For the first time in history, women will race in the Tour de France on an equal footing with the men. And Kiwi cyclist Ella Harris will be among them, scaling the gruelling Mont Ventoux – from her lounge in Dunedin.
In these strange Covid-19 times, cycling’s pinnacle event will ride again – albeit a virtual online version – starting on July 5. Both men’s and women’s professional teams will take part over a three-weekend competition.
The riding distances, courses and broadcasting coverage are the same for both fields (Sky Sport will show the race live here). And the 92 men and 68 women across 40 teams will be racing for charities.
It’s an interesting break with tradition. The Tour de France – first raced exactly 117 years ago this week – has always been exclusively for male riders.
A women’s Tour de France started as a curtain-raiser event to the men’s race in the mid-1980s – but it was never on the same scale as the men’s equivalent. It changed along the way for legal reasons in the late 1990s; and by the mid 2000s, participation numbers had significantly dropped because of organisational issues, and the race failed to continue.
There was a female component to last year’s tour, where the best women in the world raced for one day alongside the men’s time trial.
This year, Kiwi rider Harris will get to compete with her Canyon-SRAM professional team.
Twenty-one-year-old Harris had been riding in the Spanish city of Girona, preparing for the Women’s WorldTour back in March, when Spain went into lockdown – and she rushed back to her parents home in Dunedin. She’s kept up her training since then, including racing her international counterparts on Zwift, a virtual interactive cycling simulator.
Now the e-cycling platform has come up with a Tour de France “race”, where Harris will compete on her stationery bike.
“I think it’s really exciting,” Harris says. “To have an opportunity to do a Tour de France competition is really cool and a great step forward for women’s cycling.”
She initially secured her spot on the powerhouse Canyon-SRAM team after winning a Zwift competition in 2018.
The virtual tour will have two stages each weekend, but they won’t be an exact replica of the historic tour. Some are raced on the Zwift map (which is a fantasy volcanic island) and others are on courses based in France created especially for the occasion.
But the courses will have key aspects of the actual Tour de France, such as the daunting climb up Mont Ventoux and the finishing stage on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Harris is waiting for confirmation from her team management to see what stages she will take part in, but says her physiological make-up suits the hilly terrains.
“I like all races but the harder courses on Zwift with the incline tending to suit the lighter riders with high power output. So that tends to be where my strengths lie,” says Harris.
The new virtual courses are not open for reconnaissance at the moment, but Harris says they will probably have a team ride closer to the time to figure things out.
“We will sort out a race plan and strategy to get ourselves in the best position to win,” she says.
Trying to work as a team is a little easier said than done when you’re racing virtually, but Harris says it’s a skill you learn.
“As a team you’re able to push the pace or bring back breakaways. There’s lots of little aspects you can do for the team so it’s all about working together like we would normally do on the road and being able to translate that into indoor racing,” says Harris.
Asked if it’s possible to get boxed in like racing on the roads, Harris says that’s where it can get really tricky.
“That’s a very technical aspect, but in a nutshell, positioning where you are in the bunch doesn’t quite matter so much indoors as it does outdoors. But it’s still good to be in a reasonable position coming up to a sprint or a climb,” she says.
Running alongside the professional version of the race, every-day cyclists will be able to test themselves on the same roads in the virtual L’Etape du Tour de France, held on the same weekends.
If the virtual race goes well, does Harris see an actual women’s version of Tour de France in the future when the world’s borders open up again?
“I think it’s going to be beneficial for the exposure of women’s cycling and then hopefully that leads to further steps in the future to get an actual Tour de France for women out there,” says Harris.
“It doesn’t need to be an exact replica of the men’s race. Women’s cycling is it’s own thing, and I think our sport is exciting the way it is. Because our races are nowhere near as long as the men’s, we’re often a lot more dynamic and exciting for viewers.
“We don’t necessarily want a multi-week, 200km-a-day tour, but something substantial like 10 days or upwards of 150km, similar to [Italy’s] Giro Rosa, would be exciting.”
Harris says people around the world know what the Tour de France is regardless of whether they cycle or not.
“I think being able to have the Tour de France streamed across the world on such an accessible platform, in a new and exciting format, you’ll get a lot of viewers engaged,” she says.
“Growing up, I would tune in to each stage and either watch the highlights, or if it was a really good stage. then I’d watch the whole thing.”
And now she gets the chance to race in it – virtually.
* The Tour de France Virtual will screen live on Sky Sport 3, from 1am on Sundays and Mondays for the next three weeks.