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Giro finale
Photo ©: Bettini

La Grande Débâcle: What's wrong with the women's Tour de France?

By Kristy Scrymgeour

The 2003 Grande Boucle

Sunday, August 17 saw the 2003 women's version of the Tour de France, officially called La Grande Boucle Féminine, end in Paris with only 50 finishers from a mere 66 starters. For a race that is considered by most cyclists to be the most prestigious race on the calendar, this lack of participation points to a serious problem for the future of the race and for the future of women's cycling.

There are many different opinions as to why the tour had such a poor showing this year and also many suggestions as to how the race could be improved for next year and it really does need improving or it will die, possibly affecting the sport for women forever.

The name "La Grande Boucle Féminine" was created in 1996 after a legal battle with the organizers of the men's Tour de France, the Société du Tour de France, and the race was no longer allowed to be named the women's Tour de France.

For some teams it was simply a matter that the announcement that the 2003 Grande Boucle would even take place came too late in the season. For T-Mobile director Jim Miller, who regrets not being able to send a team to France, tough scheduling decisions had already been made. "It clashed with the Pan American Games and by the time it was announced it didn't really fit into our schedule," Miller told Cyclingnews. "It's an important race and I really enjoy it so it was tough to exclude this year."

For many years, the director of Vélo Féminin, Pierre Boué, has received complaints from riders and team directors for poor accommodations, excessively long transfers, unnecessarily long neutral starts, long stages, and unpaid prize money. Each year he insisted that conditions would be different and slowly, according to some riders, things have been getting a better. Nonetheless, last year's prize money was not paid. This year, following the second stage on the French island of Corsica, riders were put on a ferry from the island to the main land and didn't get to their hotel until 3am, having to get up to race the hardest stage of the tour the next day.

French rider Cathy Marsal, who has ridden the Grande Boucle multiple times over the years, wrote an article in French sports daily l'Equipe prior to the race this year explaining many of the other intrinsic political problems faced by Boué. She explains that the Grande Boucle has been in the past run by two organizations that don't get along. The primary is Team France Organisation (TFO) which was headed by Boué, and the other being Racing Club Olympique (RCO), which owned the dates of the race.

Problems between Boué and RCO escalated last year when the TFO didn't repay the prize money that RCO had covered. RCO took Boué to court after he had been randomly firing staff members. Boué countered that RCO's president Marianne Mezin was elected through improper procedure, which ultimately forced her resignation. The end result of the legal battles was that this year, RCO was no longer part of the picture leaving Boué with no race dates for the tour.

Pierre Boué under pressure
Photo: © AFP

Boué subsequently created a new company called Vélo Féminin and reapplied to the UCI to obtain race dates for 2003. The UCI was reluctant to give him the dates because of the constant complaints about the way he ran the tour, but eventually agreed under specific conditions. He had to agree to respect the distances of the stages, respect the distance of the neutral starts and shorten the distance of the transfers. He also had to agree to pay the 2003 prize money in advance. This year's event was to be closely monitored by the UCI to determine whether or not sufficient improvements had been made.

Ultimately Boué was able to pay the prize money in advance and received August dates for the tour, but not until July. By this stage many of the big teams had made alternate plans, resulting in the smallest field in the race's history lining up on the start line in Corsica.

Vélo Féminin now has a 300,000€ debt on its hands including the 22,445€ Boué still owes to RCO from last year's race. This debt and a drop in sponsorship of over 200,000€ caused him to make dramatic changes to this year's tour, including replacing 3 star hotels with Formule 1 hotels (the cheapest), only being able to provide one team car per team on the ferry to Corsica and having meals replaced with meal vouchers.

Boué had a lot to say during this year's tour and feels hardly done by many people in France. "Without sounding paranoid, I believe that some people would like to destroy my race," He said an interview with l'Equipe. "If you add the problems with the media, the FFC, the UCI, and my legal problems with RCO, realistically we shouldn't have been able to start this year."

The media problems Boué refers to are the cost of putting highlights of the race on TV this year. A production company charged 120,000€ to have a three minute summary on the France 3 television network each night, whereas last year's event was given 30-40 minutes daily on cable sports network Pathé Sport (now Sport+). Boué complained about the minimal airtime in France, while Spanish television provided 20 minute nightly summaries.

With all these problems, it has become clear that the race faces an uphill battle and many are afraid that this may be the last year of the tour. Boué has lost his primary sponsor, French supermarket chain Monoprix, which ends its eight year run of support for the tour.

Reactions from the peloton

2003 Podium
Photo: © AFP

A number of the riders who competed in this year's Grande Boucle believe that teams won't turn up next year if the race's overall situation doesn't improve. Nurnberger's Margaret Hemsley has competed in the Grande Boucle four times now and commented on this year's conditions.

"It got better towards the end of the tour but the beginning was just crazy," she told Cyclingnews. "Some riders didn't get to sleep after the transfer from Corsica until 3am and had to race the hardest stage the following day. In the end the stage was shortened. The accommodation has been fine apart from no air conditioning in some places which doesn't help in this heat and the fact that often three people were crammed into a room without enough room to open suitcases.

