“We’re expecting change to come next year,” says Kathryn Bertine, professional cyclist and women’s rights activist, over a crisp Skype line from the United States.
“We’re not holding our breath, but we’re keeping the pressure on. It’s getting to the point now where ASO [the Amaury Sport Organisation, organisers of le Tour de France] are really behaving quite sexist. All of the demand is there for the expansion of the women’s race, they’re just choosing to ignore it.”
We’re speaking to the New York-born cyclist after the conclusion of an invigorating 2018 Tour de France, of which the dramatic last minute win for Annemiek van Vleuten in the one-day women’s race - La Course by le Tour de France - was one of the indisputable highlights.
"We do have to ask why it isn’t growing, and what we have when we ask that, blatantly, is sexism"
We’re asking Kathryn, an activist whose work is directly responsible for the founding of La Course, why the race has not yet grown into a full three-week women’s Tour de France.
It’s a question which has generated particular interest this year after van Vleuten’s win went viral and further highlighted the fact that La Course had been reduced from two stages to one for 2018, seemingly, and bewilderingly, taking a step backwards from previous years.
“We do have to ask why it isn’t growing,” says Kathryn, “and what we have when we ask that, blatantly, is sexism. The demand is there, the sponsors and the dollars are there, the media attention is there in many countries, and when there is media attention, the stats are quite high and the turn out from the media is fantastic. So when you ask why isn’t it growing if all the demand is there, it’s strictly because ASO is not putting in the work.
“One of the unfortunate things about the Tour de France is that it’s a monopoly. It’s known as the world’s greatest, longest, most-exciting bike race, so they feel that they don’t really need to change. They don’t feel like they have to answer back.”
The omission of a women’s Tour de France draws even further scepticism when you learn that, between 1985 and 1989, the women had one. A women’s Tour was run alongside the men’s, and the only reason it stopped was that when the time came to sell television rights, ASO chose to scrap the women’s race rather than sell the rights alongside the men’s.
“They could have just as easily sold the rights to the women’s race as well, but they didn’t,” says Bertine. “And then they took it one step further. They banned women from using ‘Le Tour’ or ‘Le Tour de France’ in any event that the women might have wanted to put on.
“We have people to this day asking why we don’t just start our own Tour de France. Over the years attempts were made to do that. They had races that tried to incorporate stages of the Tour de France, but not at the same time or the same distances, and they couldn’t call it the Tour de France for women, so you can imagine that took a real marketing back seat.”
Had the ASO sold the rights for the women’s race alongside the men’s, women’s cycling would arguably be 30 years ahead of where it is now in terms of professionalism, media coverage and equal pay - three of the key factors Kathryn is ultimately pushing for.
"Our entire plan was for stages to be added incrementally so that it would, in the future, become equal - a full three-week stage race just like the men's"
The 2013 fight that Bertine refers to is that of La Tour Entier, a milestone campaign in women’s cycling.
Kathryn was, alongside cycling superstars Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley, and four-time Ironman Triathlon World Champion Chrissie Wellington, the real driving force behind La Tour Entier, born to grow women’s cycling - and starting by pressuring the relevant parties to bring back the women’s Tour de France.
“When we launched our petition we garnered almost 100,000 signatures,” says Kathryn, “and this was back in 2013. Change dot org is quite popular now and it’s a little easier to get signatures, but back then that wasn’t the case. People had to sign up and make a profile and not everyone is willing to do that. We became the third most successful campaign that year.
“ASO paid attention but only after we kept asking and asking for a meeting where we could sit down and help with adding women to the Tour de France. That took up most of my 2013.”
And so La Course by Tour de France was born, first as a one-stage sprint finish on the Champs-Élysées in 2014 and 2015, then as a mountain stage in 2016 which grew into a two-day stage race in 2017, consisting first of a mountain stage, and then secondly a bizarre time trial in which only the top 20 finishers of the mountain stage were allowed to compete. The format was largely criticised, and though change was subsequently called for, reverting back to a one-day race was possibly not what those speaking out had in mind.
“Anybody who follows cycling knows that second stage [in 2017] was ridiculous,” says Bertine. “That’s not how a stage race works. Invite only? That’s crazy. And why would you invite the top 20 climbers to a time trial? That’s a different set of athletes. A different kind of racing.
“We still stand by our original plan from La Tour Entier. In 2014 we were thrilled we had our foot in the door but our entire plan was for stages to be added incrementally so that it would, in the future, become equal - a full three-week stage race just like the men have, and by adding stages incrementally it was allowing for the growth in women’s cycling to afford those changes and carry the costs of racing for three days, then seven, then ten, because as we know, women’s cycling has been very disadvantaged by not having media coverage.
“ASO said they were on board with that - but the opposite happened. They were thrilled with La Course the first year, sowe were expecting the 3-5 days to be added, but they stuck with the one-day tradition. The next year they promised there was a big announcement coming, and that’s when they switched La Course to a mountain stage. But it wasn’t an added day. All they did was change location.
