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The Tour de France only allows men. So women are biking it themselves.

Tourdefrance News 7 6 18
Women have reported institutional sexism in the professional cycling world. Here, only men bike the Tour de France. (Josh Hallett)

The Tour de France starts Saturday on the west coast island of Noirmoutier, but today about a dozen women gathered at the starting line to embark on their own 2000-mile journey.  

“We consider it a sporting adventure but also an activist and human adventure,” rider Claire Floret told NPR in an interview published Thursday. “We’re trying to get our message out about the need for a women's tour, so we ride together.”  

Unlike in soccer or a host of other sports, cycling’s most prestigious race does not have a women’s competition. So for the last few years, a group of women have biked the same course as the men, one day before them, to draw attention to the issue. They climb the same mountains, endure the same bumpy cobblestone streets, and push through the same three-week course—only without the road closures and other benefits that make the men’s race a little easier.  

Floret began the women’s Tour project four years ago in order to push for more opportunities for female cyclists in France. Other contests, including the Giro d’Italia, already offer a women’s race. Mathieu Islet is working to train Floret’s team. “In France, it’s an old country for cycling, but women don’t practice cycling in competition,” said the coach in an interview with NPR.  

Yet the lack of a women’s race on the Tour isn’t the only issue at hand. In recent years, women cyclists have begun to speak out about gender-based discrimination in the sport. “There is widespread institutional sexism in cycling culture,” former professional cyclist Iris Slappendel wrote in an April Outside magazine op-ed. “Women in the sport are groomed to believe that we don’t deserve as much media attention, prize money, or sponsorship investment.”  

For example, whereas cycling’s international governing body requires that UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) World Tour male participants get paid at least 31,000 euros (US$36,000) per year, no similar requirement exists for women. According to survey data published in 2017, half of women in pro cycling earn $11,800 or less per year, and 17 percent receive no salary at all.  

In 2017, cyclist Lizzie Armitstead shared her own stories of sexism with The Guardian—including being woken up by a senior manager for the men’s professional team and asked to dance with a male teammate for his birthday. Armitstead described other experiences of discrimination in her 2017 autobiography, including women having to borrow helmets from the men’s team.  

Some things are changing, however. Armitstead received 2,000 pounds (US$2,600) for winning the 2015 UCI Road World Championships, while her male counterpart won 20,000 pounds (US$26,500). Today, the top bikers for both races receive the same sum.  

Back in France, Floret and the other riders have many long days of cycling ahead. At least they won’t be doing the journey on their own. Last year, about 400 cyclists—including some men—rode along on various stages of the course to support the women’s team.  

“When you come to the mountains, you climb, and you have all these people cheering you up, believing in you,” Ukranian rider Tetiana Kalachova told NPR. “And even if though you don’t have any more force, you just push on. So it’s enormous source of energy. It's a great feeling.”

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