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Tour De Force: Here to Stay

Six weeks on from the grand finale of the first Tour de France Femmes in 33 years, we speak to the first ever American Tour de France winner Marianne Martin, plus EF Education-TIBCO-SVB riders Veronica Ewers, Emily Newsom and Abi Smith about the race.

In 1984, Marianne Martin won the first ever Tour de France Feminin (as it was then named). This year, she returned to watch the race for which she blazed the trail 38 years before. The Tour de France Femmes may look a little different now, but behind the shiny support cars and brightly coloured kit, the essence of what Marianne fought for remains: that women can, and will, ride the Tour de France.

“The French didn’t think we would finish, and that’s something I think we were able to do for the women riding today: prove that we can finish and we can kick ass. Back then, we did 18 stages [as opposed to this year’s eight] and I think that sent the message that women’s uteruses weren’t going to fall out if we rode that far.”

“I saw the women racing the Coors Classic in Colorado; they looked so fit and capable and I thought: I want to do that. And if I hadn't seen it, I don't know if I would have gotten into racing. It was watching the women’s race this year that made me want to do it all again. That’s what helps the sport grow – women seeing other women doing it.”

“The excitement around women’s racing now is amazing”, explains Marianne. “It wasn’t like that for us at all. There was lots of interest and the fans were excited, but there was no media coverage. It felt like we were on the verge of something happening, but then it just stopped.”

The last women’s Tour de France took place in 1989, before it was stopped for cost reasons, while the men’s sport has survived more than its fair share of sponsorship droughts, slip-ups, and scandals. Hesitation surrounded the women’s race from the off and financial support was always scarce, but women’s passion for racing was never in short supply.

“My dad wasn’t a huge fan of me getting into racing”, Marianne reflects. “For my graduation I told him I wanted to get into bike racing, so he bought me a camera. I put the costs for the race on my credit card because I couldn’t afford it at the time. I knew I had my body and my fitness then, and I could get the money later.”

“We didn’t have the technical stuff like heart rate monitors, but I was so dialled into my body, I knew when to push it, when to rest. We also didn’t have a mechanic for the first half of the race, or any gears larger than a 19. But we made do. We were so excited to be there. It was haphazard, but in the best way possible. In the morning we would fill our bidons with espresso, and drink that in the last third of the race – that was our science.”

“I’d love to see the sport grow more”, says Marianne. “I want to see more women out there and, judging by the Tour, it's going to get there. I don't feel it needs to be 18 stages to be as significant. I would rather see shorter stages and more support.”

Heading into the final stage of this year’s Tour de France Femmes, EF Education-TIBCO-SVB rider Veronica Ewers sat just outside the top 10. After putting in a phenomenal performance on La Super Planche Des Belles Filles, she finished an impressive 9th position in the GC – in just her first year as a professional.

“I’m really excited about what both I and the team accomplished,” says Veronica. “I feel proud, but I really want more now I know I'm capable of being with some of the top hitters in the peloton. I still fangirl over the tenured women. I lined up behind Marianne Vos a few times and I couldn't keep my cool.”

Alongside her performance and the presence of certain riders in the peloton, another element contributed to such a special atmosphere during the race. With a record breaking 5.1 million viewers tuning in for the final, the people’s passion for this year's Tour really set a precedent.

““The viewership is what made it so momentous, and other, longer races deserve the same numbers. In my hometown in Idaho, they put ‘GO VK EWERS’ across the cinema billboard. It's amazing, this race brought a whole town in the rural US into women’s cycling. And if it happened there, it must have happened all over the place.”

“I think right now I share a lot of women’s opinions: we don’t have the resources and staff to have a 21-day race. It’s not feasible without bigger teams and more resources. But if we had all of that, it would be amazing. All women in the peloton need to be making a liveable salary first so they can collectively become stronger riders.”

Mother, musician, and professional cyclist, EF Education-TIBCO-SVB rider Emily Newsom is clearly unaccustomed to life in the slow lane. But following a week of tireless work for her teammates during the penultimate stage of this year’s Tour, time seemed to slip by slower than ever. Despite finishing outside the time limit, she maintained her ever-present optimism and marvelled at the magnitude of the race.

“The more time that goes by, the more it’ll hit me” explains Emily. “I’ll realise how big a deal it was. What a huge moment it was for women and women in cycling, and that I got to be a part of it was kind of overwhelming. Not all of it worked out how I wanted it to, but now I'm starting to feel more pride in myself, and a sense of wonder that I got to be a part of it all.

“We were also aware at the time just how significant the moment was. Surrounded by hundreds of fans, you’d head up the climbs, turn a corner and the noise was deafening. And everybody was at their peak and every stage was so hard, it felt like eight one-day races back to back. I was expecting lulls: there was none of that.”

“From the knowledge the commentators had of the riders to the amount of airtime we got, the coverage was amazing. Sometimes races can feel like they’re just paying their dues, but this felt like a celebration of women in racing.”

“I think it would be interesting to have more stages,” Emily adds. “Then it allows the substories to happen. The peloton allows breaks, you get people winning who aren't GC contenders. But in a shorter race, everyone's fighting so hard you don’t let anyone go."

At 20 years old and in her first season as a professional, Abi Smith’s cycling journey is just getting started. After watching the race from the comfort of her home in Yorkshire, she’s determined to return next year to the startline.

“I’m excited about the future of the race. I’m raring to go and so excited to see its next developments. This year has been so good to watch, the riders spoke about the crowds and atmosphere, and it will keep getting better and become more global. Obviously I want equality in terms of coverage, but I also think the men’s and women’s races are different – the psychology, the team sizes – they’re not the same. I think women’s racing is more aggressive.

“Growing up, we would watch the men’s Tour de France every year, and my role models were riders like Chris Froome. I would’ve liked them to be women, but their races weren’t ever televised so I never heard about them. Now I’m doing things that I wouldn’t have dreamed of being able to do so young. I feel like a fan when I'm in the peloton."

“Thanks to the World Tour minimum salary, I can do this as a full time career. Even just five years ago women had to have second jobs. Tanja Erath is a doctor, and she worked night shifts last year when EF Education-TIBCO-SVB were a Conti team. Not to need another job is a privileged position.”

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