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Historic Tour de France Femmes gives women’s cycling new platform

The eight-day race beginning Sunday will be the first Tour de France for women since 1989. (Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

On Sunday, for the first time since 1989, women will ride in their own Tour De France.

The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift will begin on the Champs Elysées in Paris and finish atop La Super Planche des Belles Filles. The eight-day race will be the first Tour de France for women since the event was staged from 1984-89. While past women’s races have taken place, such as La Course by the Tour de France, they haven’t been the Tour.

“It’s a race that most people in the world have heard about,” veteran cyclist Ashleigh Moolman Pasio told Just Women’s Sports. “If you meet someone out on the street and you tell them that you’re a professional cyclist, then they’ll be like, ‘Have you ridden the Tour de France?’

“Now the response is totally different. You can go, ‘Yes, I’m going to be racing the Tour de France.”

The public’s perception about women’s cycling is not the only thing Moolman Pasio believes the Tour will change.

“The real relevance of us having a Tour de France is that now young girls or women in general can turn on the TV and watch women racing for the biggest race in the world,” she said. “And that’s when the sport really grows. Because then the depth grows, and suddenly you have young girls who aspire to become pro cyclists.”

A Tour de France Femmes became possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Tour de France approached Zwift, a virtual training app for cycling and running, about holding a virtual race in 2020, the company also pushed for a women’s race.

“True to Zwift’s values, they stuck firmly to the fact that everything they do, they do equal,” said Moolman Pasio. “So if there were to be a men’s virtual Tour de France, there had to be a women’s one, too.”

The success of that race led main sponsor Zwift to commit to the real thing, and Amaury Sport Organization — which runs the Tour de France — to reconsider their stance on holding a women’s Tour.

In June 2021, ASO announced the launch of the new stage race to take place in July 2022. With a prize fund of €250,000, and the winner taking home €50,000, it’s the richest race in women’s cycling.

For Tour de France Director Christian Prudhomme, the response to the announcement has led him to believe that the race will stick.

“When presenting the women’s Tour de France, the women racers looked very eager,” Prudhomme told Cycling News. “So, we are naturally optimistic and confident in the interest that will be shown in the Tour de France. It feels like we are experiencing a movement in cycling that is continuously gaining momentum.”

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio of South Africa enters the Tour de France with title hopes. (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Moolman Pasio grew up riding, taking part in the Cape Town Cycle Tour with her mother when she was growing up in South Africa. She also enjoyed other sports, like field hockey and tennis, but soon found herself focusing on her academics at Stellenbosch University.

Her now husband Carl, a semi-professional cross triathlete, later noticed her talent on a bicycle and encouraged her to pursue it. From there, she seized on an opportunity to begin riding overseas and her career took off.

“Cycling has been such an incredible journey for me really because — it sounds pretty cliché, but it’s 100 percent true — it’s really been a form of empowerment for me,” she said. “I’m very lucky to be pursuing a career and for it to be a relatively lucrative career.”

After spending some time with CCC Liv and winning the first edition of the UCI Cycling eSports World Championships in 2020, Moolman Pasio now races with SD Worx. The No. 1 team in the world is based in the Netherlands and has a roster of racers like Demi Vollering, who won last year’s La Course by Le Tour de France.

With eight stages over eight days, the Tour de France Femmes covers every type of terrain, including gravel, which will be a Tour de France first. The amount of climbing will steadily increase each day, appealing to riders of every specialty.

“The course has been designed particularly well,” said Moolmain Pasio. “It’s gonna keep the crowd engaged, the fans engaged over the entire duration of the race.”

There’s also the historical significance of the course. Nestled in the Vosges mountains is the Ballon d’Alsace, home of the first “significant summit” crested in the Tour de France, during the race’s third edition in 1905.

“We wanted to show that we were creating a woman’s race that would be perennial, and therefore add an emblematic aspect to the race,” Prudhomme said. “So we added some historic Tour references to the race. As well as the Ballon d’Alsace, there is also the arrival at Epernay. This was the finale of a stage in 2019, in which Julian Alaphilippe took his first yellow jersey.”

Three-time World Champion and two-time Giro Rosa winner Annemiek van Vleuten, a member of Movistar and an expert climber, is widely considered the favorite to take the yellow jersey. But Moolman Pasio has climbing skills of her own, as do teammates Niamh Fisher-Black and Vollering.

“At some point, we hope to catch her out,” added Moolman Pasio. “I think it’s going to be a really exciting eight days because there are plenty of strong women and a lot of passion. And when you ride with passion, it’s a force to be reckoned with.”

They also have the French to worry about. The French team FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope is aiming to win the yellow jersey at home, and they have the rider to do it: Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, who finished second in La Course last year.

“I hope there can be a French rider in the mix, such as Évita Muzic or Audrey Cordon-Ragot, who is a personality,” said Prudhomme.

As for her career beyond the Tour, Moolman Pasio has continued to improve this season, prompting her to reconsider her decision to retire. Deciding to step into the e-cycling space and start Rocacorba Collective, a membership-based indoor cycling community that’s created a space for women to come together to cycle, has helped her reap new benefits as she’s taken her training from the virtual world into reality.

“I really feel that it allows me to access a sort of a zone that is something that’s very difficult to achieve on the road,” she said. “You can just put all your focus into getting the best out of your body. What I’ve found is that accessing this zone while I’m on Zwift is now translating to the road as well. It’s enabling me to switch my mind off even in the races, get really into the zone and focus on getting the best out of myself.

“So I’ve just seen that, as a result, I’ve reached a whole new level as a cyclist on the road.”

She’ll attempt to reach even higher levels on Sunday when she begins the first stage of the Tour de France alongside familiar faces, all looking to be the first champion of the Tour de France Femmes.

“There was a time when I thought I would never see the Tour de France Femmes in my career,” said Moolman Pasio. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some tears of joy from myself and from other members of the peloton [when we line up], because it’s going to be such a huge moment.”

Emma Hruby is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @EHruby.