Rumors of a full-blown women’s Tour de France swirled for a couple of years before it was officially announced in June 2021. With the backing of men’s race organizer ASO, which is putting its marketing might into it, and support from Zwift, it is set to be the biggest event of the year — from a racing and commercial standpoint.
Van Vleuten, who will be an overwhelming favorite for the race, believes that the Tour de France title is already bringing more money into women’s racing.
“The creation of the Tour de France Femmes has got a lot of teams interested. They see now that from a commercial point of view more interesting to have a women’s team,” Van Vleuten told VeloNews recently. “That causes more money in women’s cycling. Already, 14 teams pay a minimum salary. That’s huge. Two years ago, teams were complaining. So, I think that is awesome.
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“I’m not a big advocate of more prize money. Prize money will not raise the level but a minimum salary for everyone in a WorldTour, that will raise the level and people can go full time. That will give us better battles and it will make the sport more interesting and more international. I think it’s because of the Tour de France… Everyone, the teams, the organizations, the riders, everyone needs to put in more. It’s evolving in many ways now, and maybe the most important thing is that it’s also from a commercial point of view. In the end, I’m not a commercial girl, but to develop the sport it is necessary that you need money.”
With many more teams interested in creating strong squads that can control and animate races, rather than play a passive role, Van Vleuten has seen the racing change dramatically in recent years.
Van Vleuten said after her Liège-Bastogne-Liège triumph that winning was becoming harder in women’s cycling. The fact that she described this season’s spring campaign as her best ever yet she far from dominated it and rode away with “just” two wins, is a clear demonstration of that.
“It’s more dynamic and more teams have a plan to win,” she said. “I’m also super happy with FDJ, for example, they have Grace Brown and Marta Cavalli out there and you can see they also have a like a plan to win. When I started cycling there were only two or three teams [with a plan]. This year is a really huge step in that more teams take responsibility to go for the win and have a plan and not only follow the strongest teams.”
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It’s not just the impact on the financial clout of teams in the peloton that Van Vleuten believes has been positively impacted by the Tour de France hype. She says that other organizers are being forced to up their games in an effort not to be left behind.
Van Vleuten pointed particularly to the Giro d’Italia Donne, which has long been the only so-called grand tour on the women’s calendar. The race, which is run entirely separately from the men’s event, ran live coverage for the first time last year and plans to show as much as two hours of daily coverage for this year’s event.
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It is part of a major investment in the race, which has seen big improvements in its on-site organization — from team hotels to safety measures. The announcement of its parcours at the beginning of March was also a vast improvement after the one-month notice it gave riders of the route in 2021.
“I like that now the Giro d’Italia announced, for example, the course way more early. They feel the pressure, I think, I don’t know, but at least I have the feeling they feel the pressure like ‘oh, we also should come up with the courses and cannot wait until one month to go,’” Van Vleuten told VeloNews.
“They know that they have to show it on television, and they cannot sit back and relax and think we are the best stage race.”
Van Vleuten adds that the decision by the UCI to demote the race from the WorldTour was a positive step in ensuring organizers maintain good standards. The Giro d’Italia Donne was removed from the calendar in 2021 for, among other reasons, failing to produce any live coverage of the race — a requirement that is stipulated in the regulations.
“I think that’s a good sign from the UCI that they said like okay, ‘now you’re not WorldTour anymore, these are the rules and you need to follow them and to show it television.’ [The Giro] knows that if they don’t give live television now they will not be WorldTour next year anymore.
“It was ridiculous that there was nothing on television, the most important stage race and nothing. Even here in Belgium, sometimes they just put a guy on a moto, and they tried to show it. I remember five or six years ago at Omloop van het Hageland you could follow with the live stream. In Belgium they put a lot of effort, and I think some countries need to step up a bit.”
As women’s cycling grows in popularity, thanks largely in part to the increased television coverage available, Van Vleuten has noticed more fans calling out organizers for not delivering on broadcasts. It is something that she could hardly have imagined when she started her career and she says that the outcry when organizers don’t step up shows how far women’s cycling has come.
“When I did my first Tour of Flanders [in 2011 -ed] there was one second of finish shots because there were already cameras there for the guys,” she said. “It was a one-second television clip and now my friends can watch it at home,” Van Vleuten said. “I cannot explain how big women’s cycling has grown since I started. It’s super cool to be part of that and it’s super important people also ask now ‘hey, why is this race on television?’ Years ago, never would they ask that question. I love that. It’s a good development.
“Before no one was watching women’s cycling, only the really hardcore fans, but now you also have a lot of people that switch and were first a fan of men’s cycling. Sometimes they say like, ‘I think the women’s race is more interesting. I’m more keen to stay at home for the women’s race.’ When I hear that, that makes me proud. In the end, we’re also here to entertain and inspire people.”