless quite a few women pushed their way into the sport: Hélène Dutrieu who in 1893 broke the women’s Hour record, Alfonsina Strada, who rode the Giro d’Iitalia in 1924, Millie Robinson, winner of the first Tour de France in 1955, Elsy Jacobs, the first female world champion, Beryl Burton, a phenomenal track rider and record holder, and Connie Carpenter-Phinney, the first female road race Olympic champion, just to name a few who paved the way for what we will witness in just a few days, the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.
There have been four previous versions of the Tour de France for women. The five-stage Tour de France Féminin was only run once in 1955. The women’s peloton raced their first official women’s Tour de France in 1984. It was an 18-day race held simultaneously with the men’s event and along much of the same, yet shortened, routes. This race came to an end in 1989 and was followed by the Tour Cyclist Féminin in 1992. The latter was then renamed La Grande Boucle in 1998 and continued as such until 2009 before La Course by Le Tour de France was first run in 2014, and finally this year, we’ll see the launch of the eight-day Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. Women’s racing and its athletes have come a long way since the earlier days of the pioneer women and we are looking forward to continued progress and development of our amazing sport.
In 1952, two-time French national road champion Jeannine Lemaire set the hour record of 39.735km. The record had only improved by 2.6km in 40 years at this point. It wasn’t broken until 1958 when Elsy Jacobs bettered Lemaire’s distance by going over the 40 km/h mark.
This week, the Belgian rider celebrated her 50th birthday. In 1994, she won the silver medal at the World Championships in the road race, and took second place in the nationals. Initially she rode with an amateur license, but with the advocacy of the Flemish Government who supported the professionalisation of the women’s peloton, she became the first professional female rider in Belgium. This allowed her to give up her job as a secretary and concentrate full-time on her sporting career. After retiring from active sport, she remained involved in cycling as a race director of the women’s Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders Classics races. She became one of the first female race directors in the sport. Currently, she works in a managerial role in an international machinery manufacturing company specialising in equipment and services for agriculture and construction.