Jen See’s previous (sportif) work for The Toast can be found here.
July means long days at the beach and ice cream in the shade. It also means bike racing. For three weeks each July, the Tour de France hurtles through the countryside in a blur of kaleidoscopic color. There are sunflowers and rainstorms and massive mountain passes. The riders’ deeply etched muscles shift and twist under leathered skin. Their legs tell stories of long kilometers on the bike and of exactly what happens when the human body slides across pavement at 70 km/hr. To follow the Tour is to read an adventure novel packed with glorious exploits, colorful characters, and heartwrenching defeats.
For most of its history, women have been relegated to the sidelines at the Tour de France. In a break with tradition, there will be one day of racing for women at this year’s Tour. La Course, which takes place on the race’s final day, will showcase the top women riders in the world. Still, the most visible role for women at the Tour de France remains the podium hostesses. Each day, the podium girls hand out flowers and kisses to the race winners. The ritual reflects ideas about a woman’s place that, like a Twinkie at the corner store, have managed to survive unaltered to the present day.
The Tour de France was born in turn-of-the-century Paris as a vehicle to promote a sports newspaper named L’Auto. The paper’s impresario, Henri Desgranges, wanted to boost his sagging circulation numbers, and one day at an editorial meeting, a young journalist blurted out the idea for a bike race around France. L’Auto’s financial backer loved the idea, and in 1903, the first edition of the Tour de France departed from Paris. The race was divided into nine stages; the riders had to make it to the end of each stage by a set time in order to continue. Skeptical of the idea from the beginning, Desgranges was not at the race start. He was too much of a wuss to risk being associated with a failure.
Its accidental invention aside, the Tour was very much a creature of its era. France at the turn of the 20th century had achieved near-universal literacy. It was a golden age for newspapers and sports publications, like L’Auto, proved especially popular. A burgeoning middle class sought out leisure activities and for the first time, they began to travel outside their native towns and cities, thanks to their increased incomes and new railway links. The Tour de France sent daily postcards from around the country: Having a wonderful time, wish you were here. The Tour encouraged tourism, while at the same time, it traced out a map of France, as if to say, here, this is your country.
Until around the turn of the century, the cumbersome penny-farthing was the most common two-wheeler. The machine took its name from its wheels, which resembled a pair of different-sized coins side by side: the penny and the farthing. The rider sat perched high above the ground and the pedals attached to the super-sized front wheel. It was a precarious exercise to ride a p-far. Wheels were initially fashioned out of hoops of wood and the brakes were not especially effective. To ride a p-far was to risk — and even to expect — an ignominious end involving scraped knees and torn trousers.
A series of rapid-fire innovations beginning in the 1880s transformed the bicycle into the shape we recognize today. The triangular frameset with equal-sized wheels instantly made for a more stable, easier to ride steed. Coaster brakes, like the ones on your childhood bike, meant fewer crashes and less ruined clothing, while air-filled tires made for a faster, more comfortable ride. Suddenly, it was actually pretty fun to ride bicycle.
These design advances combined with rising middle class prosperity meant an explosion in the popularity of the new pastime. There were bicycle clubs for cruising the countryside and new races for bicycle men to show off their prowess. The monster 560-kilometer Paris-Bordeaux race débuted in 1890, while in the United States, six-day races run on tracks such as Madison Square Garden grew in prize money and popularity. For spectators, bike racing offered a chance to cheer on their favorites and drink as much beer as possible. Some things haven’t changed.
Though racing remained predominately a male pastime, many women embraced cycling, and the bicycle became both a symbol and vehicle for liberation. Suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony was a fan: “The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a sense of freedom and self-reliance.” It turned out that women enjoyed exploring new places and feeling the wind in their hair just like men did.
But the prospect of women riding bikes also created a literature of pearl-clutching anxiety. A woman who exerted herself too fiercely might catch “bicycle face,” a condition in which her face permanently froze into a frowning rictus of exertion. There were also worries about the harm to her precious fertility that long miles in the saddle might cause and the immodest clothing such a pastime required. In truth, women who embraced the new exercise were viewed as just a little suspect.
The first Tour de France lasted nineteen days and along the way, the race created a serialized adventure story for the daily papers. Often, that story bore only a passing resemblance to what was actually happening on the road. Though newspaper writers drove the route and waited at the check-points, it was never possible to see everything. The Tour covered 2428 kilometers and the riders were strewn across the landscape like an angry toddler’s toys. What those early journalists couldn’t see, they imagined, creating heroes and writing legends. Unlike baseball with its detailed statistics, the history of cycling is a potent mix of truth and fiction. It’s a sport for story-telling and romanticizing and for long arguments with friends that last late into the night.
From the start, the Tour de France excluded women while at the same championing a heroic masculinity. Narratives of suffering and survival grew tightly entwined with the race, and not without reason. Stages in the early years of the Tour ran as long as 300 kilometers and riders raced on heavy steel bicycles with at most two gears. They wore wool shorts that chafed and sagged in the rain and carried their spare tubes wrapped around their shoulders like an artilleryman’s ammunition. Desgranges once said his ideal Tour de France course would be so difficult that only one rider could finish it. He constantly toyed with the rule book, always with the ambition of creating his ideal, the impossible race.
