Kathryn Bertine is experiencing “all the happy feels”. She is watching the opening stage of the Tour de France Femmes on the Champs-Élysées. She notes how the route pays homage to La Course, the one-day race that ran from 2014 to 2021 and was the precursor to the revived eight-stage event. Bertine rode the inaugural edition in 2014. “I’m joyful and emotional,” she says, the soft babble of the British commentary team Ant McCrossan and Hannah Walker in the background. “I know what it’s like to race with those exact cobbles under your tyres.”
But the moment is bittersweet. “More sweet than bitter,” she says. Bertine is happy to celebrate the new eight-day race while at the same time staying faithful to the original goal of a 21-day Tour on parity with the men’s race. “I’ll celebrate and continue to push for change, but there’s a long way to go,” she says.
Bertine was part of Le Tour Entier, a pressure group she formed in 2013 with fellow cyclists Marianne Vos and Emma Pooley, and triathlete Chrissie Wellington, dedicated to achieving a women’s Tour de France. She says they were thrilled when ASO – the organisation that runs the Tour de France – implemented La Course so quickly, taking just 10 months to get that first race up and running. But then the pace of change stalled.
“One day was OK for the first year, but the original plan was that ASO would add an additional three to five stages every year,” says Bertine. “We not only showed them how to achieve parity but did the bulk of the work in creating La Course.” If they had followed the original plan, she points out, a full three-week tour would have been in place by now. Instead, says Bertine, they had eight days of racing in the last nine years.
But today is not the day to be ungrateful even about the glacial pace of change, she says. “People will say ‘be thankful for what you’ve got’ but I don’t subscribe to the breadcrumb philosophy that women should be grateful for the crumbs of progress. I’m the biggest fan of the race, but I’m not the biggest fan of ASO.”
Change, Bertine believes, should also be driven and supported from the top down. “We need to see women having an equal seat at the table at the pinnacle of sport and having equal positions of power where decisions are being made – and the Tour de France is important because it’s the most visible bike race.”
ASO has not publicly acknowledged Bertine’s involvement in effecting change but this is not about ego for her. She is focused on the bigger picture: “I want everyone to know they can create change and sharing credit is so important in giving a voice to everyone.”
On top of her work as an activist, writer and filmmaker, Bertine has founded the Homestretch Foundation, a non-profit organisation that fights for equity in sports salaries and provides temporary housing to female athletes who are struggling. She frequently rides with the Homestretch residents and Ava Fouts, an 11-year-old cycling enthusiast. How does Ava feel about the new Women’s Tour? “What matters most is that she knows the option exists and she sees racing the Tour de France as a possibility for women.”
I ask Bertine if she knew about the Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale, another race that preceded the current women’s Tour. She only found out about it through her research for Le Tour Entier. “Besides, there wouldn’t have been any coverage if I’d wanted to see it,” she says. I tell her about my own experiences watching stages in the 1990s as the race limped to its end. How women were changing in car parks and public toilets when riding in supposedly the biggest race on the professional calendar.
Bertine remains vocal about the inequalities that still remain, not just on the two Tours but in the sport as a whole. Prize money for the new Tour may be the biggest purse in the women’s sport, but it’s a tenth of what the men earn. Coverage and race distance also lag behind. It’s about visibility and equity, says Bertine. When women ride shorter distances, the implication is that they are not capable of doing more.
We turn our attention back to the race and we’re both rooting for Marianne Vos to pull on the first Yellow Jersey of the Tour de France Femmes. “I’m rooting for every woman there, but especially Vos because of her leadership, our friendship and all she did to help get women at Le Tour.”
Vos did not take the first yellow jersey on the Champs-Élysées, having to wait until the second day of the race. On the first stage she missed out in the sprint to the sheer speed of Lorena Wiebes. The 23-year-old Dutch rider is part of the bright new generation that stand on the shoulders of giants such as Bertine and Vos, women who created this opportunity in the face of over a century of male-dominated opposition.
So what next for Bertine? The challenge is simple: “To keep fighting for the future while celebrating what we have.” Thanks in large part to Bertine and her unswerving commitment to equality for women’s cycling, the time for lasting change may finally have arrived.