Following the major announcement that a women’s leg would be added to the Tour de France, we spoke with cyclist, activist and journalist Kathryn Bertine, who has been a major figure in the campaign to get women on the course at the Tour. The addition of a women’s race was prompted by an international effort and the help of almost 100,000 petitioners on Change.org.
According to Bertine, the willingness to partner with the ASO to create La Course was also a defining factor in bringing about change. In early April, the ASO will announce details about the course, the number of teams and the number of racers invited to take part in the first La Course race. (You can read the press release announcing La Course here.)
Bertine talked to us about what it took to make this happen and how organizers plan to make La Course a staple in women’s competition and an example to aspire to.
IBTimes: How long were you working toward getting La Course added to the Tour de France?
Kathryn Bertine: For me personally it’s a project I’ve been working on since 2009 but it wasn’t until 2013 that we were able to assemble the right team of people to make it happen, proving that teamwork and aligning yourself with the right people is what will always drive change.
IBT: Do you think it helped to let Olympians and popular figures be in on the campaign?
KB: Oh sure anytime you have a world champion or someone who is a high profile in a sport and they are part of a call to action, it absolutely helps gain attention for the cause. It was instrumental to have Marianne (Vos), Emma (Pooley) and Chrissie (Wellington) lending not just their voices but their true passion for this change. Especially with Marianne coming off her Olympic gold medal and world championship you know that creates a statement. If she is going to speak on change in cycling then people are going to listen.
IBT: Could you name some challenges and victories you had early on?
KB: We had a lot of fantastic support when we first started the petition. As you know now we have 97,000 signatures on the petition, but we also heard grumbling, people saying “Why bother it’s never going to change, Tour de France has been this way for 100-plus years so these are just a bunch of women calling for action but I doubt anything is going to change.” So there were definitely critics that weren’t sure that the action would be behind the words.
IBT: Now this surprised me because I’m not big into cycling, but I figured there was a women’s Tour de France already. Did you find that a lot of people not directly involved in the sport were surprised to hear there wasn’t?
KB: This is the hurdle that we’re up against. So many people in our modern society, if they see a sport on TV they automatically assume there’s a female equivalent to that sport. Everyone assumes “Hey its 2014 of course we’ve got equal rights or parity in sports, why wouldn’t we?” So this past summer was a real education for us to learn how many people were unaware there wasn’t a women’s equivalent in cycling the way that there is for men.
In fact I and every female pro cyclist is asked at least once in their career, “Oh do you race the Tour de France?” You know because simply they assume there’s ones one for women. People were shocked that there is not a women’s equivalent and you can see reactions to that on Facebook and Twitter and social media, people are just saying “Wait a minute, there’s not a Women’s Tour de France? That’s crazy.” Things like "I want my daughter to have something to look up to, an equal future." So those are the people we were getting the message to: the ones that say wait a minute something’s wrong.
IBT: Do you plan to eventually push it to the point where women are racing the entire Tour course like the men do?
KB: Yes. We as a group we believe that our work isn’t done yet. We want to make sure that not only is there growth for future stages at the tour but also in other races where there isn’t a women’s field in conjunction with the men’s field. So yes, this is a huge victory and a wonderful step forward but we’re very much aware that we will keep working to build on this. That’s one thing the public has helped with tremendously, because what ASO (Amaury Sports Organization, who run the Tour) needs to see is that the public wants this. The way they’ll track that is not only by written media attention but by the viewership of this race -so the more people that are aware of this race and tune in to watch- That will make a huge statement in the continuity of future stages.
IBT: So you have a few months to prepare for the race. What big plans do you have for marketing and trying to get the word out in order to get as many viewers and spectators as possible?
KB: We’re going to work closely with ASO to make sure that those media bases and awareness are covered. We think we’re off to a great start. I do know the cycling world itself is very much aware of this news release about the Tour de France. The whole world knows about it in terms of the cycling side. Now we have to get the word out to the people who are not directly linked to cycling sites and the like, but are peripheral fans or just general sports fans. We think we have this incredible opportunity to get a lot of these sports fans into cycling because of this new angle. Where a lot of people will say “Oh hey there’s a women’s race?” or “Why hasn’t there been a women’s race before? This is something I want to see.”
So we do need the help of the mainstream media to let people know there’s something really amazing here. What we want to happen with our sport is something similar to what I believe we’re seeing right now going into the Olympics. So many people are aware that women’s ski jumping is making its debut. Those women have been fighting that battle for a long time but to the public it’s brand new, it’s something that’s just happened.
IBT: Like something that’s only been an issue for the past year.
KB: Right like someone just made a decision and here we are, but I followed their story and it’s something that mirrors what’s happening in women’s cycling in so many ways. We have cycling in the Olympics yes but we still have the hurdle of not being on the world’s biggest stages like the Tour De France. So when we have a victory just like they have a victory getting into the Olympics, we want the public to be aware of that progress so that’s what we’re shooting for.