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analysis: Tour de France Femmes a long time coming for world's best women's cyclists

By Sophie Smith in Cahors
Posted , updated 
Urska Zigart rides in the rain
Urška Žigart will set off for this year's Tour de France hours before her partner, Tadej Pogačar completes the men's version.(Getty Images: Heinz Zwicky)

Suffering is synonymous with professional cycling, but the decades-long pain female racers have endured to see the return of a women's Tour de France arguably goes beyond that. 

Excitement about the Tour de France Femmes on Sunday following a 30-odd-year hiatus is a testament to those whose passion has outweighed sometimes shocking sacrifice. 

There was a turning point in the conversation about women's cycling when it went from being predominantly centred around gender equality and selling the sport, to competition. 

That questions remain about gender equality tells you all things are certainly not yet equal. 

However, the competition has captivated audiences and contributed to the historic advent of the eight-stage race, which starts in Paris the day the Tour de France finishes in the capital. 

Urška Žigart will compete for the Australian-registered BikeExchange-Jayco team, rolling out at 1:40pm (local time), hours before her fiance, two-time yellow jersey champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), second this year to Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), rolls in.

Tadej Pogacar looks down wearing the white jersey
Tadej Pogačar has always been able to call cycling his profession.(Getty Images: Dario Belingheri)

Žigart and Pogačar trained together when they first met at a Slovenian cycling club camp in Croatia and still do now, if respective schedules allow, sharing the same joy and sense of freedom that comes from bike riding.

However, where the prodigious Pogačar has by all appearances always been able to call his passion a job, Žigart held off on describing women's cycling as a profession before the sport's governing body, the UCI, introduced a 15,000-euro ($20,097) minimum wage in 2020, which increased to 20,000 euros last year and reached 27,500  euros this season.

Maternity leave, health insurance, paid holidays and a maximum number of race days came with it. 

"Bringing the minimum salary, it's something that we can now actually call a job without being a little bit ashamed of who is supporting that. Now this is a full-time job where you plan everything around that," Žigart said. 

The 25-year-old emphasises she has always been well supported, rising through the ranks with Slovenian teams before joining BikeExchange-Jayco in 2021.

The squad is one of two that are ahead of UCI regulations in matching the top-tier women's team minimum wage to that of the top-tier men's team minimum wage.

In 2020 that was for contracted (self-employed) first-year riders 53,136 euros and for riders with more than one year of experience 65,673 euros. 

"For [team general manager] Gerry Ryan, [it] is very important to give the same opportunities to men and women," a BikeExchange-Jayco spokesman said. 

'Maybe we need to stand up for ourselves a little bit more'

Urška Žigart sucks on a gel packet with both hands holding it to her mouth
Urška Žigart says women riders tend not to complain about the flavour of gels but perhaps it's time to start.(Getty Images: Tim de Waele)

In Žigart's experience, one of the main differences between the men's and women's side of the sport, both of which she has an insight into, is privilege. 

"[It's] this feeling that we should be content with everything," she said. 

"Maybe it's just me, but I would never complain if it's, I don't know, a [caffeine] gel that doesn't have the right taste. But I know some guys — not that it's in Tadej's team or anything — but I've heard before, from other soigneurs working in other teams, guys complain about this. 

"In terms of this, maybe we need to stand up for ourselves a little bit more because if we are professional about it, everything else has to step up and be professional about it." 

Women's cycling has undergone significant change in the past 10 years and the move of men's top-tier WorldTour teams creating female squads, as BikeExchange-Jayco, Trek-Segafredo, Jumbo-Visma, Team DSM, Lotto Soudal and Movistar have, has greatly contributed to that. 

Trek-Segafredo, which also pays equal minimum wage, even makes up the difference in men's and women's prize money at races where there is one. 

However, it's no surprise that Žigart and her generation remain reluctant to complain considering the conditions predecessors operated within and were conditioned to accept.

Retired Australian climber Carlee Taylor, who turned professional with American team TIBCO in 2011 and competed on the international circuit until 2017, relied on personal sponsors when she first moved to Europe, cycling's traditional heartland. 

Carlee Taylor rides her bike with a neutral expression on her face
Carlee Taylor relied on personal sponsors to live when she raced in Europe.(Getty Images: Bryn Lennon)

"I won't lie. One of my first contracts for a European team was 5,000 Australian dollars," Taylor said. 

"I don't regret that, and it actually led into me being on some bigger teams as well, but definitely back when I was getting into it and signing contracts, it was quite low. 

"My personal sponsors, they pretty much paid, they were my contract almost, and allowed me to live over there. I had a lot of support from my family and parents as well." 

The 33-year-old couldn't make the difference up in prize money either because it was also pitiful. 

In 2012 she finished third at La Route de France, a nine-stage race which at the time she said was the second biggest event on the women's calendar and won 500 euros. 

"And that's before you split it with the rest of your team," she said. 

'It was a desperate environment'

It wasn't just pay that didn't, and still doesn't in some areas, add up. 

Several Australian and international riders say they were "lucky" not to have experienced sexism, sexual assault, or abuse. 

Former national time trial champion turned commentator Bridie O'Donnell was in her mid-30s when she left a relationship and her job to forge a career as a pro cyclist. 

