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After more than 30 years, a multiday women's Tour de France is back

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio of Team South Africa leads the peloton during the women's road race on the second day of the 2020 Olympic Games at Fuji International Speedway on July 25, 2021 in Oyama, Shizuoka, Japan.
Michael Steele/Getty Images
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio of Team South Africa leads the peloton during the women's road race on the second day of the 2020 Olympic Games at Fuji International Speedway on July 25, 2021 in Oyama, Shizuoka, Japan.

Bicycle racing's most famous competition, for men, ends Sunday in Paris.

But on the same day, in the same city, another version of the Tour de France begins.

And this one is for the world's best female riders.

It's been more than 30 years since women have competed in a viable, multistage Tour de France. Now they finally have another chance, and it's due, in large part, to the pandemic.

Pedaling to victory at home

With COVID-19 surging in 2020, elite cyclists, pretty much like everyone, were on lockdown.

But for them, as the proverbial door closed, another opened.

The company Zwift, which combines fitness and video gaming for indoor training, put on virtual races worldwide, with separate contests for men and women. Including a virtual Tour de France.

Some pro cyclists rolled their eyes.

"Like, I did not want to ride inside. I thought it was dumb," said American cyclist Lily Williams. "You know it's harder to ride inside because you're just staring at the wall."

Others embraced the chance to break the drudgery of indoor training and maintain a level of competitiveness, albeit virtual.

"I saw the opportunity it presented for us in one of the most challenging years for the world," said Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, a 13-year veteran of women's pro cycling.

It paid off for Moolman-Pasio.

She pedaled to victory in stage five of the 2020 virtual Tour de France, the so-called "queen stage." The toughest stage in a multiday road race.

The next day, Moolman-Pasio and her husband ventured outside their home in Girona, Spain, and noticed people pointing.

"He's like, 'Well, it's because of the Tour de France,' " Moolman-Pasio said. "You know you were on TV and everyone saw you winning the queen stage."

It was not an isolated incident.

Colombian rider Egan Bernal , the 2019 Tour de France champion, holds a virtual test during a news conference in Bogota on April 2, 2022.
JUAN BARRETO / Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images
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Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images
Colombian rider Egan Bernal , the 2019 Tour de France champion, holds a virtual test during a news conference in Bogota on April 2, 2022.

Turning virtual racing into reality

According to Zwift, more than 16 million people in more than 130 countries saw the virtual races – on television and digital platforms. And viewership was equally split between the men's and women's events.

Longtime Tour de France organizer ASO — the Amaury Sport Organization — saw in those numbers the potential for women's cycling.

"That's how the conversation started," said Moolman-Pasio.

The conversation with Zwift was about launching a real women's Tour, one with heft and sustainability. A top-notch broadcast plan was critical.

"That's the key to the success of the race," said Kate Veronneau from Zwift, "to building that audience, to building future investment and growing the race and keeping it around."

Veronneau says broadcasting to 190 countries on each of the race's eight days should certainly help keep the new women's Tour de France around.

After so many other Tours had gone away.

Laurent Fignon, left, of France, and Marianne Martin of Boulder, Colo., hold up their trophies in Paris after winning the men's and women's Tour de France cycling races on July 23, 1984.
Steven / AP
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AP
Laurent Fignon, left, of France, and Marianne Martin of Boulder, Colo., hold up their trophies in Paris after winning the men's and women's Tour de France cycling races on July 23, 1984.

Trials, and lots of errors

In 1955, a five-stage loop from Paris to Normandy marked the first women's Tour de France. But it only lasted a year.

It wasn't until 1984 that organizers tried again.

A multistage event called the Tour de France Feminin ran for six years. It featured three wins for French cycling legend Jeannie Longo.

She won the last event in 1989. That Tour folded, like other versions after, because of uneven media coverage and sponsorship.

Both are there now.

Zwift won't say how much money it's poured into its four-year title sponsorship of the Tour de France femmes avec Zwift. But it's enough for about $250,000 in prize money, with $50,000 to the winner.

Finally seeing women

Moolman-Pasio is one of many veteran riders who've fought for a viable women's Tour de France. She's thrilled about finally getting to race in cycling's most prominent event, and about the girls and young women who'll be watching.

"Instead of sitting on the couch and watching the Tour de France and seeing men race up these epic climbs and fighting for the yellow jersey, finally they will see [women]," Moolman-Pasio said. "And it's the opportunity for them to recognize pro cycling as a career choice."

It's still a challenging choice, though.

Many female pro cyclists have to work as well as race.

Williams, the U.S. rider who thought virtual racing was dumb but now likes it so much she sometimes rides inside intentionally, was one of them. She's spent most of her five years as a pro working another job – as communications director for a bike registration network.

But the financial landscape is changing, and finally, Williams is a full time pro.

"This is the first year I've made a full salary from cycling," she said. "Now I actually have the opportunity to just race my bike, which I can't even tell you goes so far because not only is the training and racing incredibly demanding but the travel and the recovery require so much more of you than it did before."

The sport's governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), has been raising minimum salaries for women competing on professional teams. Team budgets are growing, as is prize money across the board. After the Tour de France femmes avec Zwift announced its record $250,000 purse, another women's grand tour event, the Giro d'Italia Donne, matched the Tour's prize money amount.

In her short professional career, Williams has won a World Championship gold medal and Olympic bronze in track cycling. She's excited about the upcoming Tour, a hallowed road race she watched every year, with her family, growing up.

A race now for women too.

"I think it's [part of] the general trend we're seeing everywhere," Williams said, "where women are gaining equal opportunity across the board in a lot of different areas of the world. So it's all kind of coming to a head. And I think the Tour de France is going to be such a great opportunity for us to showcase that as well."

Lily Williams celebrates after the Women's Team Pursuit Finals during the second day of the UCI Track Cycling World Championships on Feb. 27, 2020, in Berlin.
/ Maja Hitij/Getty Images
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Maja Hitij/Getty Images
Lily Williams celebrates after the Women's Team Pursuit Finals during the second day of the UCI Track Cycling World Championships on Feb. 27, 2020, in Berlin.

Eight, for now

It will be a shorter showcase than the men's Tour.

Women's teams aren't big enough, at least for now, to support a 21-stage Tour de France like the men.

"The top women are more than ready to race three weeks," said Sadhbh O'Shea, a bicycle racing writer for VeloNews. "[But with] a good chunk of these riders working part time to fund their racing, until we can get a full peloton of professional riders, I don't think the women's sport is ready for a full three-week stage race."

But O'Shea thinks the eight-stage race starting Sunday is right for this initial effort.

With so much racing in the men's Tour, "you tend to get these dips in terms of the pace and aggression," O'Shea said. "Whereas with the women's racing, because it's shorter because there are fewer riders, it tends to be a little more gung-ho right from the start and all the way through. You do occasionally get lulls, but it tends to be more action, more of the time."

The women's stages average 80 miles, the men 99.

The action starts Sunday in Paris, before the men arrive for their finish, when the women will own the city streets. Their first stage begins at the Eiffel Tower – 12 laps, or 50 miles later — it ends on the Champs-Elysees. After the city, seven more stages of sprints, grueling mountain climbs and even sections of gravel and dirt roads.

By the end, on July 31, the new women's Tour hopes to finish with new fans, and a promise to be back – year after year.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.