The American Behind the Women’s Tour de France
Seeking gender equity at the world’s most prestigious cycling race
It’s been over 3 decades since the 120-year-old Tour de France cycling race held a multi-stage event for women. When it finally returned in 2022, it was mostly an American who made it happen.
“It was a big hit!” says Kathryn Bertine, the 48-year-old former pro-cyclist who led the charge to place the latest version of the women’s Tour de France on the map, literally and figuratively.
This year marks the 2nd consecutive Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift partners, an 8-stage women’s competition that kicks into gear following the conclusion of the men’s 21-day chase.
The inaugural race in 2022 saw the female peloton depart from the Champs-Elysees in Paris for a 1,034 km course (642 miles) through northeast France, ending at the mountain ski station of La Planche des Belles Filles.
Riding for the Movistar Team, Dutch cyclist Annemiek Van Vleuten became the first woman to win the multi-day challenge, clearing the finish line in 26 hours, 55 minutes, and 44 seconds.
This year, a field of 154 female riders representing 22 teams took off from the south-central city of Clermont-Ferrand with a scheduled finish at the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains.
The 956 km expedition has as its longest stage a 177 km hilly stretch from Cahors to Rodez in the rugged region of the Massif Central before ending in Pau with a 22 km individual time trial.
None of this would have happened without the relentless drive of Bertine and a group of women who dreamt big and fought hard.
A born athlete, Bertine grew up in the quaint village of Bronxville just north of New York City. She played softball, ran cross-country, and joined the crew team at Colgate where she attended college.
In between, she figure-skated with Ice Capades and then competed as a professional triathlete for 3 years. To supplement her income, she worked various jobs, including later on as a senior columnist for ESPN
But she never picked up cycling until she got to graduate school at the University of Arizona where the desert topography presented a different set of physical challenges.
“I was told to try biking since the leg muscles that I developed in figure skating were transferable to cycling.” She ended up with yet another sport in her repertoire of athletic accomplishments.
Bertine entered cycling competitions, though with time she came to accept that being talented didn’t equate to being gifted. She fell just short of qualifying for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
Nevertheless, at age 37, she landed her first professional cycling contract with Colavita-espnW. For the next 4 years, she raced for various U.S. and European cycling teams, taking part in 8 UCI Road World Championships.
“I was usually the oldest one on the team and having my best season as an athlete at the age of 40 was huge,” she notes in conversation with Sports History Weekly.
But despite riding professionally, she still had to carry part time jobs to support herself. “It was only in my final year that I was paid above the poverty line.”
Hanging up her wheels in 2017, Bertine realized that her legacy and true calling was less as a cyclist and more as a sports activist, especially for women’s equity.
“In 2009, when I was making my way through the pro-cycling ranks, it made no sense to me why there weren’t any women at the Tour de France.”
Women have actually been racing since the late 19th century when the bicycle became associated with mobility and a new-found sense of freedom.
Tillie Anderson, a member of the US Bicycling Hall of Fame, competed as early as 1895. Even suffragette Susan B. Anthony said that cycling did more to liberate women than anything else.
But including women at the Tour de France, the world’s most prestigious pedaling tournament, was a different matter. According to Shelley Lucas, sports historian and Professor of Kinesiology at Boise State University, the problem was both ideological and structural.
She points out, “structurally, women’s cycling has not received the same level of sponsorship, media coverage, training, salaries, and opportunities to develop as the men’s.”
An early attempt was the 1955 Tour de France Féminin, a 5-day event that covered 372 km in Normandy and included 48 females from England, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and France.
The staging was a success but for the wrong reason. Despite receiving media attention, the female cycling competition was regarded more as a curious novelty than a real sporting contest.
For the next 30 years, the prevailing mentality remained, as the newspaper L’Equipe wrote at the time, that women “should settle for cyclo-tourism, more appropriate to their muscular abilities.”
It wasn’t until 1984, the same year the IOC approved the women’s cycling road race as an Olympic event, that the Tour de France Féminin was held.
This time, the women’s race took place alongside their male counterparts, opening each stage before the men’s departure but running shorter distances, about ¼ of the lengths, to the same finish line.
American cyclist Marianne Martin won the 1984 event, which consisted of 1,089 km over 18 stages. The female edition lasted another 5 years before being withdrawn for lack of sponsorship and media coverage.
Other multi-stage races were launched in the 1990s and early 2000s, such as the Tour de la CEE féminin and La Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale, but none was associated with the Tour de France name.
In 2009, Bertine started agitating for a women’s race to be linked with the Tour brand. “I sent an email to ASO, the parent company of the Tour de France, saying that I have a business proposal to include women in the Tour. I didn’t hear anything back.”
Though, the encouragement she found from other riders led her to form an activist committee of women- Le Tour Entier- that included renowned athletes such as Marianne Voss (Dutch), Emma Pooley (British-Swiss), and Chrissie Wellington (British).
In 2013, armed with 100,000 support signatures, they petitioned ASO for women’s inclusion in the Tour. The initial response was a pushback. “It was a combination of apathy, laziness, and sexism,” she recalls.
But a year later, ASO buckled. Bertine and her colleagues did all the organizational work behind the scenes and insisted that the Tour lend its name. It was called La Course by Le Tour de France.
Despite being spotlighted with the men’s race and getting adequate media coverage, the women’s run was still a single-stage event with no mountain climbs, time trials, or dramatic Champs-Elysees finishes.
“From day 1, we fought for full inclusion of all 21 days.” Bertine kept pushing for something closer to a full Tour de France, understanding that it would be at least a 2 or 3-year incremental process.
Her pitch to ASO was that including women was not just the right thing to do, but the lucrative thing to do. “Today, if you include women, then your entire product line does better. And professional sports are product lines.”
Citing logistical issues among other reasons, ASO was still slow to build up the Tour féminin and it wasn’t until 7 years later with renewed pressure from sponsors and the media, that they agreed to take the women’s race to a multi-day platform.
Financially, the 2023 arrangement at the Tour still favors men in the aggregate- €2.3 million in prize money versus the women's pot of €250,000.
But accounting for the 28% total distance run by women compared to men- 956 km versus 3,406 km- the pay scale is still subordinate at just 39% of the men's (€2.3 million x 0.28 = €644,000 ; €250,000 / €644,000 = 39%).
Bertine was thrilled with the 2022 launch of the Tour de France avec Zwift, though she sees it as just a foot in the door. She also expects the prize money to grow with more stages and longer distances.
“The most famous bicycle race in the world should not have women as a sideshow and last year proved that women’s racing is very exciting, entertaining, and marketable.”
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