La Course is a single-day criterium organised by ASO, the same organisation behind the Tour de France and many of the major races on the men’s calendar. It’s taken the women’s peloton a year of lobbying the ASO to get the race off the ground, and now it’s here, to be raced on Sunday July 27, just hours before the final stage of Le Tour comes through.
For Marianne Vos, women’s cycling has been growing for many years, but much of the talk about the sport has focused on the problems rather than the solutions.
“In the last [few] years there’s always the talk of ‘[women's cycling] doesn’t get enough attention’. But only saying it doesn’t get enough attention doesn’t work. You have to take it around and make some steps, then it gets the attention and the public is very enthusiastic about the racing.”
And according to Vos, the enthusiasm for women’s cycling is certainly growing.
“The interest from all around the world has been growing, if you watch the numbers from the Olympics and the World Championships from the last four or five years”, Vos said. “I think that makes the change. So within the sport people are really enthusiastic about women’s sport and we need to bring that outside the sport and get to the bigger public.”
Events like La Course, which will be broadcast live into more than 100 countries, are vitally important in capturing that mainstream interest for women’s cycling. The 2012 Olympics, too, was important, with Vos talking about the women’s road race (which she won in driving rain) as a real turning point.
“That was a big showcase. It was an interesting race, it was an epic race and it was the day after a not-as-interesting men’s race, which helped. The whole world was watching — even people that have never seen cycling or women’s cycling were like ‘wow, this was fantastic’. So from then on the talk was going on: ‘what can we do to get all the other races more attention?”
One of the answers lies in harnessing the fame of big-name riders in the women’s peloton to help promote the sport. Vos, of course, is one of those names, and her presence at both the Women’s Tour of Britain and La Course this year have been instrumental in attracting press and public attention.
“It’s great that I can use my name to grow the sport. It’s not that I want more attention myself — I’ve got enough attention — is just that I want to help the sport grow”, Vos told CyclingTips. “If I can use my name and my list of honour to create opportunities for the sport that’s what I’ll take as a chance.”
The growth of women’s cycling in recent years has seen many races around the world offer equal prize money to men’s and women’s race. And indeed the winner of La Course will take home the same prize money as a stage winner of the Tour de France: €22,500. According to Marianne Vos it’s the English-speaking nations that have generally led this push towards equal prizemoney.
“I have the feeling that the Anglo-Saxon countries are way ahead of the traditional cycling countries — am I’m part of a traditional cycling country, the Netherlands”, Vos said. “So we need to catch up with you otherwise we will lose the fight.”
A question that Vos often gets asked about La Course is whether there are (or should be) plans to grow La Course into a multi-week Grand Tour to sit alongside the Tour de France, replacing the women’s Tour de France which started in 1984 but was cancelled in 2009.
“I’m not really focusing on a three week Tour because at the moment it’s not really possible in our calendar. But it’s step by step”, Vos said. “My bigger aim would be a WorldTour for women with the Classics, with the stage races, with the big teams having a women’s squad.”
At this stage such plans are a few years off becoming a reality, but there’s no doubt to Vos that things are heading in the direction.
“You feel the positive vibe now in women’s [cycling]; things are changing and we all have the feeling that we can make a difference as riders, as teams. Everybody is really motivated to add something to that and to get this change.”