More than two decades after women last raced on the same day as the men on the Champs Élysées – in the Tour Cycliste Féminin, the equivalent version of the Tour de France – women’s cycling made a triumphant return to Paris’ most emblematic avenue in the shape of a one-day event, La Course.
Hours before the Tour appeared, large crowds were already lining the Champs Élysées in warm sunshine, waving flags and banners and cheering loudly as the 119-strong peloton roared past on 13 seven-kilometre (4.3-mile) laps of the boulevard. Then when the race had been won by Dutch star Marianne Vos in a bunch sprint of 22 riders, the top-three finishers stood on a podium framed by the Arc de Triomphe, receiving their trophies from local dignitaries as cameras flickered and the crowds applauded.
It was, in short, a carbon copy of what would happen later the same day, when – after three weeks of racing – the male Tour roared on to the Champs Élysées and began its final laps of the last stage. Given that the warm weather endured, the only visual differences were the use of men for the La Course podium ceremony, rather than women, and an all-female group of race officials overseeing the actual running of the course. Even the prize money – all too often a fraction of that available in men’s racing – was the same as for the equivalent stage in the Tour.
“It was very special,” said British Olympic silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead. “To be riding around Paris isn’t something I ever expected to experience. It just made me feel proud of where women’s cycling is at present.”
The male French television commentators’ downright lack of familiarity with the women’s peloton was immediately noticeable, with a significant proportion of their observations consisting of comments along the lines of “now there’s a breakaway of 12 riders” or “they’re going very fast”. But in fact, given there were very few significant breaks, it barely mattered.
Multiple World and Olympic champion Vos was the overwhelming favourite and her Rabo-Liv team clamped down on most attacks from rivals. A long drive by sprinter Kirsten Wild seemed briefly to have escaped their control as the Giant-Shimano rider forged down the smoother paving stones on one side of the boulevard, but Rabo-Liv reeled that move in, as well as a brief dash off the front by Armitstead.
The Briton was denied the opportunity to contest the final sprint finish after crashing, but she got back on her bike to complete the race.
A very long, chaotic sprint for the line along the Champs Élysées saw Wild briefly edge ahead, but Vos surged past to claim the inaugural victory by almost a bike length – Wild hammering the bars in frustration even as Vos flung one hand high in a show of joy.
Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, the reigning French national champion, crashed in the finale but even that could not dent her enthusiasm for the race. “This degree of exposure is what women’s cycling needs so badly,” she said.
“This avenue is the world centre of the sport today,” Vos added. “For women’s cycling, it’s a very important step.”
Armitstead, who hails from Otley, near Leeds, said: “The race itself wasn’t that controlled, it was effectively a criterium today with six riders in each team, we’d get a rider in a break then calculate that we wouldn’t win it from that. There were too many options that didn’t work.
“[But] today was really special for me because the [men’s] Tour started in Leeds and riding round here [you could see] there were Yorkshire flags all over the place.”