“And now here we are on the fifth edition of La Course and they’ve switched the stage again to another mountain top finish, shorter than the men’s race and lower prize money, and without adding a second day or anything. In the United States the only access was through NBC Sports Gold where you had to pay $50 for a membership. It was shameful - but we were given access to the last kilometre, for about two minutes, two minutes, but it was a very exciting two minutes and it was shared around the globe. It was incredible. The world was excited and everyone was asking why the women didn’t have more days.”
One of the most frequent, if vague, arguments used by those who protest the idea of a three week women’s Tour de France is that of the ‘logistics'. It’s a word often banded around without much expansion, and was even used to suggest the potential problems of a women’s Tour by ITV4 commentators this year during a phone interview with one of the riders from ‘des Elles au Vélo’ - a group of 13 women who rode each stage of the Tour one day ahead of the men - halfway through the live coverage of one of the stages of the race.
I ask Kathryn what she makes of the logistics argument.
“Anyone who says that is either ignorant or lying,” she says. “Let’s call it like it is. All you have to do is to look back to the 1980s, where there was a women’s Tour de France. Women also had to be housed and fed just like the men. If anything, logistics should be better 30 years later.
“As recently as 2013 when we sat down with ASO they used that line too. We said to them look - that’s not true. I think they think women will have to be in five star resorts to make it happen, like the men, but that’s where the Tour de France is quite elitist. If that’s how they are catering to the men, they need to scale everything down so men and women have equal opportunity and access and if that means staying at smaller hotels or even those empty castles the commentators are always talking about as the peloton cycles past, then so be it!”
One look at some of the statistics shows the disparity between men and women’s cycling.
There was 179 days of racing on the men's UCI WorldTour this year and just 52 on the Women's WorldTour. The average annual men's team budget at the top level is £15 million, while for women it’s closer to £155,000.
Of the 22 teams in this year's Tour de France, only five also have a professional women's cycling team - six if you include Trek-Segafredo, who are adding one in 2019.
“That’s only a quarter,” says Kathryn, “and those teams who do have a women’s team are seeing a direct benefit in return on investment. By investing equally in women and men, their product is actually doing better and they’re gaining more exposure. It’s a no-brainer.”
In 2014, Marianne Vos received €535 for winning the Giro Rosa while Nairo Quintana took home €200,000. Even at World Championship level, equal prize money only started appearing in 2016 - in 2015, Lizzie Armitstead received £2,000 for winning the World Champs road race while Peter Sagan won £20,000.
Meanwhile, the pace is near enough the same. The average speed of Annemiek van Vleuten winning the women's TT world championships in 2017 was 40.025 km/h (over 21.1km), while Tom Doumalin's average taking home the men’s TT world champs was only narrowly faster at 41.626 km/h (over 31km).
And yet the current minimum wage for a male rider at WorldTour level is €38,115. At Professional Continental level it is €30,855. There is still no minimum wage in professional women’s cycling. Despite Brian Cookson promising it. Half of the field at the top level of women's cycling still earn less than €10,000 and an enormous 17% have zero salary.
The top professional men, meanwhile, make in excess of €4,000,000 in annual salary.
“Unfortunately with Cookson, like with many politicians, a lot of things were promised and he just did not deliver. I love seeing the possibility that David Lappartient, our current UCI president, maybe will deliver, but I’m also very skeptical.
“They say that there is a UCI policy where there will be a base salary implemented at World Tour level by 2020 but they have not released the facts and figures over what that base salary will be. So what I’m skeptical of is that the base salary will be introduced and will be below the poverty line. I can tell you that in the five years I raced UCI level of professional cycling, only one of those years did I make above the poverty line. In the US the poverty line is at about $17,000.
"It’s one thing if you’re struggling along hoping to make it but at the top there has to be equality and equity in pay"
“What most professional women have to do is carry a part time job in addition to cycling or have a family structure which allows them to race where someone else is bringing in the income.
“For all of us in any profession, in any walk of life, we all have to pay our dues on the climb to the top. It’s one thing if you’re struggling along hoping to make it but at the top there has to be equality and equity in pay, otherwise why are you on the journey and how are you going to be valued financially in your profession?
“That’s where we are right now. We’ve been campaigning for this salary equity and I’m hopeful but I’m also very nervous about this “base salary” that will come our way in 2020. If that’s going to be less than the men at the same level or under the poverty line then it’s just a ridiculous token gesture and one thing that we can and should do is speak very, very loudly if that is not equal.”
Whether Lappartient will indeed deliver equality and a policy that could immeasurably grow women’s cycling, and heighten the chances of the ASO incorporating a full women’s race, remains to be seen.
Kathryn Bertine may not be holding her breath just yet, but one thing is for sure - she will be there to hold Lappartient and the ASO accountable should they not stick to their word.
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