Why don’t women ride the Tour de France?

This is a guest post by Lindsay Kandra, a Portland-based lawyer, bike racer, blogger, and contributor to Our Bodies, Our Bikes. She is one of my fellow Portland Society board members. At our last meeting, the Reve Team effort to ride the famously grueling Tour de France course came up, and someone asked the question that is the title of this post. Lindsay went off into a brilliant tangential rant which I later asked her to set into writing. Here it is.

Okay, so, why don’t women ride the Tour de France?

It comes down to two things that Republicans are fascinated with: Money and vaginas.

Money

Once upon a time, the grand tour to end all grand tours was just a bunch of cigarette-smoking men riding unpaved roads through the Alps. Now, its the Super Bowl on two wheels. We fans are armchair quarterbacks predicting each team’s tour roster before the Spring Classics have even started.

The Tour costs millions of dollars to produce. On top of that, consider the resources that teams put into their grand tour squads during the race: Bikes lighter than my cat, wheels made of of NASA grade materials, team cars, luxury RVs, gas, seigneurs, mechanics, publicists, clothing, housing, food, bags of clean urine.

And this doesn’t even include the years worth of resources needed to develop a Tour-ready team: Competitive salaries, rider development, travel, housing, more gear, more bikes, more publicists.

Where do teams get this money? Sponsors.

And what do sponsors want? The biggest marketing return on their dollar. Like it or not, that return is not found in women’s professional cycling.
Many of us grew up as children of Title IX and it doesn’t sit right with us that professional women’s sports teams are constantly struggling to find the money that they need to survive. Still, well-funded women’s professional sports (across the board, not just with cycling) remain the exception, not the rule.

It’s a systemic problem. If we don’t have the resources to put into young female riders, only a handful of riders get the development support to become professional. Fewer riders, fewer teams, less exposure, less money.

Unless and until the resources are there to feed into rider development, event production, and sponsor coffers, we won’t be seeing a women’s grand tour anytime soon.

Vaginas

When I say that women don’t ride the tour because of vaginas, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that women don’t have the physical talent to compete in that calibar of event. Ever seen Marianne Vos ride a bike? Case closed.

I’m not going to dwell on the cultural baggage that comes with vagina ownership and how girls aren’t encouraged to be be strong and athletic, blah blah blah. I think this is changing, slowly. But this new girl power tends to be concentrated in team sports: Soccer, basketball, volleyball, softball. We want our girls to be athletes, but we also funnel them toward activities where they have to work and play well with others. The so-called individual sports (track and field, cycling, golf) have been slower to embrace and empower younger women.

So what does this mean? Most women come to cycling later in life, in our 20s and 30s. This coincides with a time when many women are using their vaginas for baby-making. While a male cyclist may have his teens, 20s and 30s to develop his talent without interruption, fewer women take that same opportunity. Again, I want to stress that I’m not saying that mothers can’t be bike racers. Kristin Armstrong, anyone? But if the majority of women become mothers, and assuming that the physical and time constraints of motherhood interfere with the consistent development of a bike racer, the pool of pro-level talent becomes yet smaller to choose from.

The solution? Start developing female riders in their teens.

But then you run into the chicken-and-egg problem I alluded to above. You need money to develop talent, but you need talent to attract money.

So if women are ever going to be part of the Tour–or any other race longer than the ten-stage Giro Donne–we all need to start paying attention to women’s racing and putting our money where our good intentions are.

Thanks to Lindsay Kandra for writing this guest post. For more on Taking the Lane about women and bike racing, see our previous post here. For more writing about gender and cycling (including racing), check out back issues of the print zine.

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43 Responses to “Why don’t women ride the Tour de France?”

  1. Sal Ruibal June 22, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    The problem is not that there are no women capable of riding with men. It is that the international sports governing bodies (UCI, IOC) cannot conceive of a mixed-gender sports team. It would be exciting to have a category of mixed-gender teams with the same team scoring as in single-gender races. Be creative and give more finishing points to women riders, so teams would support them in a race. That’s a start.

  2. Cecibel Romero June 22, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    I was talking with a friend about your question this week. And only want to say that you put attention in another things: The motherhood in this period and also all the bussines around this event.

    Thanks!

    Greetings from El Salvador

  3. Gary Kavanagh June 22, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    I personally would love to see women’s cycling elevated in status, but when it comes to road racing, I’m not so sure the emphasis on funneling women into team sports can be that much to blame. There are some types of bicycle racing that are predominantly solo, but road racing like the Tour is very much a team sport. While you can enter many amateur road races solo, without a team for support you cannot expect to get very far, and even at the amateur levels teams and clubs play a big role in shaping races.

