Susan B. Anthony famously said, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."
While the invention gave the suffragette and her contemporaries a new level of independence at the time, this week the wheel came full circle with a monumental win: the return of a women’s Tour de France after 33 years.
In the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, which commenced July 24 and concludes on July 31, we celebrate the progress for women in cycling but recognize that this is just the beginning for tour equality.
The men’s race, the Tour de France, is the most-watched annual sports event in the world with an estimated total viewership of 3.5 billion, comparable to events like the Summer Olympics and soccer’s World Cup.
The women’s race took off with a strong start, attracting 3 million viewers who tuned in on French television to watch 144 racers begin Stage 1 on Sunday. For context, last year’s men’s Tour averaged 3.8 million viewers on French television over the 21-day race.
This visibility is a game changer – the last women’s Tour was halted three decades ago due to lack of media coverage and sponsorship – it presents a vital opportunity for greater gender parity in the most prestigious race in cycling.
Mind the gaps
There are several marked differences between the women’s and men’s races, which all perpetuate the inequity in pay.
Logistically, the men’s race is 13 days longer than the women’s: 21 days versus eight days. The cycling distances of each stage are also on average 50km to 100km shorter for the women.
In the media, the men’s race enjoys start-to-finish coverage of each stage, averaging nearly six hours per day, whereas the women’s coverage gets less than three hours per day.
These three main differences result in significantly less visibility for the women cyclists, meaning less publicity for company sponsors whose logos get much less airtime.
Those dynamics explain the striking pay gap – the total prize fund for the men’s Tour de France this year was €2.2 million ($2.7 million) with the Denmark's Jonas Vingegaard receiving €430,000 ($528,000) of the prize money.
The prize money for the women’s race is considerably less at €250,000 ($253,000), with the female winner receiving €50,000 ($50,823) of the pot – a sum that’s just one-third the men’s winning prize.
This disparity resembles the early days of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team when we saw top female athletes working multiple jobs in order to continue playing. Finally, after multiple World Cup titles, Olympic gold medals, world-renowned ranking and record audiences, the USWNT reached a historic collective bargaining agreement in May with U.S. Soccer to ensure identical game payments for all players.
Fortunately, organizations like the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) – the world governing body of cycling – recently implemented minimum salary requirements for professional female cyclists, a step closer to achieving parity.
“The creation of the UCI Women's World Tour a few years ago guaranteed that women's teams would have the funding necessary to support full-time athletes by mandating minimum salaries that have gradually increased as the tour has become more established and successful,” Tour de France Femmes contestant Lily Williams said in a statement to Know Your Value.
Williams had to maintain a part-time job until this year and also received a stipend from USA Cycling as a member of the national team.
The aim of the UCI is to ultimately match the pro men’s minimum in 2023. The minimum salary for World Tour female riders was $21,000 in 2020, $28,000 in 2021, and $31,000 in 2022 with items such as health insurance, maternity leave, life insurance and paid holidays also added.
However, pros like Dutch cyclist Marianne Vos, who won Stage 2 this week, still make much less than their male counterparts.
When live racing was shut down for the 2020 Tour de France, Zwift, a digital training platform with gaming capabilities, connected cyclists around the world through a virtual competition in partnership with the current organizing body for the Tour, Amaury Sport Organisation (A.S.O.).
That catalyzed the comeback in women's cycling by proving the fans and competitors were a significant force. Moreover, there was complete parity in the virtual competition between the best women’s and men’s World Tour teams: the same distances, prize purse and broadcast.
“We saw the number of women riding on Zwift increase by more than 120 percent from March 2020 to March 2021,” Zwift’s Director of Content and Women’s Strategy, Kate Veronneau, told Know Your Value. “While we are glad to see the increase in cycling generally, and specifically among women, during the start of the pandemic, we are focused on ensuring that participation in cycling is a long-term trend, and not a temporary bubble.”
Although having two-and-a-half hours of coverage each day for the Tour de France Femmes is less than the men’s, it does mean that athletes, teams and sponsors will have a chance to connect with fans. Exposure is the ultimate power play for progress.
Data shows that fans of women’s sports are loyal and eager for more opportunities to engage. While the women’s race takes place over eight days – beginning at the Eiffel Tower and finishing with grand panache on the Champs Elysees – it starts the same day the men’s race ends with the intention of expanding fan loyalty across gender lines.
The peloton as an equity strategy
When content is consistent and easy to find, fans of women’s sports demonstrate they will turn up and tune in. For example, after CBS scored a landmark deal in 2020 to broadcast and stream all National Women’s Soccer League games in the U.S. and abroad, fans consumed content in record numbers.
Following that example, viewership access for the Tour de Femmes Avec Zwift is the top priority for elevating women’s pro cycling and delivering gender balance.
NBC Sports announced it will showcase the 2022 and 2023 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift and Discovery Sports will bring more women’s cycling to TV viewers than any other broadcaster in the world.
“The level of collaboration among sponsors, those leading the women’s investment and growth strategy, is at a level I’ve never experienced,” Veronneau said. “We are collaborative, intentional and cognizant of the overall women’s sports movement.”
Fans of women’s sports are distinctly loyal and want to represent their community by investing money in the brands that promote them. For example, that investment was on full display following the USWNT’s fourth FIFA World Cup win in 2019. Nike saw a 500 percent increase in jersey sales and was unable to fill that demand, according to The Fan Project from Sports Lab Innovation.
In a road bicycle race, the “peloton” is the main group or pack of riders who, by staying close together, can save energy. This formation resembles the groundswell of support for women in sports. As we’ve seen in women’s basketball and soccer, women’s cycling has met its moment to breakthrough and achieve equity.
We can all pay a role in championing the pursuit of parity across this sport by following the race, the athletes and sharing the numbers out loud.