Does women's cycling really need podium boys?

Thibaut Pinot of France and FDJ.fr takes the podium after defending the best young rider's white jersey in the ...

Thibaut Pinot of France and FDJ.fr takes the podium after defending the best young rider's white jersey in the individual time trial during the twentieth stage of the 2014 Tour de France. Photo: Doug Pensinger

When it comes to the world’s most famous road race, there’s one thing even the most casual Tour De France viewer would be aware of: the venerable event is very much a men’s affair. From the riders to the team members to the officials and the commentators, it’s dudes as far as the eye can see (and the ear can hear, for that matter).

The sole exception to that rule is the “Tour hostesses”, colloquially known as “podium girls”, who provide a feminine presence when each stage’s (and eventual Tour) winner steps up to the podium to claim his yellow jersey.

This is of course not specific to the Tour (Peter Sagan was chastised for going the grope at last year’s Tour de Flanders) and neither are other sports immune to the custom (it’s tough to think of motorsport, in particular, without thinking of grid girls). It is, however, especially galling in the case of the Tour because of women cyclists’ continued attempts to convince the race’s organisers, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), to introduce a women’s stage event to run concurrently with the men’s.

Chrissie Wellington of England competes during the Challenge Roth Triathlon on July 10, 2011 in Roth, Germany.

Chrissie Wellington of England competes during the Challenge Roth Triathlon on July 10, 2011 in Roth, Germany. Photo: Alexander Hassenstein

This year, a group of elite women cyclists - four-time world Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington, pro cyclists Kathryn Bertine, Emma Pooley and Marianne Vos, the latter considered by many to be one of the finest athletes in sport today, period - delivered a petition, under the name Le Tour Entier (the Whole Tour), of over 90,000 signatures to ASO, calling for a concurrent women’s event.

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(There has been a “women’s Tour De France”, known variously as Tour Cycliste Féminin and Grand Boucle, that first ran in 1984, but it was beset by sponsorship woes - in 1990, 1991 and 2004 it was not held - until it eventually fizzled out in 2009.)

Le Tour Entier got part of their wish when ASO announced La Course by Le Tour de France, a 56-mile race around Paris that will run just before the men thunder into town for the final stage of the Tour.

La Course’s 2014 instigation has been greeted as overdue by many cycling observers, particularly considering the presence of Vos. Reflecting on the event for The Wall Street Journal, Jason Gay wrote, “In an era where the even the best cyclists usually become specialists, Vos is a brilliant all-around champion. She has been a multiple world and Olympic champion on the road and track, and a repeat (seven times!) world champ in cyclocross, the muddy discipline in which riders occasionally must dismount bikes to climb short hills or barriers. Vos wins one-day events and stage races; she can handle the mountains and the windy flats. At 27, she has no contemporary, male or female; the most frequent comparison Vos receives is to the iconic Belgian Eddy Merckx, who dominated cycling in the late '60s and '70s.”

For her part, Vos, a favourite to win La Course, has said “The race is more important than the win”.

Considering all of this, then, it is frustrating that when ASO announced the women’s event, they cheerfully added, "Those who make it on to the podium can look forward to kisses from podium boys!"

 

Perhaps ASO so concerned that viewers and racegoers would be perplexed by the arrival of the women cyclists that they felt a visual shorthand was needed to remind them what was going on: “Don’t worry, I know it’s confusing, what with all these ladies on bikes, but look! Hot people in yellow outfits handing out teddies and flowers!” “Ah, phew, for a minute there I thought I was watching Hello Dolly.”

Yes, yes, it’s all a bit of fun - the light-hearted exclamation mark and Non-Threatening Boys Magazine tone of ASO’s announcement suggests as much - but dragging the Tour’s least savoury aspect (podium girls) into this new era by shunting podium boys onto the blocks for the denouement of La Course feels misguided.

(It also feels like a Get Out Of Jail Free card for any bloke who wants to silence feminist debate about the validity, in 2014, of employing podium girls in elite sport; “Well, we’ve had podium boys now, equality has been achieved, so be quiet!”)

Here is an opportunity - however brief, being only 2.5 per cent of the length of the Tour proper - to imagine a new era for road cycling, one in which women’s cycling is just as thrilling as the men’s event and just as widely viewed (the Tour enjoys one of the biggest global viewerships of any sporting events, with viewers numbering in the tens of millions - or even billions, depending on who you ask).

As Australian Criterium Champion Sarah Roy, who’ll be riding today, told SBS, “I would love to see the international women’s road racing circuit develop to a point where riders and staff no longer have to work for free; for women to be able to focus on riding and stop spending so much energy on concerns with money. Women’s cycling certainly has a lot to offer the world and I think after this Sunday we will be on our way to a good thing.”