On July 27, hours before the men’s peloton traveled down the Champs-Élysées, and Marcel Kittel battled Alexander Kristoff to win the final stage of the 2014 Tour de France, the women were the first to cross the finish line. Marianne Vos (Rabo Liv) would take the win, but in the inaugural La Course, victory belonged to more than the race’s champion. Though not the hardest, the longest, or even the most interesting event on the pro women’s calendar, the 90-kilometer circuit race represented two things the women’s peloton has been desperately short on for much of its history: recognition and hope for the future.
Tayler Wiles, a 25-year-old native of Salt Lake City, Utah, riding for Specialized-Lululemon, says it’s no secret that the women want their own multi-stage Tour de France. But she, like most of the women who competed in La Course, felt honored to be part of the one-day race. A small contingent of female pro cyclists and advocates for the sport had nearly waged war to regain a place for the women in the Tour, and that fight had been successful. La Course would be broadcast in 157 countries. The winner would earn the same $31,000 payout as the men’s stage winner. Wiles voiced the thoughts of many when she called La Course “a big step in the right direction.”
Each of the 20 invited teams, representing the crème de la crème of world teams and national squads, could bring six riders, and the spots were coveted by all. Wiles was on the roster for Specialized Lululemon along with Carmen Small, Chantal Blaak, Lisa Brennauer, Elise Delzenne, and Trixi Worrack.
Her story (Wiles) is similar to that of many women pros in that it isn’t what you would expect—no linear trajectory from junior rider to professional cyclist.
The road that led Wiles to the world of professional cycling, and eventually La Course, was an unexpected detour. Her story is similar to that of many women pros in that it isn’t what you would expect—no linear trajectory from junior rider to professional cyclist. She’d played soccer since early childhood, and in college, where she was focusing on a career path to medical school, she found herself yearning for a competitive outlet. Her boyfriend Matt Bradley—a respected cyclist, professor, and cancer survivor who passed away in a tragic accident in 2012—introduced her to the bike in late 2008.
Characterizing herself as a person who tends to take things to the extreme, Wiles says that cycling soon took over her life. She raced one season in Utah in 2009, competed largely in regional races in 2010, and then signed her first pro contract in 2011. In 2013, she joined Specialized-Lululemon, her “dream team,” and some of her greatest heroes in the sport became her teammates. This May, she had her first big stage race win, taking the yellow jersey at the Redlands Cycling Classic. Elle recently profiled her in an article titled “Tayler Wiles Is Breaking Up the Tour de France Boys Club.”
In a blog post about her experience at La Course, Wiles describes how she felt in previous years watching the Tour. “I loved the Tour; however, every year I tuned in, I also felt the stinging reminder that no matter how far I got in cycling, I could never be a part of that race.” The night before La Course, she felt a sense of disbelief mixed with elation—in 2009, she’d watched Mark Cavendish’s winning sprint in the Tour, and now, five years later, she was watching it again for inspiration in a Paris hotel room before her own race on the Champs-Élysées.
“We’re always racing like there are cameras in our face,” said Wiles.
Race-day was everything Wiles knew to expect—hard and fast. The average speed was around 44 kilometers per hour for two hours. Wiles and her teammates, like many other teams, went on the attack early. She says there was a sense that the peloton had something to prove, but in a way, it was also just another day in the office. “We’re always racing hard,” she says. “We’re always racing like there are cameras in our face. We weren’t just racing like that because there were.”
Teams hoping to set their sprinters up for the win quickly reeled breaks back in. A move in the final lap by Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (Rabo Liv) and Amy Pieters (Giant-Shimano) briefly had a 50-meter lead on the field, with team Alé Cipollini chasing hard to close the gap. A few dramatic crashes happened in the closing kilometers of the race, including one that took Ferrand-Prévot and Lizzie Armitstead (Boels Dolmans) out of the race just before the finish. Lisa Brennauer (Specialized-Lululemon) started the sprint around the last corner, but Vos and Kirsten Wild (Giant-Shimano) came around in the final meters, and Vos pulled ahead to take the win. Emotions were high: Vos raised her hand in triumph, and Wild banged her handlebars in frustration. Spectators had witnessed quite a show.
Many news sources described La Course as a “historic” event, but it wasn’t the first time women played a role in the Tour. In 1984, the first Tour de France Féminin was held, which nearly mirrored the men’s race (due to distance restrictions, the flat, parade sections were omitted, but riders still went over the same mountain passes). In subsequent years, the Tour de France Féminin dwindled to fewer stages and fewer riders, and changed names, breathing its last in 2009.
The UCI limits men’s major tours to 23 days of racing, the women to six.
Will La Course be a true stage race in 2015, a resurrection of the Tour Féminin? No one knows. Certainly there are formidable roadblocks, and not just in terms of race-day logistics. The UCI limits men’s major tours to 23 days of racing, the women to six. Race distances are limited as well—in most cases to 140K—and in 2014, every stage of the men’s tour, with the exception of the individual time trial, far exceeded that figure. In the UCI’s rule book, one can read between the lines to find the indelible stamp and candle drippings of another era, one in which it was believed a woman’s uterus would fall out as a result of any serious physical exertion. (This year, Wiles’ teammate Evelyn Stevens, uterus ostensibly intact, combined the Giro Rosa and Thüringen Rundfahrt der Frauen for 17 consecutive days of racing, and she won Thüringen.)
The Tour de France has a sense of romance, a ubiquitous fame, that no other event in cycling can touch. Even in men’s cycling, the majority of the world recognizes two events: the Tour and the Olympics. For the women, the buildup to the Olympics brings an infusion of races, sponsors, and attention. Wiles says, however, that the life-giving blood is taken away almost soon as the medals are handed out: the new races go away, teams shut down, belts tighten. A women’s Tour de France might ensure that the lights don’t go out every four years.
When I ask Wiles if things are improving for women’s cycling now that UCI leadership has changed, she says that change is slow—too slow—but she does think it’s happening. “I definitely think Cookson is a bit more focused on women’s cycling than McQuaid was, and there’s also some women who have been put into power within the UCI, so that’s also helping.”
As a woman, to be a professional cyclist means great sacrifice—putting lucrative careers, educational opportunities, family, and financial stability on hold for a life in the saddle that involves countless hours of work for not much more than peanuts. For Tayler, the hardest part of her profession is being away from her home in Fairfax, California. Between traveling and racing, she doesn’t see her family and her girlfriend, pro cyclist Olivia Dillon (Team Colavita/Fine Cooking), for about half the year. In 2012, Wiles made the heartbreaking decision to turn down admission into the University of California, Berkeley.
“We don’t race for money, we don’t race for contracts, we don’t race for sports cars,” said Wiles.
Wiles says that for all the downsides, the difficulties that the pro women face also elevate the sport, in a way, and make it that much more worth watching. “I think even though it’s bad that women’s cycling has always been the underdog, and we’ve always been fighting, it’s kind of made women’s cycling what it is because we don’t race for money, we don’t race for contracts, we don’t race for sports cars,” she says. “We race because we absolutely love the sport and what we’re doing, and we all have really big goals and dreams, and we all fight for that for nothing more than the glory of it.”
I ask Wiles what she would say to people who know nothing of women’s pro cycling to help them understand how special it is, why she herself is so in love with it. Wiles says she would share with them the incredible stories of the women who do it. “And we race just as hard and aggressively as the men, sometimes more so because the races are shorter,” she says. “I would tell them, watch a race and you won’t be sorry.”