Group of elite female athletes have launched online petition for women's Tour de France
75,000 people have signed the petition calling for a women's race
Claims women are treated as second class citizens within cycling world
Documentary film being made to illustrate divide between men and women's cycling
The wheels of change are in motion.
Last week, four top female athletes launched an online petition demanding that the Amaury Sports Organization, which runs the Tour de France, creates a women’s edition of the race.
The petition has garnered 75,000 signatures and has provided the inspiration for a film, ‘Half the Road’ which depicts the “passion, pitfalls and power of women’s professional cycling.”
It is a cause which has sparked a surge of popularity on social media with the petitioners taking on the sport’s governing body – the International Cycling Union – and the ASO, in the fight against what it perceives as sexism.
“We’re sick of talking,” Kathryn Bertine, former champion cyclist turned filmmaker, told CNN.
“Women are treated like second-class citizens and valued nowhere near as highly as men.
“For me, the root of sexism is ignorance. If you look at society, whether it’s sport or business or education, when you exclude women then that’s half of the world you’re ignoring.”
The disparity in prize money is stark.
Italy’s Giro Rosa, the longest race for women in 2013, lasts eight days with a distance of 778.5 kilometers and has a $608 top prize. The winner of the Tour pockets $595,000.
According to UCI rules, elite women are allowed to ride a maximum of 140 km in a day, compared to the maximum distances of 240 to 280 km for the top male cyclists.
Bertine launched the petition along with Dutch Olympic and World champion cyclist Marianne Vos, former time trial world champion Emma Pooley and four-time World Ironman Triathlon champion Chrissie Wellington.
The four women are frustrated at the lack of regulations surrounding a minimum wage and terms of employment for professional female riders as well as the paltry prize money and lack of races on the circuit.
Bertine is now taking the fight to the big screen with her documentary “Half the Road” scheduled to be screened later this year with the possibility of it being entered into the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals.
Financed by two large donors who have invested $10,000 each, the project relies on money given online by the general public via an international crowd funding site Indiegogo.
The number of people who have pledged financial support and signed the petition has surprised Bertine and has given her extra motivation in pursuing the project.
“People need to see these women,” she added. “We can’t convey it in print as well as we can in a documentary. We want to show the audience that these are real people.
“I’m in a position where I can read comments and see the effect. It invigorates me and gives me so much more encouragement as I’m making this now.
“This is not about us moaning or whinging. It is about equality. It’s not that diffcult to achieve.”
Brian Cookson, who is standing against current UCI President Pat McQuaid in September’s election, has outlined his vision for improving women’s cycling in his manifesto.
Titled “Restoring trust, leading change,” Cookson sets out his vision by promising changes to the UCI and the opportunities afforded to women.
“It is clear to me that equality should exist between young female riders and their male counterparts and the UCI must to do more to provide greater opportunities for female riders to progress,” Cookson states in his manifesto.
“It’s no secret that women’s cycling is the poor relation of the men’s sport, but in Britain we are starting to see the first signs of a recovery and although there is a long way to go, I’m very optimistic that the principles introduced are relevant to a wider, global audience via the UCI.”
McQuaid, who is seeking a third term in office, has also listed a whole host of policies to improve women’s cycling in his manifesto including a female commission and a new global elite race calendar.
“The UCI must bring a new focus on developing women’s cycling,” he wrote.
“Inequality in any sport is unacceptable. No distinction should be made between the achievements of men and women in cycling.
“It’s not acceptable that women in cycling do not receive the same pay, prize money and conditions as men. It is past time for this inequality to be brought to an end.”
But for the likes of Bertine, who is a trained journalist, it’s time for action now.
She recalls how she was shocked by cycling’s attitude to women after her switch from triathlon.
“The problem with the UCI is that it doesn’t think it’s sexist because they think its tradition,” she added.
“But that’s very easy to change. I absolutely believe we’ll see a woman at the top one day. It’s bit too far off at the moment. We need it to happen sooner.”
The idea of a women’s Tour is not a completely new one.
The Tour Feminin was held on occasions between 1984 and 2009 but struggled to make any impression following poor sponsorship, unpaid prize money and a legal wrangle over the name.
Britain’s Pooley, a former time trial world champion and an Olympic silver medalist, was the last winner of the race in 2009 and is adamant women should be given the opportunity to have their own version of the Tour.
“It’s the biggest race in the world,” Pooley told CNN. It’s a matter of principle, why shouldn’t we race?
“It’s outdated and old fashioned to think women can’t do it –professional sport is there to inspire.
“So many women watch the Tour de France and they should have the chance to be able to be inspired.
“It’s a marketing game, it’s about sponsorship and money and I know that. But the sponsors and authorities should see the dollar signs because there’s a huge growing market and it’s growing quickly.”
Winner of the last edition of the La Grande Boucle Féminine – considered to be the closest equivalent to the men’s Tour – in 2009, Pooley believes a women’s Tour would capture the imagination of cycling fans across the globe.
“It’s a real opportunity,” added Pooley. “Look how many people watch the women at the Olympics and enjoyed it.
“I’ve raced at the Tour of Flanders and Fleche Wallonne and they’ve been great. The crowd are going crazy at the side of the road and they absolute love it.
“There’s no reason why that can’t happen with the Tour de France.”
Tennis affords women equal pay at grand slam tournaments, which had much to do with Billie-Jean King founding the Women’s Tennis Association 40 years ago.
“We look back at tennis and what Billie-Jean did and then look at how women were allowed to run in marathons,” added Wellington.
“How foolish does it seem now that women weren’t allowed to run in marathons?
“It’s all about taking small incremental steps and reaching the highest level. We want to galvanize change at grass roots level.
“It’s not all about elite sport, it’s about increasing participation and providing role models for young girls and women.
“Unless you create then you won’t drive the demand or generate public interest. It’s a circular process.
“I would suggest that the Olympics show that there’s a demand. People want to watch women on bikes.”
One of those women who caught the public’s imagination during the 2012 Games was double Olympic gold medalist Laura Trott.
“I would like to see it for sure,” said the 21-year-old Trott, who is competing in the Prudential RideLondon Grand Prix and starting the Prudential RideLondon FreeCycle world record attempt.
“But I don’t think it should be run alongside the men’s race.
“Having it run over the same distance as the men won’t work. Only 20 girls will finish and I don’t believe it will be as exciting.
“There aren’t enough riders with top ability and the field will get too stretched.”
For the likes of Pooley, Wellington, Bertine and Vos, it is not just the current generation they are fighting for.
It’s about the future – the young girls who grow up riding their bikes and ask whey they’re not allowed to compete in the Tour.
“The Tour is the greatest race on earth,” added Wellington.
“Why should a parent have to tell their little girl that she won’t be allowed to ride in the Tour because she’s not a man?”