Lorena Wiebes beat out a former two-time Olympic champion in the final stretch to win the first stage of the women’s Tour de France, which is making its return for the first time in 33 years.
Wiebes, of the Netherlands and Team DSM, overtook Marianne Vos in the final 150 meters of the 82-kilometer (51-mile) course in Paris on Sunday. Vos, also of the Netherlands, won gold in the points race at the 2008 Olympics and in the individual road race in 2012. She placed fifth in the road race at the 2020 Tokyo games held a year ago.
Wiebes turned professional in 2018 at the age of 18. The photo of the now-23-year-old in the yellow jersey may become iconic as the women’s series returns. It’s her 48th career victory and 16th of the season.
And no, the baby is not her child. She said it is the child of a friend and they agreed that if Wiebes won the first stage, she would bring the child up to the podium for the special moment. She said her parents and brother were also there to share the celebration.
The first stage was 12 circuits of a lap that started at the Eiffel Tower and finished with a line at the Champs-Élysées, which is often described as the “world’s most beautiful avenue.”
“I’m really happy that I was finally able to race on the Champs-Élysées,” Wiebes said after the race.
“As expected it was a hard race. It feels really special to ride here in Paris and even more special to wear the yellow jersey. I was fine with the pressure because I directly put the most pressure on myself.”
There were 144 riders — 24 teams of six riders — who took part in the return of a premier women’s cycling event. Lotte Kopecky, a Belgian cyclist who won the Tour de Flanders, finished third in the first stage. The cyclists took off the same day the men’s winner was crowned.
Tour de France kept women out since 1989
The Tour de France is 119 years old, but women have only competed a total of five times when their tour lasted from 1984 to 1989. American Marianne Martin won the first official women’s Tour de France in 1984 and the race ran alongside the men’s races until 1989, when organizers decided to drop it.
Women’s races were run throughout the years, but without official backing or sanctioning from Tour de France organizers. Vos was one of four women to submit a petition in 2013 to Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme demanding women be allowed to race the Tour de France. They cited the success of the women’s road race at the 2012 Olympics in London and the lack of equality within the sport in general.
“While many women’s sports face battles of inequity, road cycling remains one of the worst offenders: fewer race opportunities, no televised coverage, shorter distances, and therefore salary and prize money inequity,” the petition read. “We seek not to race against the men, but to have our own professional field running in conjunction with the men’s event, at the same time, over the same distances, on the same days, with modifications in start/finish times so neither gender’s race interferes with the other.”
“La Course by Le Tour de France” was held between 2014 and 2021 in response to the petition, but it was always run as a one-day or two-day race. Cyclists told NBC Sports’ On Her Turf the shorter women’s events felt more like “token gestures.”
COVID-19 pandemic helps form Tour de France Femmes
The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift (the full official name) is an eight-day, 640-mile stage race that features two mountain stages. It will conclude July 31 in eastern France at La Super Planche des Belles Filles.
The implementation of the race is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown and its impact on cycling. Zwift, “a fitness company born from gaming,” put on virtual races around the world during the shutdown with separate races for both men and women. It also held a virtual Tour de France that July with the official men’s race postponed to August. Women were allowed to compete in their own race.
Zwift said more than 16 million people in more than 130 countries saw the virtual races on TV and digital platforms, per NPR. That viewership was equally split between events, it said.
And so Zwift helped kickstart the Tour de France Femmes with the assistance of Tour de France organizers who now saw the potential for women’s cycling, per NPR. Zwift has signed on for a four-year sponsorship.
“For the women to take the stage, to be elevated through that platform that they deserve, is really the key to unlocking so much more audience, investment and growth in the sport at all levels,” said Kate Veronneau, Zwift’s director of women’s strategy and a former pro-cyclist, told the Washington Post. “For little girls growing up and seeing themselves in a variety of sports … that’s powerful.”
It will be one of the highest prize purses in women’s cycling history at approximately 250,000 Euros (about $255,000).