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Tour de France Femmes

Commentary: The good, the bad, and the future of the Tour de France Femmes

The Tour de France Femmes got off to a great start but its success should be measured in the impact it has on the wider women's sport, and not just its own event.

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The inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift was a long time coming, but the event itself felt as though it was over in a flash.

There have been many new races added to the women’s calendar in recent years, from the six-day Tour of Scandinavia — which kicked off Tuesday — to the Paris-Roubaix Femmes that made its debut last year.

However, few new events have received the same hype that came with this women’s Tour de France. Now that the race is done and attention turns to the end-of-season races, did the Tour Femmes live up to the hype, what worked, what didn’t, what was it like to be a part of, and what next for the race?

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Zwift CEO Eric Min told VeloNews this week that the race and the reception it received “exceeded expectations” for him and he was delighted with how it ultimately went.

Despite the major hype ahead of the race, there were still concerns from those within the peloton and convoy that it wouldn’t translate to roadside crowds and television audiences. Those involved in women’s cycling strongly believe in the value it has, but there were definitely some pre-race jitters in what could turn out to be a pivotal moment in the sport.

Thankfully, those worries didn’t materialize.

The double whammy of the men’s race finale, with a strong Danish turnout for Jonas Vingegaard’s crowning as champion, and the women’s start ensured a strong attendance for the opening stage.

That was expected. What wasn’t expected was how the race would build momentum throughout the week. Monday saw big crowds turn up at the start and line the streets and each day it would get noticeably bigger.

Television figures were also high with the two hours of daily broadcast bringing in a quarter of France’s TV viewership share. That amounted to over two million viewers per day.

It wasn’t just the spectators that showed up in force during the week, the media presence was also large. As with fans, many expected a large turnout for the opening stage and the true test would come as the race departed Paris.

There was a small drop-off going into the second stage, but there was still a strong press corps in attendance with about 20 members of the written press in addition to the large TV crews at the race. By stage 4, this had ballooned with ASO reporting a growing number of accreditation requests, particularly from non-cycling specific publications.

It might sound small, but it was huge compared to other standalone races on the women’s calendar. It’s hard to compare it to events like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix where the events are run concurrently with others.

That organizations that wouldn’t ordinarily send journalists to bike races had people on the ground in France is something that can’t be underestimated.

One other note to be made about the press corps is the gender balance of those that were there. While there are still huge improvements to be made in terms of diversity, it was one of the most gender-balanced press rooms on the cycling calendar with nearly a 50-50 split between men and women.

Good infrastructure with improvements to be made

ASO’s relationship with women’s races has been fraught over the years and the organizer has been criticized for seemingly treating the women’s peloton like an afterthought. The test of how much it believed in and was investing in the race would be evident not just in what is broadcast on television but what went on behind the scenes.

For all intents and purposes, each stage largely felt like any other day at the men’s race but a bit smaller. There were times when it felt as though ASO had underestimated the amount of media that would be at the race.

Indeed, ahead of stage 2, the media parking lot was mixed in with the team parking and press cars had to weave in and out of the buses to find a place to stop. The same thing happened again ahead of the penultimate stage when the media parking lot was full some two and a half hours before the roll out, leaving the press to once again park in between team buses.

There were some other blips in the organization like the finale of stage 2 where there was no obvious way back to the team buses from the finish line and no guidance from the organization about how to go between the two, very close, sites.

The media was able to take a shortcut through the technical zone while riders had a choice of a long, looping ride back down the finishing stretch and through some backstreets, or a trek through a field that resulted in many climbing through a hedge to get into the team paddock.

Another aspect that raised some eyebrows was the COVID-19 protocols, or the seeming lack thereof. While journalists were required to wear masks in the mixed zone, there were no other protocols with fans able to get up close with the riders.

While it was great to see the interaction between fans and riders, it was a jarring experience after seeing the strict measures employed at the men’s race.

Some of the issues were ironed out as the race went on and more support staff were added by the organizer to ensure proceedings ran smoother. Others will be lessons learned for the second edition in 2023, which all involved will hope is bigger and better than the first one.

Teething problems are always going to happen with the first running of an event, even if much of it is copied and pasted from a pre-existing race. Indeed, it is a good thing that the race had a far bigger reception than previously expected, and hopefully, it will encourage ASO to put more into its entire women’s portfolio, not just the Tour de France Femmes.

What next?

Now that the dust has settled on the first event, there’s no time to rest on laurels. While race director Marion Rousse confirmed that the race will not expand beyond its eight-day format for 2023, but there is still plenty of space for the race to develop on its first edition.

It made sense to connect the event to the men’s race for its first go, but that doesn’t have to happen every year. By deviating away from the final Paris stage, the race could take on some very different parcours with time trials and more famous climbs.

More TV coverage would also be a logical next step to show off more of the racing. With two hours, we got to see some fantastic racing, but we still missed a lot of the action. Start to finish broadcasting is a relatively recent addition to the men’s race, but now we know it’s possible it feels like it’s only time until we get it for the women.

Television coverage has been one of the biggest drivers for change in women’s cycling and the more the better when it comes to this race. As it is with the men’s event, the Tour de France Femmes is a shop window for the women’s peloton and the teams involved.

The race has only been made possible thanks to the hard work of the women’s peloton and the organizers that have put the money in to develop the sport. However, it can now return the favor by bringing new fans into the sport.

The true test of this race will not be in its own success but in whether it can push the wider sport forward. Only time will tell if it does.