There is no women’s version of the Tour de France. Not anymore, anyway. There was a race that started back in 1984, but it always struggled to land sponsors, skipped a few years, and finally sputtered out of business in 2009, with a four-day race that saw just 60 participants. But a group of six women from team Rêve 2012 aren’t taking “no” for an answer.
The women—Jennifer Cree, Maria del Pilar Vazquez, Kym Fant, Kristen Peterson, Kate Powlison and Heidi Swift—are cyclists you’ve probably never heard of, but together they form Team Rêve, which is crashing this year’s Tour de France by riding the grueling course in its entirety one day ahead of the professional men’s field. (Scroll to the bottom for the video.)
The team is already out there suffering the course’s leg-burning climbs and speeding down its harrowing curves and dips, and the daily routine is already underway: up and riding by 6am, through rain or shine, constantly shoving calories into their bodies while pedaling, pedaling, pedaling. The six women will average more than 100 miles a day for 19 riding days.
Ahead of the rest of the 198 top professional male cyclists that make up the Tour de France, and therefore ahead of the media circus that follows them, the team won’t enjoy much of the nonstop coverage the official race gets, but team member Heidi Swift is blogging about the ride for peloton magazine.
Having read this far, you may be asking yourself, "Why is the most celebrated of bicycle events is solely for males?" Beautiful women get to kiss the men who win the yellow jersey, but women are not allowed to ride. The standard answer is that, physiologically, women are slower than men and simply aren’t fast enough to compete.
But as Swift told Oregon Public Broadcasting in an interview before she left for France, there are plenty of other reasons that women’s teams aren’t part of the Tour de France, and the biggest one is money.
Sponsorship resources to nurture and bring up new women racers are far scarcer than the funds available to male cyclists. Professional women in biking make only a small portion of the money their male counterparts do, and so the cycle continues—too little money for development of women’s bike racing, too little money to pay women to do it, and too little money flowing from sponsors to provide all the expensive equipment and aid that goes into grooming and supporting a team for the Tour de France.
The six Rêve 2012 women say they are doing it for the challenge, for the adventure, and to raise money for national advocacy organization Bikes Belong. And, one imagines, to spread awareness of women's professional cycling, or the lack thereof. They are sponsored with bicycles by Cannondale and by the Rêve touring company, which next year will offer the same ride opportunity to paying customers—and has its sights set on expanding running similar programs at the other grand tours.
This year, the Rêve 2012 team's collective goal is not to be faster than their male Tour de France counterparts, but to endure, and to ride to the finish at Champs-Elysée as a team.
“There are events that might be considered more of an endurance test than the Tour de France. When you throw racing into the Tour de France, that’s what makes it such a hard challenge,” said Swift. “You know, those guys are killing each other each day for that distance. We’re caring for each other each day for that distance.”
If we’ve piqued your interest in competitive women’s cycling, the Giro d’Italia Internatzionale Femminile—the Giro Donne—is one to follow, and it’s happening right now.