"The transfers haven't been too bad this year but I really think that if things don't change, nobody is going to turn up next year. Particularly bad is the fact that the mountains began immediately. The first few days were supposed to be flat but in fact [the general classification] was decided on day two. The only flat stages in the tour came right at the end."

Australian Emma James of the Pruneaux d'Agen team wrote about the initial transfer from Corsica, and the ill effects of late nights traveling combined with difficult mountain stages the next day. "On the boat at about midnight there had been discussions about how reasonable it was to expect the peloton to ride a serious mountain stage in the Alps after not getting to sleep until two or three am," she said. "The confirmation came the next day, the stage would start an hour later with a 3 km roll out in Fayence to ensure the media and officials all got the right photos, and then we would get in team cars for a 30 km drive to eliminate the first cat. 2 climb."

A shortened stage and riders piling into team cars after a mock race start did nothing to win the support of fans who had lined the roads to see the Grande Boucle in action. "People on the side of the road gave us the 'thumbs down' as we drove past. They filmed us with video cameras in amazement, wondering why they had waited there an hour after the time the peloton was expected, just to see cars drive by."

Although Marsal did not compete in the tour this year, her opinion about the terrain was similar. "I think there needs to be more of a balance in the stages," she said. "The men have almost a week of flat stages in the Tour de France which makes it good for the sprinters. This year in the Grande Boucle the first stages were mountainous. I believe that women's cycling doesn't need the huge mountains like the men as the field is not as deep and there are only very few people who can race up mountains like l'Alpe d'Huez for instance."

Cyclingnews also spoke with James Victor, director of the Australian National Team, who explained why he no longer takes a team to the Grande Boucle. "We haven't been there since 2000 because we have a young group of riders, but I don't think the conditions have really changed except that it actually costs money to go there now. It's 800 Euro entry and to do it safely so that the health of the riders and the staff is not at risk costs a lot more. You really need 4-5 staff and 4 vehicles. It's not only the terrain and the distance of the stages that is hard; it is the transfers that are up to 5 hours that take so much out of you. Women's teams just don't have the budget to cope with that."

"I appreciate what Pierre Boué is trying to do," Victor continued. "He has sponsors in the Alps and mountain stages are what the tour is about, but it doesn't have to cover the whole of France in one tour. Maybe he can do the Alps one year and the Pyrenees the next. He wonders why riders are threatening to strike.

"I'd really love to be able to take my best riders to the tour each year but when it comes down to it we have to consider what is more important. The World Cups and the Olympics are bigger and more achievable goals. Women's cycling just doesn't get the publicity that the men's tour gets. Men have more money and bigger teams; they can afford to have riders who concentrate solely on doing the Tour de France and have enough riders to race in the rest of the races. Women's teams usually only have between 8 and 10 riders, sometimes fewer, and it's impossible for riders to do Tour de l'Aude, the Giro and the Grande Boucle, and be able to back up and be at their best for the World's. If prize money was paid up and it was financially viable then it would be a different story. I know the athletes want to do it. People start this sport with the Tour de France as a goal. The women really want to race it, but it's just not viable."

On a positive note, athletes and directors appreciate the fact that Boué does put on a tour for women. With races such as Hewlett Packard and Tour de Suisse being cancelled due to sponsors pulling out, it is vital that the sport hangs on to the races that exist. Last year the women's Giro d'Italia went through financial difficulty but thanks to the Italian Federation stepping in, this year's Giro was "as good as ever" according to Victor. "Women's cycling really needs [the Grande Boucle]. It is a prestigious race in the sport of cycling and it's a race that is suited to specialist riders, like the climbers." To lose the tour would be devastating to a lot of riders who consider it a goal throughout their career.

Thankfully Boué does not plan to give up on the Grande Boucle and is already thinking of how he can improve it for next year. Boué is looking for other European sponsors as opposed to purely French sponsors. The tour next year could be not simply a tour through France, but a Tour via France, beginning in Andorra and finishing in Wiesbaden, Germany.

"We're going where people like us," Boué said, "since France has no interest in us." Taking the tour through three countries when a common concern is that it covers too much ground as it is, leading to longer transfers, seems a little strange. However the idea is that if the race takes a straight path from Andorra (or Spain) to Germany, there would be no need to concentrate on covering too much ground in France and the conditions would be better due to the higher chance of gaining sponsors in the additional countries.

With the state of women's cycling in a bit of disarray with races continually being cancelled due to lack of sponsorship, it is important that the Grande Boucle be revitalized. If Boué can find the sponsors and adhere to the request from the UCI that he respect the health of the riders and keep the stages, transfers and neutrals to respectable distances, the race could well be revived. It would be a shame for it to die now that the depth of women's cycling and the level of racing is at a high point and has the potential to keep growing.

See also Cyclingnews' coverage of the Grande Boucle Féminine, and Emma James' diary, including plenty of tales from the tour.

More Cyclingnews features