In 2015, three female cyclists, who called themselves "Donnons des elles au vélo", set out to prove a point. They would ride every stage of the Tour de France before the men did. All 2,082 miles of it. These women cycled up the punishingly steep mountains, their thighs burning, their hearts racing. Each year the group has grown, with 13 women completing the entire route this year.
And they do it without the fanfare, without the press, without the recognition. Unlike in the men’s race, where streets are completely closed down, the women have to contend with cars and trucks and traffic lights. "We respect the traffic signs. We stop at red lights. We respect the rules," one of the riders, Tetiana Kalachova, told the Associated Press.
But they do have a steady stream of supporters cheering them on. "When it happened the first year, no one knew. Then people started to recognize. Last year we had some mentions on French TV," Kalachova explained. "Now when we come, people scream and encourage. They prepare food for the breaks or on arrival... This is pretty awesome."
The size of the group ebbs and flows each day, as it posts its position on social media so that people can join in at any stage. In Brittany, they had 120 people on the start line. Over the three weeks, there were 13 women who showed up every day, finally completing the tour on Saturday. But when they cycled through the Champ-Elysees and crossed the finish line, exhausted and sore, there was no yellow jersey, no prize money, no international fame waiting for them. The busiest street of Paris bustled around them, for the most part, completely unaware of their achievement.
So, why did they do it?
To show the world they can.
This isn’t the first attempt women have made to be properly represented in cycling – the Tour de France has a long history of women fighting for equal representation
"We want a women's stage race with the same media coverage and the same attention as men have," Kalachova explained. "Not necessarily the same roads and not necessarily the same quantity of dates, but with the same appreciation."
This isn’t the first attempt women have made to be properly represented in cycling – the Tour de France has a long history of women fighting for equal representation. In fact, the only reason women are currently allowed to complete in a one-day race called "La Course by Le Tour de France" is because it was a response to a petition asking that women be allowed to compete in the men's race. However, it doesn’t receive anywhere near the amount of attention or respect the men’s race garners.
"We are trying to prove that women, even amateurs, totally clean – no doping, no special assistance – are able for this kind of effort," Kalachova said.
As Dame Sarah Storey, who completed part of the tour with the all-female group, explained, women face a huge Catch-22 when fighting for gender equality in sports: “There’s a vicious circle, because if you don’t have the coverage, you don’t get the audience, and if you don’t get the audience you don’t get the coverage. So someone has to make the first move. You only have to look at the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games to see that the women’s races are as popular as the men’s races.”
The women of “Donnons des elles au vélo” have proved that they’re capable both of competing and of drawing supporters. So, what is the Tour de France waiting for?