Amid all the noise around Euro 2020, another major sporting event got underway this week in Europe as Le Grand Depart set out from Brittany as the Tour de France 2021 began.
While the event may struggle a little for media attention, spare a thought for another group of riders, riding exactly the same stages as the men’s Tour de France this summer but likely with little or no fanfare.
The Donnons des Elles au Velo is a French cycling club whose Journee-1 initiative sees them ride one day ahead of the men’s peloton during the three-week tour.
Their mission has been to shine a spotlight on the gender inequality in cycling and to see the women’s Tour de France reinstated. Something that will become a reality in 2022.
The J-1 riders set out a day ahead of the men in Brest on Friday to compete the 21 stages and Nathalie Giloy, one of the competitors, told Cycling News: “We are really, really happy because of course, it’s one of the objectives to see [a Women’s Tour de France] fulfilled. We believe we have like a little part of it. At least we hope so.”
This band of sisters used to ride one month ahead of the Tour – and indeed had to revert to doing so last year because of Covid. But riding one day ahead of the men, says Giloy, allows the message to be delivered louder and clearer to the cycling public – and the sport’s public at large.
“At first we were like, ‘okay, just doing it one month before, we might not get the same attention,” Giloy told Cycling News. But, she says, the host cities actually preferred them coming through one day ahead of the men. “They actually had more time to dedicate to us,” she explained.
“When people came, they came for us [and] they weren’t already there for the men. So that was quite cool.”
The plan for the 2022 Women’s Tour de France is for it to start just as the men’s edition finishes. Something Giloy believes will give the Women’s Tour the impetus it needs. “It’s like a relay where the men are giving the relay to the women as they arrive on the Champs-Élysées and then the girls will start from the Champs-Élysées, so I kind of like the symbol,” she said.
Giloy added that, even though the group has achieved its goal of seeing a women’s Tour reinstated (there used to be one in the 80s), it is determined to ride for what it believes in: supporting grassroots women’s cycling and fighting gender inequality.
“Still cycling is somehow a men’s sport and we want to change this image and this is why we want to continue,” she told Cycling News.
“In France, we only have 10 percent of female licences at our French Cycling Union. So basically, this is something we want to change,” she says.
“We want to show that it is possible for girls to cycle and to compete in cycling. And so we want to give cycling kind of a new image. And also encourage girls to go into cycling clubs.
“When you enter a city or whatever, then they see the first two riders and they will say ‘oh, it’s a men’s peloton,’ which they’re quite used to seeing. But when they see like six or seven girls, then they’re like ‘wow’. That’s kind of what we want to provoke. We want to show a girl’s peloton which is less common than a men’s peloton.”
Even though the J-1 team will be riding every stage of the Tour this year, the Tour de France Femmes next year will just be an eight-day event. But Giloy believes that is enough for now.
“I think it’s okay to have an eight day race. Better short and intense than long and boring.
“We want to continue to promote cycling but also work more on a local and regional scale. With local clubs, or with local authorities,” Giloy told Cycling Weekly. “For instance, I have been organising some female rides here in Brest in collaboration with the Giant store, and it was really nice because everybody was so happy to see [it] and they all told me it’s so cool to just be riding with girls.”
Over here, SKODA, who sponsor the Tour de France, proudly support a women’s academy mentored by Paralympic legend Sarah Storey. The team (DSI Academy) are, like the Donnons, hard at work at changing perceptions of women’s cycling in this country.
Having just recruited four new riders this spring, Storey spoke to the Telegraph about why she was committed to this initiative. She said it filled a gap, not just in cycling but across women’s sports.
“It is that middle bit of the pathway where sometimes people lose out, especially the girls,” said Storey. “We’ve talked about this my whole international career, so that’s 30 years, about the drop-out rate of 16, 17, 18-year-old women and I think that’s true in all sports. This is an opportunity to try to fill that gap.
“The academy has been set up to be a supportive environment for under-23 riders to try to fill a gap for those talents that aren’t as swift to rise into the senior ranks. Not everybody is an Amalie Dideriksen, winning straight after the world junior champs, straight into the seniors. Not everyone does that, so being able to develop more slowly is a gap I think in the women’s side of racing without that under-23 category.
“The foundations of being a good athlete isn’t just about winning bike races. For most professional riders winning bike races is actually the thing they’re unlikely to do. It’s embedding that expectation of riders that your role could be any number of these positions that are held in a road team,” she told the Telegraph.
“It’s about taking all of the opportunities provided,” she said. “Even if you have a little bit of concern. Speak about that, but just take them because they’re going to be amazing. You’ll meet some incredible people along the way.”
Sportside will be following the fortunes of the Donnons and Sarah Storey’s academy over the coming months and years and keenly anticipate both Tours de France in 2022 and what that step change can do for women’s grassroots cycling in the years to come.