Will women's cycling ever have their own Tour de France?
By Kait Borsay. Last Updated: 08/06/13 9:56am
On the road
Team Wiggle Honda will race in London this weekend knowing that a good showing will help raise the profile of women's road racing.
Olympic track cycling champions Joanna Rowsell, Laura Trott and Dani King will all be competing in the IG London Nocturne on Saturday as women's road racing looks to get the recognition and the coverage it deserves.
Every four years women's cycling comes out of the shadows and enthralls us all at the Olympic games. London 2012 was no different and the likes of Trott, Roswell, King and Lizzie Armitstead, became household names.
Unfortunately they soon slipped out of the limelight and back into the shadows. For these amazing athletes the hard work and training carries on - it has to if they want to compete at the highest level - but the sponsors and the races to keep the crowds interested are not there.
The idea to have a specific pro women's Tour is gathering momentum - an event that flies the flag for the sport and champions the best in the business. The ultimate dream is to have a women's Tour de France but there are some difficult obstacles to get over before this dream can become a reality.
"We want to see strength in the number of professional teams, strength in the World Cup series which uses the strongest teams," explained International Cycling Union's (UCI) Road Coordinator Matthew Knight.
"Bring in other teams that don't currently meet the UCI status"
"We need strong national-level programmes and strong national calendars where the best young women have the chance to compete. An opportunity for exposure and experience; growing grassroots levels; increasing the number of high quality women available for selection in a UCI recognised team"
The UCI would be fully supportive of a women's Tour de France if well run and properly organised. But Knight issued a word of caution, saying that racing must be "suited for the current reality of the women's peloton" and that there was "no immediate timeframe" for when this would be the case.
The UCI and the world of women's cycling has in the past seen many professional teams fall foul of finances and support. In 2009, world road race champion and Olympic gold medalist Brit Nicole Cooke launched her Vision1 Racing team: "to keep things interesting" and further her own career. The team folded the following year.
The UCI's desire for teams to be "well run and well organised" rings very true.
Wiggle Honda is credited as being one such team. Owner and manager Rochelle Gilmore, the 2010 Commonwealth road race champion, has been in the sport for over a decade and decided to take matters into her own hands.
"Female professional cyclists are in every sense of the word so professional, even if you compare the women to the men - the women take their sport so seriously, it's frustrating to see them let down by logistics and environmental challenges" said Gilmore.
On the road
"Three women in a car, sitting on the back seat with bags and bikes aboard, for journeys that could last up to 10 hours, arriving at 11pm at night to a poor meal, rooming with up to four people, sometimes having to share a bed"
Wiggle Honda, like many others being established, have three-year contracts with sponsors - and she feels that's a good indication of commitment needed for the desired level of professionalism within women's teams.
Paving the way
Now five months into the project and with the financial backing of sponsors like Sir Bradley Wiggins and with business advice from Team Sky principal Sir Dave Brailsford, Gilmore and her team are paving the way for other teams and sponsors to get on board.
Gilmore would welcome a women's Team Sky for example, saying: "the idea starting with Wiggle Honda is that it attracts more sponsors to the sport and more women get the opportunity to be the best they possibly can be"
At the moment there are no immediate plans for a women's Team Sky but Sir Dave Brailsford has suggested that they wouldn't rule out the possibility in the future.
There is no doubt that the return of a big marquee event like the women's Tour de France would do wonders for women's road cycling - both for its profile and to increase the number of well organized, financially supported teams involved at the top level.
The event has a chequered history and disappeared from the calendar in 2009 after sporadic route changes and name changes.
So what's stopping the return of a women's Tour de France?
Gilmore remains pragmatic: "The men's tour has become so big it's just not possible logistically to put on a women's tour at the same time" she said.
"There would have to be more purpose built hotels - or we'd have to sleep on the side of the road in tents.
"It's a dream of mine to see a women's Tour de France on the calendar - but even running a day before or a day or after the men's Tour it seems you'd still have a logistical nightmare"
"There's too many people putting it in the 'too hard' basket and the motivations just not high enough for those people who are at the top and in control - I can't see that happening very quickly"
However Gilmore does have a solution that could fit into the Tour de France.
"A first or last stage," explained Gilmore."I'd really passionately like to see that happen. A criterium race upon the arrival of the Tour in Paris could be logistically possible".
The Women's Tour
Britain is now in the top five nations for women's road cycling yet in contrast out of 79 events on the UCI women's elite race calendar, currently none are staged in the UK.
But times may be about to change. This year there will be a one-day women's race held in London ahead of the final stage of the men's Tour of Britain - held as a precursor for a five-stage women's race next year.
The Women's Tour' will not be held in conjunction with the men's Tour of Britain race and is likely to be held in May next year. The event has the full backing of British Cycling - and the company organising are currently liaising with the UCI, local councils and potential sponsors.
Laura Trott is part of the road race team Wiggle Honda, and says the event next year is a "massive deal"
"It wouldn't have happened five years ago, I honestly don't think it would have happened without the Olympics, Lizzie Armitstead getting the silver and the crowds drawn to the roads"
The double Olympic champion knows the experience on the road will go hand in hand with strengthening her performance on the track.
"Since the (2012) Games cycling has definitely got bigger" said the double Olympic gold medalist and team pursuit world champion. "It wasn't cool when I was a kid and I used to go out with my Mum and Dad.
"Now, I go out on a road ride, there are so many people out on the road now, young and old, it's just so nice to see.
"I've been in it since it wasn't that big, since before Beijing, then Sir Chris did his thing in Beijing and that helped it to grow - and after London 2012 it's getting bigger and bigger."
Time will tell whether the Tour de France dream will become a reality, but the seeds are being sown for future inspiration as women's cycling takes another step in the right direction.