Recently it was announced by the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), organisers of the Tour de France, that plans for a major women’s stage race are on the horizon. The organisation has assembled a group to help with the development of women’s cycling and they are scheduled to begin work in September, with an official telling Reuters that, “women cyclists need a race which is to them what the Tour de France is to the men and we need to find a solution for that.”
One group in particular that was pleased to hear this news was Donnons des elles au vélo J-1, a team of amateur women cyclists on their 5th year of riding the full course of the Tour de France one day ahead of the men. Set to finish up this weekend, they’ve been on the road since July 5th, spreading their message of increased equality and promoting women’s cycling.
Caroline Folmer is one among the team of thirteen women. A strategy consultant and amateur athlete from Amsterdam, she heard about Donnons des elles au vélo J-1 on a podcast, and immediately knew that she wanted to get involved. Talking to We Love Cycling, she explained her motivation came from wanting a personal challenge, but even more from the fact that she’s very passionate about empowering women through sports, “I’ve learned so much about myself through my own outdoor experiences and I often see other women not daring to undertake those big challenges (at their own level), often because they don’t have any female role models in this regard.” The desire to share her passion drove her to apply for the 2019 J-1 team and she was selected to take part.
Now Folmer, along with her teammates and the numerous other cyclists who have joined for a portion of the course, are serving as those very role models that she felt were lacking. This year, the project has also expanded to include InternationElles, an English-speaking team completing the same track and riding together with Donnons des elles.
Folmer noted that the reaction from the crowd has been both inspiring and eye-opening. She explained that, “one of the most rewarding things about the experience so far was seeing a father with his two daughters cheering us on and taking pictures of us in the Pyrenees.” At the same time, she was quick to mention that not everyone is used to seeing women riding at this level, “it has also surprised me, how stunned some of the spectators were to see a women’s peloton.”
Indeed, it shows that women’s cycling still has a long battle ahead and as Folmer stated, “I think it will become more and more important that the Donnons des elles au vélo’s message is heard outside of France. I think it will be necessary to continue to promote women’s cycling and encourage the organisation of a professional female stage race in conjunction with a men’s event, so that they can leverage each other’s media attention and infrastructure.”
When asked about whether or not she thinks there should be a women’s Tour de France, or some equivalent, her answer revealed an important logic, “I think there should be a women’s Tour de France, because I cannot explain to any six-year-old girl or boy why there isn’t one. The Tour de France is so iconic, that it is often the only race known to people who don’t actively follow cycling. I love the developments in women’s cycling at the moment, but I still cannot explain to that 6-year-old why the most iconic race doesn’t have a women’s version. I want him or her to be able to sit on the couch and watch those women riders battle it out.”
Hopefully the announcement from ASO is indicative that Folmer’s hope, one shared with many others, will soon be realized. As more support continues to be raised, the calls for change will become harder to ignore. Take the founding of La Course in 2014 as an example of what collective action can achieve—the women’s event was only created after an online petition calling for the resumption of a women’s Tour de France drew almost 100,000 signatures.
Assuming that ASO’s plans do come to fruition, Donnons des elles will have played a vital part in the process. In itself it has contributed to the general uplift in the profile of women’s cycling in the past five years and has provided a platform for more women to make an impact. As Folmer said, “I hope that what I’m doing might inspire someone else to try to do something which they thought was impossible.” Although a women’s race on the scale of the Tour de France might still seem unattainable, it just takes enough people to believe that it can be a reality. Women have repeatedly shown that they have what it takes to race at this level, now it’s time for the organisers to stand up and make something happen.