Have you heard about the Rêve Tour? Six women are riding the entire route of the 2012 Tour de France, one day in advance of the actual race, to raise money for Bikes Belong. The ride is sponsored and supported, but my understanding is that they’ll be cleaning and maintaining their own bikes. Given that there are six of them, and not 198, they’ll have to really stick together and take care of each other to make it. I think it is fair to say that for the women involved it will be easily as massive an undertaking as it will be for the men who will race it, for money, in their wake.
The Rêve Tour will not be televised. You can expect Heidi Swift, who writes for a certain magazine Padraig also writes for, to pen some compelling prose about it, but otherwise we will have very little window into what they’re doing day-to-day, and that’s too bad. I think it takes what a small cadre of men did during Stoepid Week and goes one louder.
The Rêve Tour ladies are already accomplishing part of what they set out do, because they’ve got me thinking about the disparities in our sport. Some years ago, when I was editing a soccer magazine, I ran up against a common feeling among our readership, which was that women’s soccer was inferior to men’s. It was slower, they complained. It was different.
My actual experience was that, while slower than the men’s game and less dependent on power, the women’s game was really good to watch. The women, at least at the time, were more tactical in their play, more cooperative. There were fewer cynical fouls and far less play-acting. It was different, yes, but still very good, and the pros, though paid far less than the men, were more open, giving of their time, and encouraging to young players.
Female cyclists at the very top of our sport will be slower than their male counterparts, but I can’t see that that has any impact on my enjoyment of a race. Since the advent of modern doping controls, including EPO testing and the biological passport, the men’s races have slowed as well. We are not enjoying those races less, are we?
A group of top racers going hammer-and-tongs at a grueling mountain stage is thrilling, no matter the, um, base equipment under them. The tactics are the same. The personalities will run the same gamut. It will be the same story, but different. Better in some ways.
I don’t want to go all soap-boxy about this, because I hope that I am preaching to a sympathetic choir. There is already elite women’s racing. Ina Yoko-Teutenberg, Kristen Armstrong, Evelyn Stevens, Emma Pooley, Marianne Vos, Claudia Hausler, Georgia Bronzini, Chloe Hosking, these are names you’ve probably heard. They are stars, even if the UCI and ASO don’t treat them as such.
To me, the Rêve Tour won’t prove any points about what women can and can’t do. We already know they can race the same races as the men, and most of us believe those races would be just as compelling as the ones we get to see on television. What the Rêve Tour does, I think, is ask the question, “Why are things the way they are now, with unequal prize money and inadequate support from the sport’s governing body?”
And it’s a fair question.
In pro tennis, at the top level, the prize money is equal. The women get as much, and sometimes more, media ink than the men. It’s an example of two subtly different forms of the same game, offering equal entertainment value, and equal opportunity. How is cycling different?
When Chloe Hosking called Pat McQuaid a dick for his comment that professional female cyclists did not deserve a minimum wage, she was made to back down and apologize. But for what? How can the head of the UCI pretend to be interested in the growth of the sport when he won’t give even the most cursory backing to equal opportunities for women?
I have no answers. I know it’s easy to write these words, to put on an air of moral indignation. It is much harder to set out with six teammates to conquer the Tour de France and make your point with your legs, as a cyclist should.
Image: Robertson, VeloDramatic