One long-standing rule prohibited riders from receiving assistance during the Tour, even in the event of mechanical catastrophe. In 1913, Eugène Christophe seized the race lead on a mind-bendingly difficult stage that included seven massive mountain passes. On a long unpaved descent, Christophe broke his front fork, the all-important contraption that connects the front wheel to the rest of the bicycle.
Carrying his useless machine on his shoulders, Christophe trudged ten kilometers to the next town. There he found a blacksmith’s forge and instructed by the smithy, Christophe set out to repair his broken bike. Though he welded his own fork, the race jury still penalized him, because Christophe had allowed a seven-year-old boy to pump the bellows of the forge for him. His race lead now long gone, Christophe filled his pockets with food and set off. He reached Paris seventh that year, and though he finished the Tour on eight occasions, Christophe never won. Such is the Tour’s mythology that the story of a rider’s failure is as lovingly preserved as those of its winners.
The acceptable roles for women at the Tour were as the loyal wives left behind or as the fresh-faced girlfriends cheering from the roadside. The newspapers told cautionary tales of seductive women who corrupted young riders and ruined their chances of success. The Tour imposed strict rules on when riders’ wives could visit them and team rules typically prohibited riders from having sex during the race. The exercise might sap their strength and the heroic ideal demanded abstinence.
After the First World War which brought desperate population losses to France, the cultural pressures on women to live within traditional gender roles intensified. It was around this time that the practice of women serving as podium hostesses at the Tour de France likely began. The symbolism was unmistakable as a beautiful young woman greeted each day’s winner with flowers and a kiss on each cheek. The ceremony served to reinforce the image of the rider’s masculinity. At the same time, it placed women firmly on the sidelines as observers and as prizes to be won, rather than participants in the Tour’s great adventure.
In 1924, Alfonsina Strada broke the rules and rode the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s answer to the Tour de France. Strada grew up in a peasant family in Castelfranco Emilia, a farming region outside Bologna, and the grinding poverty of her origins became part of the legend that grew up around her. Strada registered for the Giro under the name Alfonsin, which left her gender ambiguous. By the time the race organizers figured out the truth, it was too late to exclude her.
In a shocking turn, Strada raced with the men for the first two stages of the Giro. Newspaper writers called her “the devil in a dress.” On the road to Naples, Strada crashed heavily during a wild rain storm. Though she failed to make the time cut for the third stage, she decided to continue riding. Strada was not counted officially in the standings, but she reached Milan ahead of two men. She never rode the Giro again, nor in fact, has any other woman.
Sixty years after Strada’s exploit, women got their first chance to race a shortened version of the Tour de France. Though the stages were shorter, the Tour de France féminine ran a full three weeks and each day, the women came screaming into the Tour’s finish town ahead of the men’s race. The Tour féminine reflected evolving attitudes at the time about the capabilities of women athletes. That same year, women competed in the marathon in the Olympics for the first time. It turned out that a woman could run 26 miles and her uterus would not fall out.
But the women’s Tour de France proved short-lived, because the race never attracted the sponsorship and media coverage it needed to become sustainable. It’s a familiar story in women’s professional sports. With the notable exception of tennis, women’s sports have often struggled to find an audience. Cycling has proven an especially hard sell, perhaps because it’s a sport that runs full-speed over traditional ideas of femininity. Riders crash, bleed, drool, and sweat. They finish exhausted and drained empty from their efforts. There remains a curious cultural discomfort with images of women pushed to such extremes in the name of sport.
All the same, women riders will return to the Tour de France for the first time in ten years. This year, there’s a one-day race on the Tour’s final day for women called La Course. The women will race on a circuit on the Champs Élysées in Paris, the same setting for the traditional finale to the Tour de France. In a sport rich with mythology, the places a bike race visits year after year gain a patina of legend created by the exploits of the riders who’ve won and lost there. The Champs-Elysées is one of cycling’s stations of the cross and while the women will not ride the full three weeks of the Tour, they’ve been invited into one of the sport’s holiest spaces.
In an unusual twist, La Course is designed as a mirror image of the men’s race. Every role in the Tour de France will be flipped for the one-day women’s race. Female gendarmes will manage security, women will drive the race motorcycles, and of course, women will race their bikes. At the finish, men will serve as eye-candy on the podium, just as women do in the Tour. In a significant step toward equity, the winner of La Course takes home the same prize money as the winner of a men’s Tour stage. But even as it tries to even the score, La Course still manages to emphasize cycling’s gender divide.
Though it has altered in small ways over time, the essence of the Tour de France endures, its mythology enriched with the exploits of each successive generation. Every year as unchanging as the seasons, the Tour finishes on a Sunday afternoon in central Paris. The Champs Élysées, one of the city’s grand boulevards, shuts down for the day and crowds gather along the roadside in anticipation of the grand finale.
The shadows deepen on the Champs Élysées. Finally, the riders arrive. They swoop past the Arc de Triomphe and fly through the Place de la Concorde and racing in the wheel tracks of their ancestors, the riders hurtle through a space made magic by a confluence of history, legend, and glorious speed.