    I think many parents not already intimately familiar with the sport may not be aware of how much a team effort is involved, but there is no such thing as a solo victory in the Tour De France. No sprinter will hit the stage win without their “train” plowing the way to the last 200 meters, and no jersey winner will reach the podium without enormous efforts and sacrifices from their teammates all throughout the days and weeks of grueling racing.

    I think something that would go a long way is for amateur level race organizers to simply not be such total dicks to women road racers. Lumping their categories all together into completely lop sided races, making snide comments from the booth when women go by, and other far too common chauvinistic nonsense I’ve scene at many local races I’ve participated in.

    • Elly June 22, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

      Gary, I appreciate your final paragraph more than words can say. Sometimes the simplest solution is simply to STOP doing something. Easy, right?

  4. J Bracht June 22, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    men think about sex 19 times a day on average – Dr. Terri Fisher and her colleagues at Ohio State University. With that said, your telling me that there is not a strong push from outside sources to place a female body into a cyclists outfit and display it for a lengthy period of time onto a now media covered event across the world?

    • Elly June 22, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

      Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Part of the problem.

    • J Bracht June 22, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

      Honesty sucks. There has to be a reason other than gender. Is it strength? Mabey the lack of women submitting their name? I have 3 daughters and my wife and I’m trying to raise them to “attack” everything they want with the same passion I have for my work. I hope to see a mother of 3 standing on the podium with the yellow jersey one day.

    • Erik Sandblom June 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

      J Bracht, they have podium girls who kiss the winners. Doesn’t that suggest it’s a gender issue why don’t women ride the Tour de France?

  5. Ele Munjeli June 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    I’m with Gary in that team-ness may not be such a factor here. When we look at national statistics on gender and exercise, women seem to prefer individual sports. Also, women don’t seem to be well represented in competitive exercise. http://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2008/sports/ The thing I notice is that women tend also toward indoor sports. Although it’s not supported through school programs, women are relatively well represented in cycling considering it’s an outdoor sport. To have more women cycling, we need more women exercising in general; and well, I guess we need to stage a raid and free the ones imprisoned in the aerobics studio. WTF?

  6. Slate O June 23, 2012 at 4:35 am #

    Hillary Billington is a nearly 40-something mother of two that went from riding with her husband and their friends to a fifth place podium spot at the US National
    Road Race. She’s a hero of mine.
    If you live in Portland you probably have seen her on Skyline and never thought twice about her. She had this amazing result, is an incredible athlete and sadly has really nowhere to go but chase small teams and small races- and she’s done so with a smile because she relishes the chance to make the most of it.

    Few cyclists who dream about making their passion also their livelihood ever get the chance- male or female. But you’re right in your story that it comes down to money. It’s a chicken/egg, you need the fans to justify the ‘media’ money, but you need the money to make the races to bring the fans. It’s been the same problem with womens basketball, professional soccer, etc.

    We want our girls to grow up knowing they can do whatever they want, but there still is nowhere near the same options in reality. It’s a shame.

    • Elly June 23, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      Hey Slate, thanks for the analysis (and the tip-off about a local hero). You’re involved in organizing races–seems like you’re well positioned to help pave the way for your daughters to have better opportunities. I wonder what you could do?

  7. Mike June 23, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    I really don’t think it’s lack of support for women’s cycling. I also don’t believe it’s men’s fault either. It’s simply business, in the article you said how much it cost to put on the tour but then look at tv ratings for the WNBA. If you make it worthwhile for business meaning you bring enough eyeballs when the women’s tour is on tv there will be a women’s tour. But at this time there isn’t much tv audience for women’s sports besides maybe tennis.

    • Elly June 23, 2012 at 10:21 am #

      The lack of audience isn’t necessarily a given, though. People do seem to watch the things that are most hyped, best promoted, televised at convenient times, etc. And when something is awesome to watch that makes gender irrelevant–so long as it’s actually covered equally. I grew up watching basketball on tv when the women’s college teams got more air time than the men’s teams for a minute. There’s no reason that couldn’t happen in other sports besides tennis.

  8. Mike June 23, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    That is really my point though. The federal is irrelevant if it’s awesome to watch and makes sense business wise it will happen. I think it could actually happen first as a social thing with a few bike companies that are big in women’s cycling deciding they are going to do it. Then at first it will be wow look at this new thing but then does it make sense economically.

