Although professional women cyclists still lack an actual Tour de France in which to showcase their fierce racing talents, this month has provided a taste of what that might look like – virtual style. With cycling’s most prominent event rescheduled to August due to the coronavirus pandemic, online training platform Zwift, together with Tour de France organisers A.S.O., has developed an inventive solution to give cycling-hungry fans the dose of excitement they’ve come to expect in July.
On weekends since July 4th, sixteen women’s teams and twenty-three men’s teams have been battling it out on identical courses for the famed yellow, green, polka-dot, and white jerseys. Concluding this Sunday, July 19th, the six specially-designed stages have been brought to life by cycling titans like world time-trial champion Chloe Dygert, British road and time-trial champion Alice Barnes, and Dutch legend Marianne Vos.
The excitement so far
The first iteration of the Women’s Tour de France since 1989, this virtual event has been providing plenty of action, including some breakout performances by young riders. The first stage was won by 19-year-old April Tacey (DROPS) who went on to secure another stage victory when she took the fourth last Sunday ahead of 21-year-old Anna Henderson (Sunweb).
Undoubtedly a formative experience for Tacey, who told Cycling News that it has been “an amazing opportunity” to get her name out there, and that “it would be great to race La Course next year,” this landmark event has allowed her to make an impression early in her career. She’s also sitting in good company with other stage winners Lauren Stephens (Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank) and Tanja Erath (Canyon-SRAM) who took stages two and three respectively.
In terms of the overall classification, TIBCO-SVB continue to lead with 277 points, followed by DROPS with 219 points, and Canyon-SRAM with 206. This weekend, stage five will be the Queen Stage as riders race to Chalet Reynard on Mont Ventoux. The action will conclude on Sunday when the peloton will take to the Champs-Élyśees to compete for glory as they race towards the iconic finish in front of the Arc de Triomphe.
— Zwift (@GoZwift) July 17, 2020
An opportunity to compete on an equal playing field
In addition to top-notch racing, pro women cyclists have also been speaking out in support of this new opportunity that sees them on equal footing with men. For many, a hugely appealing aspect of this virtual event is that men and women are competing over the same stages with the same television coverage. As reigning British road champion Alice Barnes put it to Telegraph Sports, “It’s nice that we have the same routes, so you can kind of compare how the racing is and see the different styles.” She also highlighted another crucial point when she said that “it will be massive for our sponsors. They pay us money to show them off and they aren’t getting that at the moment. So, for them, it’s obviously huge.”
Ella Harris (Canyon-SRAM) also notes that this increased visibility will hopefully continue into upcoming races. “It’s a huge boost for female cycling when it comes to gathering exposure and momentum for further change in outdoor events,” she said in a team press release. “I believe it certainly marks a revolutionary next step in the future of sport, allowing for age-old gender barriers to be chipped away, albeit in a virtual form. I think it’s very cool that Zwift are helping to take the lead by utilising their platform to provide this opportunity.”
Indeed, the success of virtual racing seems to be making an increasingly strong case for gender equality in cycling. With these stages being broadcast in over 130 countries worldwide, there’s no doubt that The Virtual Tour de France, with its six hour-long stages that offer equal opportunities for sprinters, climbers and all-rounders, has generated more than a few new women’s cycling enthusiasts.
A sign of things to come
Of course, it is important to harness this momentum to ensure that this year’s one-off event doesn’t just become a blip in the timeline of cycling history. Thankfully, due to the tenacity and exceptional racing from the women, and an increasingly dynamic e-racing scene, it looks promising that this is just the beginning.
Zwift’s Tour For All at the start of May generated viewing figures running into millions and it appears that CEO Eric Min is wise to the role that women’s cycling has played in making these events a success. He has said that if the current Virtual Tour de France goes well, he could imagine a scenario whereby Zwift hosted a full virtual women’s Tour de France next summer.
A.S.O. has also said it is looking at a multi-stage women’s race starting in 2022 but as Covid-19 continues to pose serious challenges for organizers, it is promising to see Zwift filling the void and prioritizing the women’s peloton as they do it. As Min went on to say in regard to the viability of a women’s Tour de France taking place physically within the next year or two: “I’m sure we can be a solution. We can be that bridge… I feel that the women’s peloton has embraced Zwift racing even more than the men. They don’t have as many races and they can see the benefit for their sponsors.”
Proving they’re eager to take advantage of all opportunities, elite women cyclists continue to demonstrate a boundless dedication and enthusiasm for building their sport. Let’s hope that this exciting glimpse of the women’s peloton racing under cycling’s most prestigious banner will soon become the norm.
You can watch the final stages of The Virtual Tour de France this weekend via the Zwift website, Eurosport or television broadcasters worldwide.
Europe (Eurosport & GCN)
Denmark (TV2 Sport)
Norway (TV2 Sport/TV2 Sumo)
Belgium Walloon (RTBF – digital)
Belgium Flemish (VRT één)
Netherlands (NOS – digital)
Spain (Teledeporte or digital)
USA (NBC Sports Gold)
Sub-Saharan Africa (Supersport)
Japan (J Sports)
Asia/Pac (Eurosport Asia & GCN)
New Zealand (SKY Sport)