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Tour Down Under eliminates podium girls, peloton’s opinions vary

The long-running tradition in cycling is no longer part of the annual race in Australia.

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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — If something looks amiss on the winner’s podium this week at the Santos Tour Down Under, you are right.

Wednesday’s stage winner Richie Porte received his trophy and donned his leader’s jersey, but there were no kisses on the cheek. Why? Podium girls have been jettisoned from the race.

Last month, following a similar move to eliminate “grid girls” from a car race, local politicians pulled the plug on the long-running tradition, saying it sent the wrong image to young women.

All this week at the WorldTour opener, there will be no kisses for the winners on the finish-line podium. Instead, juniors and local dignitaries are presenting the trophies. On Wednesday, a junior racer zipped up Porte’s leader’s jersey, a task typically handled by a smiling podium girl.

The decision has provoked some interesting conversations this week: Is the podium girl tradition anachronistic and sexist toward women? Or is it political correctness simply gone too far?

“My wife used to be a podium girl, and I met her here at this race. They’re not up there just to look pretty, they’re also hosts,” said Trek – Segafredo rider Koen de Kort. “Now we have junior riders to give us the jersey. It’s ridiculous. I can see some of the political ideas behind it. It’s a little bit weird, and I don’t really understand that.”

The debate over the suitability of podium girls — or race hostesses — has been percolating the past several years. Critics say the notion of podium girls is chauvinistic and out of touch with modern sensibilities. Others point out that it’s deep-rooted in cycling’s historic fabric and that hostesses bring a touch of femininity to an otherwise male-dominated peloton.

“It’s part of cycling. I don’t think it’s sexist, unless the organizer dresses up the girl provocatively,” said Trek – Segafredo’s Peter Stetina. “The problem is when you get that jock mentality and it’s vulgar. I think they should remain. If I win a race someday, I’d love to get the flowers and the kisses on the cheek. It’s a celebration.”

Podium presenters date back to the early days of professional cycling, and the image of a skinny cyclist receiving pecks on the cheek by two podium hostesses is synonymous with the sport.

In France, they’re called “hótesses du Tour,” and in Spanish, “azafata,” and just about every bike race on the UCI calendar features them. These days, hostesses present prizes, jerseys, flowers and inevitably pose with the winner as well as work with VIPs, attend the stage and finish, and work closely with sponsors. Each summer, more than 500 women apply to be one of the podium girls at the Tour de France.

Cycling’s largest race organizers usually maintain a degree of decorum, especially compared to how other sports might flaunt podium girls. And as a counter, some of women’s races have started to use men to present prizes at their events.

“Our podium hostesses work in an environment of dignity and respect,” Vuelta a España director Javier Guillén told the Spanish daily MARCA. “We haven’t heard any complaints, and for the men’s events, we use women, and for women’s races, we use male hosts.”

The finish-line photograph of the winner embraced by smiling podium girls is an image as ingrained as a rider lifting their hands in victory after crossing the line. But is elite men’s racing out of touch with today’s changing cultural landscape?

“Tradition is something, but in modern times, some people question that,” said Dimension Data’s Tyler Farrar, who’s had his fair share of podium appearances in his career. “I’ve heard this talked about on and off, but this is the first race that I have been at that they’ve actually decided to do away with it. People like to hang onto tradition in this sport, simply because that’s the way they’ve always done it, but we are not racing around in wool jerseys anymore, are we? Times change.”

There have been controversies. In 2013, Peter Sagan pinched the bum of one of the podium girls at the Tour of Flanders. In 2003, the Tour de France organization fired Melanie Simonneau after maintaining too much contact with a racer. That rider? George Hincapie, and the pair soon married.

This week, cycling is seeing its first major race break with tradition, and some say it’s about time. Speaking to the Spanish daily El Correo earlier this month, Sky’s Mikel Landa said the Tour Down Under is an “example to follow.”

“Having podium girls is just too much. It’s to treat them as objects, to devalue them,” Landa said. “It’s a well-entrenched custom, yet no one dares to question it. And you have to admit that the women who go up on the podium are there because they are beautiful and have nice figures, and that’s not the image you’d want to project.”

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