    • Elly June 23, 2012 at 11:39 am #

      Which companies do you think might go for this? Or what would it take to interest them? Definitely seeking solutions here.

  9. Mike June 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Just off the top of my head Specialized. They allready have a line of women specific bikes and while this may be marketing who cares how you get there. Another reason specialized is they are a major sponsor of the little Bella’s cycling camps at the sea otter classic. Little belle Bella’s is a mountain bike camp for girls run by two sisters who are pros. This is just one company there are others that see the value of the female market.

  10. Mike June 23, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Okay new thought here how about instead of trying to go from 0-60 in one second do to speak start small and do maybe one stage one year . Say the steepestmountain stage, it could be billed queen of the mountain or something. Sorry for the scattered approach kind of just brainstorming here. I think it would be easier to get companies to underwrite one stage as a trial run than a full tour. Or what if start smaller go for the tour of california instead? What do you think?

    • Elly June 23, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      I like these ideas. Keep it coming.

      BTW I believe this is exactly what Tour de California does — there’s one stage with a women’s field.

      Of course, incremental steps are not nearly as awesome as giant steps. But it takes all kinds of steps I suppose.

    • Gary Kavanagh June 25, 2012 at 10:25 am #

      The Tour of California has been doing one women’s stage each year for a while now, but they don’t market it well, and it doesn’t get coverage except on a small internet feed separate from other broadcasting. There has been talk about expanding it into a real stage race a few times, not the full length of the men’s race, but enough days it would legitimately be a stage race and not just a little criterium like they have been doing.

      I was really excited that they might finally do it the year before last, but they said it didn’t garner enough interest to justify the cost of the additional time of road closures. However they don’t exactly go out of the way to help it attract interest either. It seems to be this catch22 situation that is extremely difficult to break out of, and I’m not quite sure what it would take to tip it over.

      However as I mentioned earlier, I do think that the environment of amateur road racing is quite frequently not inviting (and sometimes hostile) to keeping women in the sport, and that certainly works against the kind of grass roots growth that might demand more attention paid to the professional women racers. More women getting involved in organizing USA Cycling sanctioned races might help this situation. Dorothy Wong’s involvement in throwing races in SoCal appears to be getting more young women taking up bike racing and sticking with it. We need a lot more Dorothys in the system.

  11. Roger June 24, 2012 at 6:02 am #

    The 2 most popular professional women’s sports are tennis and golf. Both of these are individual sports. I’d think this doesn’t support your team sport as the concentration.

    • Elly June 24, 2012 at 10:44 am #

      Good point. I have never seen or heard of women’s golf particularly but haven’t been looking and will take your word for it.

  12. Steve June 28, 2012 at 9:31 am #

    There should be either a woman’s race of equal stature to the Tour de France. Or mixed teams similar to an Xterra or adventure style race. No question about it.

    Here’s my challenge to everyone who’s read this post and commented. Follow the Giro Donne that starts this weekend. Write the ASO and UCI ask them to revive some version of the Tour de Adeleide. Write NBC and ESPN and VeloNews or whoever and ask for better coverage of these events on TV or on their websites. Write to thank the race and team sponsors of women’s races and teams.

    • Noelle July 2, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

      I just followed another blog post on here’s lead and wrote a letter to Susan Haspel. Yes, it was written by someone else, but I still copied it and sent it.

      I also added in a request for an interview with the Reve Tour Women.

      I’m pleased that Cannondale has gotten behind these women so much.

  13. Jill, Head Geargal June 28, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    I don’t really care about pro cycling or even amateur racing at all, so I don’t think “more women’s pro cycling” would be a victory, at least for what I’m interested in. I’d just like the cycling industry to make better gear for women and for bike shops to stock a useful selection for women. I’d like to be able to go to a trade show without “booth girls” prancing around in g-strings and tight outfits, and maybe even participate in an online forum about cycling without the atomic levels of douchebaggery that currently dominate.

    If there really are “podium girls” in pro cycling, I’d like that idiotic tradition to go away, too. In general it’s unacceptable to treat people of either sex like objects or decorations.

    • Eric Weinstein July 13, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

      Jill, I’m with you on this.

      Commercial bike racing isn’t a great cultural idea. The basic premise of the Tour de France is to make money for the sponsors of the race. It’s only a false idea that we’re all watching for the examples of great riding by the competitors. We’re really supposed to watch the ads. After all, they are the one putting up the money to put the event on, and providing the real prize money in the form of advertising contracts. It’s a spectator sport, paid for by commercials. I’m much more interested in sports where I’m a particapant. I do like cycling, but I’m not racing in a sponsored contest to make money for the sponsor.

