The revival of the Tour de France Femmes was a major victory for women’s cycling, but the fight for equity in cycling is far from over
Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Paige McGlauflin here, filling in for Emma. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi embarks on a visit to Asia, Instacart still plans to go public, and the fight for equal pay in women’s bike racing has only just begun.
– Long road to equal pay. By the time Marianne Martin quit competitive cycling in 1986, she’d accumulated over $10,000 in debt.
“That was a lot back then. It was certainly a lot for me,” Martin tells Fortune. The debt, coupled with health problems (which she also didn’t have the resources to care for), forced her to leave cycling earlier than planned, leaving her with limited career options. “I put my nose to the grindstone and I paid off [the debt] in a year and a half, but it was definitely a factor in me choosing my life direction after sports.”
Martin won the Tour de France Femmes, the women’s version of the prestigious Tour de France, just two years before her departure from cycling. She was the first American to win any Tour de France race. But in 1989, the women’s race was canceled due to waning support and a lack of financial backing. Women wouldn’t have a race comparable to the Tour de France until this year—a 33-year absence—thanks to a nearly decade-long campaign to bring it back. The race concluded yesterday, with Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten coming in first.
While the Tour de France Femmes’ revival marks a significant victory for women in professional cycling, not much has changed since the 1980s.
Martin received a $1,000 prize (just under $3,000 today) and a trophy for her 1984 win. French cyclist Laurent Fignon, the 1984 winner of the men’s race, won $250,000 (about $713,000 today). This year, the prize allocation for the 1,029 km, eight-day Tour de France Femmes was €250,000 ($255,850 USD), with €50,000 ($51,189) awarded to the winner. The overall prize allocation for the men’s 3,328 km race, completed on July 24, was £2.2 million (about $2.7 million). Danish rider Jonas Vingegaard received $528,000 for placing first.
But the gender disparity in cycling doesn’t end with prize money. For many women, the sport has long been exclusionary, with sparse access to funding that would allow women to compete in the first place.
The world governing body for cycling, the International Cycling Union (UCI), did not implement a minimum wage for women cyclists until 2020—a standard already in place for men. This year, the minimum salary for the women’s WorldTeam was $31,000 compared to $44,000 for the men’s ProTeam. The UCI has promised to standardize the minimum wages for both teams by 2023.
As for sponsorships, support for individual cyclists is uncommon and usually goes to teams, says Ayesha McGowan, who became the first Black woman to compete in pro cycling in 2014. Many female cyclists rely on a second job or family support to supplement their cycling salaries.
“There’s a saying that the women’s peloton is probably one of the most educated bunches in the world,” says McGowan, who rides with the Netherlands-based Liv Racing-Xstra WorldTeam. Sixty-five percent of female Continental riders—the UCI’s second-tier team—work a second job or rely on support from family, according to the 2022 Rider Survey from the Cyclists’ Alliance, a union representing female cyclists. The same goes for 25% of top-tier World Tour riders. “I have a teammate who’s a doctor. It’s not uncommon to see women in the peloton, even now, still having second jobs or other employment.”
Paradoxically, securing better salaries hinges on an increased presence in women’s cycling.
“We need to get more women in the sport. Unless there’s better pay and better financial support, we’re not going to get it. It’s a catch-22,” says Martin. Data on gender-based participation in cycling is sparse, though one study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that women’s participation in ultra-cycling races varied from 3% to 11%.
Increasing women’s participation in cycling inevitably requires increased financial support. Martin and McGowan are some of the backers of the Strive for More pledge, started by the fitness platform Strava and the Cyclists Alliance. The $1 million commitment aims to bring more women into competitive sports over the next three years.
“There are so many people who don’t have the resources to be a part of this sport. It’s expensive and it’s not super accessible on a high level,” McGowan says. While she notes that many, including herself, are introduced to cycling through commuting, it’s hard to translate that to competitive cycling. “With bike racing, the equipment and the necessities that you need to be an active participant adds up very quickly. And so it’s super helpful to have those resources.”
Martin hopes that Strive for More will provide women cyclists with more options than she had once they choose to move on from the sport.
“I went into debt to do what I wanted to do. It was stressful. It gave me limited choices when I quit racing to move into what might have been my ideal career because I had to get money right away,” she says. The pledge is “making it possible to have some financial support along the way. And when they move on from it, they’re not burdened with this immense debt that I was burdened with.”
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