Tuesday, 20 August 2013
Is a women's Tour de France in 2014 a realistic goal?
I want to make it clear from the outset, I am not against the idea of a women's Tour de France. Of course the pinnacle of cycling should have gender equality, whether it realistically can happen within a 12 month window is the question we should be asking.
A recent petition [found here], addressed to Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme requesting gender equality has been championed by many as the necessary first step. The petition, from the pen of Emma Pooley, Kathryn Bertine, Marianne Vos and Chrissie Wellington, requests that a women's professional field is added to the 2014 Tour de France. The petition doesn't request that ASO simply add a racing schedule that includes women, but that they run a professional race for women in conjunction with the men's event. It's requested that such a race would be run at the same time, over the same distances and on the same days; I don't feel that it's reasonable to request such an event within a 12 month time frame. To be frank, I feel such a request is actually doing the women's professional scene a disservice. A push for so much, so quickly, has the potential to put ASO off. Surely approaching them with a petition requesting to race the final Champs Elysee stage of the 2014 Tour in its entirety would be a realistic goal, the first step of many on the path to gender equality.
The Tour de France is a monstrous machine, one which already poses significant logistical challenges. We're talking 1200 hotel rooms reserved daily, 1500 vehicles, 13,000 gendarmes and around 4500 accompanying persons including cyclists, mechanics, drivers, managers, journalists. Is it realistic to superimpose a women's event within 12 months? ASO don't start planning the next edition of the Tour after the previous edition has ended, it's a process that begins years in advance. ASO will already have financially invested in planning the 2014 edition, it's unreasonable to expect them to alter those plans immediately at their expense. Why couldn't the petition have requested to have an event in conjunction within say 4 years, giving time to plan properly such a huge undertaking. It seems to me that this petition hasn't considered that it would take far more than a year to integrate successfully an identical women's event with the men's.
I'm not qualified to discuss the sport science aspect of a women's Tour, something which Emma Pooley very rightly pointed out to me on Twitter recently. I had mistakenly said that a women's Tour over the same parcours would be too physiologically demanding. I was responsible for promoting the same myths of physical limitations the petition seeks to debunk, for that I apologise. I don't however feel that a massive jump in race duration and distance for just one event each year is in the best interest of the sport. The average stage distance at the 2013 Giro Rosa was just over 100km, the average at the 2013 Tour was 162km. If I'm wrong on this please correct me, but surely it would be better to gradually increase the distances of all the existing women's races on the calendar and build towards the same distances as the men? Speaking from my own limited racing experience, I wouldn't want to enter an event three times longer than anything I'd ridden previously with stages on average 60% longer; I'd much prefer to build up to such a grueling task. If racing over the same distances is something the women's professional peloton desires, they'd also need the UCI to first change the rules restricting race length before any route could be planned. Something much easier said than done, the UCI aren't exactly famed for their decision making abilities. Thanks to the UCI I now own a pair of illegal socks, five years ago I wouldn't have thought that possible.
I think it's very unlikely that we'll have what the petition requests by July 2014, but that isn't to say the petition will have been a failure, far from it. The four women at the centre have ignited the debate and that was always going to be the starting point. True gender equality across cycling as a whole will take time, it isn't something that can be forced through overnight. I'm almost certain that the close to 100,000 people who've signed the petition would sign another pushing for the inclusion of women on some level at next year's Tour. Compromise is going to have to come from both sides. I fear that such a demanding request will be ignored by ASO, whereas a petition requesting simply inclusion on a smaller level to begin with would be far more likely to succeed.
As always, discussion or correction welcomed......