Bridie O'Donnell rides a time trial bike and grimaces
Bridie O'Donnell now commentates on the Tour de France with SBS.(Getty Images: Bryn Lennon)

After a stint competing with an AIS development team, she relocated to Europe. The move — as it is for Australian men — was initially an isolating experience, especially when she didn't speak the language. 

"It was never about making a salary, it was just about maybe getting picked up by a pro team that wasn't terrible," the 48-year-old said. 

O'Donnell was older than the 20-somethings she lived in a share house with for six months of the year, and the unprofessionalism of two Italian pro teams she competed for in 2010 and 2011 made her grimace. 

"The biggest problem was the team director was having an affair with one of the riders and that literally played out every day, sometimes on race radio," O'Donnell said. 

"They'd bicker or have lovers' tiffs. That said, she was 20 and he was married and 50. 

"Anyone who has been in a workplace where a boss is having a relationship with a colleague, it's actually incredibly destructive for everybody else." 

It was not only that, but the discrepancy in ability and performance in the women's peloton, that she found difficult. Budgets and resources were limited. 

"I wasn't awesome. I was really strong, but I wasn't fantastic in a bunch coming into a closing couple of kilometres to lead out the sprinter," she said. 

"I improved a lot, but that's probably thanks to my strength. It wasn't that I was courageous. 

O'Donnell recalls a time in 2008 when she, at 34, competed at her first international stage race, the Tour of New Zealand, with the AIS team in March, and went from that the Tour of Flanders, a one-day classic in Belgium that features jarring cobblestone sectors for specialists. It was one game of VFL to an AFL grand final basically. 

"I really thought I was going to die," she said.

"I just thought I'm going to crash in a ditch in these cobbles, some massive chick, probably Ellen van Dijk, is going to elbow me off the road, not intentionally but just because I don't have the skills and experience and confidence that you need."

Ellen van Dijk rides her bike on cobbles
Ellen van Dijk traversing the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, a sight to strike fear into the heart of Bridie O'Donnell.(Getty Images: Tim de Waele)

As a commentator, she notes it is different now. 

"You've got 160 women in a race, 140 of them are highly skilful and some are just less experienced, and you see them often at the back of the bunch because they just don't have the race experience," O'Donnell said. 

"But in my time racing, there were a lot more people who were inexperienced and they all, like me, would have had a lot of pressure from their team directors, parents, coaches. 

"It was a desperate environment rather than a professional environment, where everyone knows they've got 200 race days, and no-one is going to do anything stupid." 

Tour de France Femmes 'will not disappear again'

The Tour de France is the pinnacle of men's cycling, an international spectacle that first ran in 1903. It garners global exposure and sees the best of the best, at their best, go head to head. No-one can pinpoint why previous versions of a women's Tour haven't lasted. 

"You'd have to ask the [race] organisers," Žigart said. 

"But I guess now they saw our racing is on the rise and it's actually interesting for the viewers, it's worth investing in. I'm looking forward to it and I hope that it's a tradition that will not disappear again."

Annemiek van Vleuten touches her ear standing in front of a lot of women cyclists
The women's peloton is here to stay, thanks to the success of races like the Giro Donne.(Getty Images: Dario Belingheri)

Tour de France Femmes race director Marion Rousse, a retired two-time French champion turned TV pundit, said there was still room for improvement. 

Next year, for example, going on UCI rules, the women's top-tier WorldTeam minimum wage will be equal to a men's second-tier ProTeam minimum wage. 

The UCI, in a May 2021 press release, stated this was because "men's UCI ProTeams are the nearest equivalent to the UCI women's WorldTeams in terms of resources, structures and the number of people they employ". 

The press release continued: "The creation of a minimum salary has closed the gap between the average salaries paid to UCI women's WorldTeams riders and members of the men's UCI ProTeams. While in 2020 the latter earned on average 67.53 per cent more than their female counterparts, this gap has been reduced to 44.21 per cent in 2021." 

That women like Rousse, Taylor and O'Donnell remain passionate about women's cycling and have stayed in it, adopting different roles, not to mention legends like Marianne Vos, who is one of the best athletes in cycling, period, and at 35 is still competing and winning races, shows it has never been all bad. 

However, the bad is such that you do recoil hearing accounts that seem too dramatic, or traumatic, to be true. But they are. 

There is the strong sense that the Tour de France Femmes will be a lasting event, which will elevate women's cycling even further. Adjustments to the women's calendar have been made to accommodate it and ensure there is no clash between the Giro d'Italia Donne, a heralded stage race on the women's calendar, and the Femmes, allowing riders to compete in both.

The Femmes is not the 21-stage behemoth the Tour de France is, but the women's calendar doesn't include three-week races yet and that jump now would be too much. 

The sentiment is that the Tour de France Femmes in terms of length and route is a good balance and caters for the varying strengths of all riders. 

"It was a dream for all us cyclists to have our Tour de France," Rousse said. 

"Man or woman, when people ask what you do for a living, if you say that you're a cyclist, whether or not they know about cycling, they presume you've done the Tour de France. 

"As female cyclists, we always had this feeling that we weren't true professional riders because the women's Tour de France didn't exist. 

"This is a first victory."

Posted , updated