Cycling pedals toward a significant milestone in 2022 with the inaugural Tour de France Femmes, a new stage race that brings all the prestige and marketing power of Le Tour and race owners ASO.
Having the heft of ASO and the backing of a high-profile sponsor like Zwift all but ensures success right out of the gate for the new addition to the Women’s WorldTour.
Thursday’s official presentation will fill in a lot of the blanks about the route, the course profiles, the host towns, and the other details of what could very well soon be the most important stage race on the women’s international calendar.
- Explainer: How the Tour de France prize money is dolled out
- How to watch the presentation for Tour de France Femmes
- Why Zwift is moving from virtual to ‘real’ racing with TdF Femmes
An interesting, perhaps thornier question — maybe one that will not be addressed in Thursday’s high-profile presentation — will be how much prize money will be in the offing for the winner of the first edition.
It’s a question loaded with promise and controversy. And it’s going to be interesting to see how ASO and other backers of the race handle it.
Cycling’s prize money ‘gap’
Speaking to the AFP, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme addressed the issue and said that ASO is investing in women’s cycling with an eye toward growth.
“The controversy does not come from the champions, but from people far from the world of sport and economic reality,” Prudhomme told AFP. “It is an investment, very clearly. Women’s races are losing money. I hope this will not be the case for Tour de France Femmes.”
As the push for equality between the men’s and women’s peloton gains renewed momentum, many will be looking to the prize money total for the Tour de France Femmes as an important measuring stick of where things might stand.
Earlier this month, the women’s peloton also hit a historical marker with its highly successful edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes, another race owned and operated by ASO.
By most accounts, the race was a smashing success. One blight? The prize money difference.
The men’s winner pocketed €30,000 out of a total purse of €90,000, while Lizzie Deignan, who made history as the first-ever winner, received €1,535 out of a purse of €7,000. Trek-Segafredo, Deignan’s sponsor, stepped up to cover the difference.
Frustrated by this difference, other races saw fans create crowd-funding drives, like this spring’s women’s edition of Strade Bianche, where fans put up money toward expanding the winner’s checks for the women’s race in Italy.
For some, the question of prize money is one that comes loaded with nuance and basic economics. If a race makes a lot of money, the argument goes, organizers can afford to up the ante. Women’s racing, many are quick to point out, simply is not the cash cow that top men’s races can be.
To others, it’s a simple equation of a reflection of values.
Some sports have moved aggressively to bring prize money level between the men’s and women’s fields, most dramatically in professional tennis, with all four of its grand slam tournaments offering equal prize money. Some bike races have done the same, including the Tour Down Under in Australia, and the UCI’s world championships, which also offer equal purses.
The now-defunct Amgen Tour of California also committed to equal prize money before going on what looks to be a permanent “hiatus” in 2019.
The debate over equity doesn’t stop at prize money.
Last month, the question of a U23 category for the women’s peloton and equal distances for time trials — set to be the case in 2022 at the Australian-hosted worlds — both became major talking points during the 2021 world championships. Many races have also eliminated finish-line podium girls.
As much as many laud ASO for creating the Tour de France Femmes, a few voices also suggested that it’s unfair that the women’s race is only a week instead of a full three weeks of the male’s grand tour distance.
No easy answers in drive toward prize money equity
What will ASO do with the Tour de France Femmes?
Last summer, Tadej Pogačar won €500,000 as the winner of the 2021 Tour, out of a total purse of €2,269,450 across the entire race.
It’s hard to imagine ASO having the financial pockets to offer a similar winner’s pot for the first edition of Tour de France Femmes.
Prize money details about Tour de France Femmes were not available Thursday, but sources told VeloNews that the purse will be significant, most likely along the lines of a similar, eight-day men’s race at the WorldTour-level would be.
If that’s the case, the overall purse could be around €100,000, with the winner receiving about €15,000, with stage-winners seeing about €4,000. If it’s along those lines, that immediately would make the Tour de France Femmes the most lucrative race on the women’s circuit.
There are no easy answers in what’s an economic Wild West of professional bike racing.
The UCI sets minimum guidelines for salaries and prize money across both men’s and women’s racing, but when it comes to cold, hard cash, it’s up to teams to find sponsors to underwrite all the expenses of running a squad, and up to race organizers to cover the costs of putting on a race and setting the purses.
What are possible solutions? The men could give up some of their prize money, something the top earners who don’t rely on prize money as a primary source of income might agree with, but a gesture that teams and staffers might balk at.
ASO could take some of its own profits or move its operating budget from other races, and offer it to the women’s peloton.
Another idea would be to divide the total prize package between both races, and thus reduce the men’s purse to create equal purses for both the men’s and women’s editions.
Not everyone agrees that prize money is the most urgent measuring stick for equality.
Many insist visibility via live TV broadcasts of all the major races pays more dividends for the peloton and sponsors over the long haul. At the recent Paris-Roubaix Femmes, for example, only the final two hours of the race were broadcast, meaning that the opening, key cobbled sectors were not available for fans to see.
Right now, many organizers and sponsors investing big in women’s racing are deploying what can be called the “build it and they will come” model, and hope that once the sport is more established at the highest level, more backers will step up, TV rights will grow in value, and prize money can expand with the future of the sport.
In fact, some say by insisting on equal prize money or increasing minimum wages too soon could detract from the development of women’s cycling by taking away resources from other aspects of the sport, or even force some teams or events to close shop.
Those arguments can be hard to listen to, especially when wages for top female stars are a fraction of what the top men’s stars receive, and even more so when many women are paid the minimum wage or less.
Some say insisting on anything less than absolute equality will only demean women’s cycling. Others believe that hard rules can sometimes backfire, and produce the opposite of the desired effect.
If there’s one that nearly everyone agrees on is that an ASO-backed women’s stage race is a good thing for the peloton.
What’s certain, prize money equality would count a lot more for a rider earning €40,000 a year than for one making €4 million a year.