• Caitlin Kennedy

Women on Wheels

Updated: Apr 18, 2019

Back in 2015, a team of French women decided to cycle the Tour de France a day ahead of the men to demonstrate why they should be included in the Tour. They called themselves Donnons Des Elles Au Vélo (roughly, “give it to the girls on bikes”). We spoke to this year’s recently chosen team.

Photo credit: Marie Istil and Mickael Gagne

How did Donnons Des Elles Au Vélo J-1 begin?

Most cycling clubs in France and throughout the world are organised around men’s cycling. In France, women’s cycling represents just 10% of cycling run under FFC rules (Fédération Française Cyclisme). Because of this, ‘Donnons des Elles au vélo’ was born in 2014: a cycling Club completely dedicated to women’s cycling. Claire Floret and Mathieu Istil are the Club’s founders.


The Club’s board is 100% female and each member is a cyclist. These women are tackling topics of great concern to them and working hard to change stereotypes within the sport. The Club acts through four different axes: participating in French regional and national competitions and cyclosportives; developing youth cycling; offering recreational cycling opportunities and developing women’s cycling through marketing and promotion.


The best-known cycle event in the world is the ‘Tour de France’, so what better way to raise greater awareness of women’s cycling? Thus in 2015 Claire came up with the idea of the ‘Donnons, des elles au vélo J-1’ project : the Club’s cyclists complete each stage one day ahead of the professional men’s peloton; the aim being to to revive female, multi-stage cycling races. The aim being to increase the visibility of women’s cycling and promote gender equality in the sport. ​


Photo credit: Marie Istil and Mickael Gagne

Do you train in the mountains to acclimatise to the altitude? And what does training involve, specifically for the Tour de France?

There’s no group training. Each cyclist prepares for the event on her own. Some of the women live near the Alps or Les Vosges, which is a benefit for the mountain stages. Others train in the mountains during holidays or at the weekend.


Most of the women train for the racing season, which starts in March. Targeted preparation begins in the winter, specifically with power, strength and speed training. As July approaches, the ride duration increases in preparation for the long cycle days of each stage of the Tour de France.


For all of us, the ‘Donnons des elles au vélo J-1’ project involves a high level of commitment, whether for physical training or running the project, such as liaising with sponsors, communications and logistics.


Which was your favourite stage of the 2018 Tour de France?

In 2018, my favourite stage was Albertville-La Rosière. As I live in Albertville, this stage was very special and I enjoyed sharing the experience with my family, friends and colleagues. At the finish, La Rosière organised a big party with music for all our supporters waiting for us. The interest in, and support of this project was really moving; I’m delighted that the French appear ready to welcome a female, multi-stage cycling race.


Photo credit: Marie Istil and Mickael Gagne

What is the main obstacle to allowing women to take part in the Tour de France?

Things are changing slowly but there is some progress. The media, the race organisers and UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) share a common will to develop women’s cycling. Last year, the UCI announced a women’s ‘Paris Roubaix’ race in 2020. That’s a good start; we really hope that a women’s Tour will happen soon.


How can we encourage women to take up cycling?

Serious incentive is needed at all levels - for leisure cyclists as well as professional women cyclists. At the professional end of the sport, the most important thing is to achieve gender equality for women and men - same salary, same prize money, same recognition and same vocational training structure, in order to help professional women cyclists commit to the sport and raise their performance.


At a lower level, the goals are similar – encouraging women to break down the barriers, to challenge themselves and discover that they too can cycle. Organizing more female cycling events is a good way to promote the sport and encourage more women to ride.


Have you had any support or interest from international female pro cyclists?

French pro-cyclist Audrey Cordon-Ragot was our mentor for the 2018 ‘Donnons des elles au vélo J-1’ project. She is a great campaigner for female pro-cyclist’s rights and gender equality in her sport.


Since 2015, the FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope team has supported the project and they ride with us on whichever stage they can make.


What was your reaction to the race in Belgium during which women cyclists caught up with men’s peloton and were then held up while the men moved away?

When I heard about this race, where the women cyclists were stopped because they caught up with the men’s race, I was surprised. I found it really funny and thought it was a great moment for women’s cycling. It demonstrated to all skeptics who think that female cyclists are weaker than male, that women are just as capable as men.


Photo credit: Marie Istil and Mickael Gagne

When the Donnons Des Elles Au Vélo J-1 ride the Tour de France stages, do the women compete or is it ‘friendly’?

The Donnons Des Elles Au Vélo J-1 project is not competitive. The object is to ride all the Tour stages together, broadcasting a global message that promotes women’s cycling. This doesn’t stop us from having some fun. For example, we enjoy doing the intermediate sprints or final sprints and when we do this, Claire is unbeatable…but we all keep trying.


What’s the best thing about being part of the Donnons Des Elles Au Vélo J-1 team?

At the beginning of July 2018, we did not know each other very well; we only met a few times before the big departure. But by the end of the 3 weeks, we were a cycling ‘family’. The experience is so intense; everyone shares their feelings: happiness, pride, some tears and challenges, but as a team you work together to achieve the common goal.


And finally, what are your long-term goals?

The first is obviously to see a female, multi-stage cycling race once again in France – like the Giro Rosso in Italy. In the long term, the aim is to have more affiliated female cyclists competing in club cycling (and increase the overall percentage of professional women in the sport), and finally that female professional cyclists gain the same recognition as professional male cyclists. It will mean that our message has been heard.


Find out more about the team on their website: https://www.donnonsdeselles.net or follow them:

https://www.facebook.com/DonnonsdesellesauveloJ1/

https://twitter.com/desELLESauVELO?lang=fr

https://www.instagram.com/donnonsdesellesauvelo/