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Tour de France Femmes

From Millie Robinson to Lizzie Holden: Connecting the history of Tour de France Femmes to its present

The first-ever women's Tour de France in 1955 was won by Manxwoman Millie Robinson. Lizzie Holden continues the tradition of Manx riders at the Tour in 2022.

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REIMS, France (VN) — The women’s Tour de France has a long and complicated history with multiple organizers attempting to get a female version of the grand tour off the ground to varying degrees of success.

While the Tour de France Féminin of the 1980s is often cited as the first true edition of a women’s Tour de France as it was organized by the same people that ran the men’s event, there was an earlier version in 1955 that earned that honor.

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It was organized over five days by former journalist turned race organizer Jean Leullio and featured a peloton of 41 women. Millie Robinson, who was from the Isle of Man, won the race by 35 seconds over British rider June Thackeray, while Frenchwoman Marie-Jeanne Donabédian was in third at 1:11.

As the Tour de France returns to the women’s calendar this season, there has been plenty of reflection on the history of the race’s connection with the women’s peloton. In a flash of coincidence, the 2022 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift also features a Manx woman with Lizzie Holden flying the triskelion for the small island in France this week.

Holden’s participation in this year’s race threads a fine string between the race’s origins to its present and future.

“I’ve never really heard of her, which is pretty bad. I think, for sure that more people should know about her,” Holden told VeloNews. “I didn’t really realize until a few weeks ago when I was doing research and I thought this is really cool. To be carrying that on and to hopefully be a name that people also look back on, it’s very special. Being from the Isle of Man, we’re very proud.

“I was looking over the history of the race because it’s actually quite hard to know about it. It’s not like the men where it’s always published. There was some good information on it.”

The Isle of Man has long links with the cycling world, but it is best known as the birthplace of Mark Cavendish, who equaled Eddy Merckx’s all-time Tour de France record of stage victories last year.

There is more to cycling on the Isle of Man than Cavendish, however, and there is strong representation in the women’s peloton with Holden, her teammate Anna Christian, and Amelia Sharpe at AG Insurance NXTG.

“That’s always a question, how are there so many good cyclists from the Isle of Man. I guess it’s just the community and the roads are so hard. You really have to enjoy cycling to keep going. It’s a special community,” Holden said.

“[Manx cycling] is really strong. The first commonwealth games I did in Australia it was just myself and Anna for the women, this year we have five girls in the space of four years. It’s crazy. Cycling is really booming. I hope after this there will be more girls involved. I hope they watch it and it is something they can aspire to. If that happens, it’s had a good impact.”

Being the underdogs

With the backing of ASO, the Tour de France Femmes has had all the pre-race hype of the Tour name and the attention on the race has been like few other events on the women’s calendar.

The start in Paris drew huge crowds and flocks of journalists as it overlapped with the end of the men’s competition.

The true test of the race would be what it was like when it left Paris, and it hasn’t disappointed with plenty of fans flocking to the roadside and stacks of media following it all the way through.

Holden and the rest of the peloton have been trying to put all of that attention to the back of their minds, but it has been hard not to notice it.

“It didn’t feel real until the night before and you’re getting messages from your family and stuff and it really kicks in how big this is,” she said.

“I think you have to look at it like it is any other race otherwise it’s really easy to stress and overthink it. Really it is like any other race, it’s the same people, the same teams, but it’s just for some reason it does have that name. The Tour de France is another level and hopefully the atmosphere is really big, too.”

Holden is racing for the Le Col-Wahoo team, which holds the white jersey Maike van der Duin. Without a big favorite for the overall title, the team is looking to infiltrate breakaway moves and has been very present at the front of the race so far.

“As a team, we’re probably one of the underdogs. We’re not necessarily here with GC ambitions. We have really strong riders for breakaways and hopefully we have some opportunities for that. A stage win would be epic. For some reason, a stage win here would have a lot bigger impact than someone else. It’s just the Tour factor,” Holden said.