When Marianne Vos of the Netherlands crossed the finish line on the Champs-Elysees this Sunday to win La Course it was the culmination of a year's hard work both on and off the bike. The women's Tour has been beset by problems since its creation in 1984. Whilst initially set up to run alongside the men's event as "La Grande Boucle Féminine", financial problems and interruptions ultimately led to its demise in 2009. The then winner and British pro, Emma Pooley, described it as "more of a petite Boucle than Grande".
Fittingly it was Pooley who was key in assisting Vos resurrect the competition this year as they secured a 100,000 signature strong petition asking for female professional cycling teams to race the Tour. It's unthinkable that the top men's cyclists would have been placed in this position, especially without the help of a sports marketing team behind them, but over the last year they have gained real momentum and were able to announce the inclusion of La Course in February 2014.
The success of such an event is reliant on significant and sustainable financial investment. Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), which owns the Tour is a private profit making organization with no obligation to provide equality for women's cycling as would be the case for a national or international body. The big question now is whether women's cycling can attract the sponsorship and coverage that has been problematic in the past?
The popularity of cycling has grown steadily since the London Olympics in 2012. Most recently the packed streets and hills of Yorkshire, as Le Tour rolled through England this year, were testament to that, as was the popularity of events such as Ride London and Sky Ride. The inclusive family-based aspect of the sport is something that would gain support from government funding, particularly at a time when engaging youth in physical activity has become a major issue for health as well as sport. Private funding may prove harder to achieve, but this weekend's event will have put the spotlight firmly on women's cycling.
The iconic sight of a cyclist rounding the Arc de Triomphe and the sprint finish on the Champs Elysées gives them the profile and the coverage that is essential to make this a success. The prize of €22,500, comparable to the men's stage winnings, is significant. Equality in prize money has been a long-standing issue in many other sports.
La Course was shown on TV in 157 countries, in Pooley's word "a greater reach than any women's road race has ever had". Reliance on the men's event could provide a stumbling block further down the road; in 1998 Tour organisers said that La Grande Boucle was a breach of trademark and forced a change of name. Without the support and popularity of the men's race the women's race simply would not be possible from a business perspective.
The long term goal of La Course of being a multi-stage event running alongside the men's, seems way off at present. Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said "Having women's races is very important... the Tour is huge and you cannot have it bigger and bigger and bigger down the road - it is impossible." It may not even be a matter of opinion, currently Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's governing body, forbids women from racing more than 10 days; the Tour de France has 21 days of racing.
Irrespective of the future, Sunday's race was a fine achievement and something that Pooley hopes, with support, will grow into more: "The final say will go to the audience: if the response is positive, the event will take off and other men's races will follow in having a women's version. La Course may be just a short race for the riders but it's a giant leap for women's cycling."Suggest a correction