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Tour de France

Commentary: La Course had issues but it played a part in growing women’s cycling

It's not yet known if the 2021 La Course will be the last, but it has had a lasting impact on women's cycling since its first edition in 2014.

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Is this the final goodbye?

Since its inception in 2014, La Course by Le Tour de France has had — at times — a difficult relationship with the women’s peloton. But over the last eight years, it has found a place on the cycling calendar.

Its story also tells us something about the journey women’s cycling has been on over the last decade.

With the announcement of an eight-day women’s Tour de France in 2022, the future of the one-day race is uncertain. It was created off the back of a campaign to have a proper women’s Tour de France and with that goal finally within touching distance, does it still have a purpose on the calendar?

Also read: 2022 Women’s WorldTour calendar headlined by eight-day Tour de France

It is not on the Women’s WorldTour program for 2022, but it is possible it could still be about next year in a lower category. While it would no longer be the main event, it could still serve as a warm-up to the new eight-stage event.

La Course is a race that has wormed its way into the hearts of fans and riders, and it would be sad to see it disappear in this way.

Pressed on the matter, race organizer ASO has remained coy on what lies ahead and declined to comment further on whether it was her to stay or if it would fade into the distance as its multi-day successor came to the fore.

Whatever the future of La Course by Le Tour de France, it has been on quite the journey since 2014.

The battle for a women’s Tour de France

The inaugural La Course by Le Tour de France was held in Paris
The inaugural La Course by Le Tour de France was held in Paris Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images

It all began with a petition.

Instigated by Kathryn Bertine, the Le Tour Entier (which translates as ‘The Whole Tour’) group was set up in 2014 to campaign for a women’s Tour de France. The campaign was backed by riders Emma Pooley, Marianne Vos, and triathlete Chrissie Wellington.

The original ASO-backed race had lasted only six years — ending in 1989 — and the last event that could be identified as an equivalent to a women’s Tour held its final edition in 2009.

A petition launched by the group in July 2013 gained serious traction and more than 96,000 people signed it. With big-name riders backing it, it proved hard to ignore for Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme.

Also read: Christine Majerus: ‘Organizers cannot cut corners with safety’

Talks between ASO and Le Tour Entier in December 2013 ultimately proved fruitful, and the new one-day event was announced in February 2014.

It wasn’t what they had set out to achieve, but it was a positive first step towards the ultimate goal. Although some were disappointed with the criterium format of the event, it provided a platform for women’s cycling that is sorely needed.

Riders that have ridden La Course, particularly in recent years, have often spoken of the much higher level of attention they receive for their result there compared to some arguably larger victories. That cannot be discounted when looking at the push to grow women’s cycling and bring it to a wider audience.

At the time it was launched, very little television coverage was available even for the top women’s races. With the infrastructure ready for the finale of the men’s Tour de France, fans at home were ultimately treated to an hour of live action from the Champs-Élysées while the riders raced in front of huge crowds in Paris.

Two steps forward, one step back

Annemiek van Vleuten won the 2017 edition when La Course moved to the mountains
Annemiek van Vleuten won the 2017 edition when La Course moved to the mountains Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images

The Paris setting was great and provided a big level of prestige for the riders making the podium. However, it posed some logistical issues — primarily for journalists hoping to cover the event.

With the final mountain or time trial stage of the men’s Tour de France often in far-flung corners of the country, those covering it would often have to embark on lengthy night-time journeys to the capital if they had any hope of making it on time.

That all changed in 2017 when ASO integrated the race even further into the men’s and moved La Course out into the mountains. There were still huge crowds and full live coverage of the event, from start to finish, while a far larger number of media publications were able to connect with the race and tell the story of the riders.

However, what should have been a great story was tainted by a confusing two-day set-up that was thrown in at the last minute to placate complaints about the extremely short 67-kilometer route. While the format — which included a pursuit-style time trial for the top 20 up the Col d’Izoard on the previous day — was intriguing, it lacked finesse and left teams juggling with logistics.

It left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth, but it also gave riders and fans hope that a larger multi-day race was on the horizon. It would take another three years before ASO confirmed its intentions to launch such an event.

Also read: The power of Lizzie Deignan’s La Course by le Tour de France victory

Despite its troubles over the years, La Course has put women’s cycling on the center stage. It allowed the rider to show off just how exciting and interesting the racing can be and brought in a new audience that may not have discovered it without the event.

It was not a big triumphant moment that can be hailed as a pivotal juncture for the women’s side of the sport, but it formed part of a growing momentum behind it that has continued to push forward until this day.

Since the peloton rolled onto the Champs-Élysées nearly eight years ago, the state of women’s cycling has become almost unrecognizable. More races are now broadcast on television and there is a flourishing WorldTour with nine teams — and yet more clamoring to become a part of it. There is a minimum wage, which seemed like an impossibility at one point, and promises of much more to come.

La Course may have had its issues, and it was not the end goal, but it has played its part in the furtherment of women’s racing.

It is now passing the baton on as women’s cycling continues its journey of growth.

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