      I’m not at all convinced that getting women into this commercal display is worthwhile step forward. Actually, I’m not convinced that any of this internationally sanctioned racing is good for anyone.

  14. Noah June 28, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    As with so many other women’s sports, women’s cycling gets short-shrift because sportscasters don’t cover it, and (non-cycling) sponsors don’t put money into it. This is a vicious circle, and neither side wants to take responsibility for resolving it.
    Then there’s the sexist podium girls/booth girls that are a part of races and trade shows.
    And also don’t forget the poor prize options: “First place for men’s gets a $500 set of wheels! First place for women gets…a $40 pair of shorts.”
    I don’t spend much time on any of the forums, but given how hostile such spaces are to women in general, I’m not surprised that there’s a bunch of misogynists hanging out there.

    These things didn’t appear out of nowhere. They’re conscious choices on the part of race directors, broadcasters, sponsors, etc. The UCI could get rid of podium girls. Interbike could do away with booth girls. Forum moderators could shut down the hostile posters. And television networks could cover women’s sports.

    There are some incredibly hard working, strong, talented women in cycling. Off the top of my head, I can think of Rebecca Rusch, Team Specialized-lululemon, and Evelyn Stevens. It’s too bad that cycling (mostly) doesn’t care about them at best, and actively discourages women like them at worst.

  15. Jim Fisher July 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    There may not be any women in the Tour de France but there have been on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (aka Tour Divide) for several years now. This event is far more an individual demonstration of endurance and strength than the Tour de France has been for years. Certainly women are capable.

  16. Randal Foster September 27, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Every time my daughter looks up at me and asks me if girls ride in the Tour de France I feel guilty….. really guilty…..

  17. Heather Moore-Farley February 10, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

    I know this thread is dead, but I’ve been thinking about this and a demonstration might be possible. I don’t know about the logistics of what happens to a course leg on the Tour de France the day after it’s over with, but if female cyclists chose to ride the course a day behind the men, I bet you could build up some media action and pressure for funding and support for women in cycling.

  18. Dee Bagg March 4, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    R.I.P. Beryl Burton

  19. KatR July 22, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

    “So what does this mean? Most women come to cycling later in life, in our 20s and 30s. This coincides with a time when many women are using their vaginas for baby-making. While a male cyclist may have his teens, 20s and 30s to develop his talent without interruption, fewer women take that same opportunity. Again, I want to stress that I’m not saying that mothers can’t be bike racers. Kristin Armstrong, anyone? But if the majority of women become mothers, and assuming that the physical and time constraints of motherhood interfere with the consistent development of a bike racer, the pool of pro-level talent becomes yet smaller to choose from.”

    I don’t care if the person who wrote this has a penis or vagina, it is sexist, and sounds like something snatched from the 1800s when women were encouraged to stay home, drink milk and fast to lose weight instead of exercise, and smoke cigarettes to look sexy. GTGO , seriously? Only MONEY begets TALENT? I guess you must have some sort of elitist grudge against anyone able to seek out, nourish and develop their talent out of passion instead of dollars. That just sounds like spoiled sponsorship, not athletic merit.

    • Lindsay July 23, 2013 at 8:37 am #

      Granted, although I wrote this at least a year ago, I’m positive that I wasn’t arguing the money begets talent. Talent exists because it exists. But, in the case of professional level talent, the optimal development of that talent takes money.

      I believe the point I was making is that, as some of the other commentators have pointed out, that pro cycling is a business. Developing a product (female professional cyclists) is different when we are talking about women’s professional cycling. Why is it different? Money, for one. The experience of living in a female body, two.

      This isn’t a sexist point of view. Rather, I think the sexist point of view is ignore the reality of the female experience and the unique pressures that we face when performing at a high level.

  20. Dan May 2, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

    The reason women are not in the tour , is the same reason women don’t make the same money as men. They don’t ask, they don’t think as highly of themselves. All the reasons given… bs. Sponsors would Drool over a female rider in the tour… O the money to be made. We just need need a strong female to step up and say… It’s going to be me.

    • Elly Blue May 3, 2014 at 9:42 am #

      Uh, Dan, that’s ridiculous. Women have been working to participate in the Tour and demanding equal pay and equal participation in bike races and the bike industry for decades. Just because you haven’t personally heard it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been happening, or happening loudly.

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