There’s much to celebrate about the rise in prominence for women’s sports. From giving athletes due respect for their achievements to spotlighting (and helping to rectify) structural inequalities like unequal pay, women athletes everywhere are battling their way into the public consciousness beyond the traditional focus on gymnastics (where women are scored on “grace” and still heavily incentivized toward traditionally-feminine aesthetics). On the other hand, this increased attention has also dragged seas of controversies from our myriad culture wars.
It’s a complex space to navigate right now, and that’s the environment in which Kate Veronneau has organized the first women’s Tour de France since 1984 (itself only happening 81 years after the men’s race started), one in which feminism, sexism, race, and gender and transgender politics all converge and overlap each other. It’s with that in mind that I spoke with Veronneau to get her perspective on this complex, but exciting moment and the progress women have made in sports and beyond.
Liz Elting: Hi, Kate! Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me. Tell us a little bit about organizing the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift—the first women’s Tour de France in over three decades—and what you want the race to accomplish? Why hasn’t there been one in so long, and how did the forthcoming race get off the ground?
Kate Veronneau: We want to be a catalyst for positive change and inspire the next generation of champions by elevating the incredible action that is pro women’s cycling. The Tour de France is the most watched sporting event in the world, at an estimated 3.5 billion viewers. It’s time for women’s pro cycling to share that spotlight.
The men’s Tour de France has been building since its start in 1903, but the women’s side of the sport evolved much later, with the first Olympic women’s road race and a Tour de France Feminine happening in 1984. It’s not until recently that the UCI Women’s World Tour had minimum salaries and became a truly viable pro career option for most riders. The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift is an important step in leveling the playing field and a timely one with all the great momentum in women’s sports right now.
The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift builds on a partnership with ASO (the Amaury Sport Organisation, which organizes the Tour de France) that really started when we held the first Virtual Tour de France on Zwift in 2020. This six stage event, featuring the world’s very best professional riders, was held at a time when most professional sports had come to a halt. We’ve long championed parity on our platform, so for this race, we offered equal distance and broadcast for the men’s and women’s pro fields. The racing was outstanding, with the women’s racing even proving more entertaining than the men’s, as they embraced the spotlight. This successful collaboration initiated the conversation to work together to launch a proper women’s Tour de France stage race. And with that, we signed on as title sponsor for four years to build the premier women’s World Tour race, the Tour de France Femmes Avec Zwift.
Elting: This represents a monumental moment in women’s cycling and sports. What do you hope people take away from it? What are you most looking forward to?
Veronneau: I hope the world tunes in. I hope that the compelling action and fun personalities draw new fans and inspire greater investment in growing women’s cycling and supporting women’s pro racing. I hope little girls watch and dream about lining up to race the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. I hope it creates new heroes, great storytelling, and thrilling sport’s entertainment. We have a fun campaign around this partnership, called #NEWRULES, to encourage sports fans to embrace change, and to encourage those in the sport to evolve to build a brighter, more inclusive future. It’s a rallying cry to rethink how we define sport, what it looks like, and who gets the spotlight.
I’m looking forward to the dynamic, bold racing style that women bring to cycling. There are going to be edge-of-your seat sprint finishes and epic battles on steep climbs above the clouds. The Tour is so exciting because it’s a race within a race. Each of the 8 stages will be hard fought and showcase different riders strengths and wiley team tactics. But in the end, there can only be one woman to win the overall and pull on the maillot jaune (yellow jersey).
Elting: It sounds thrilling! It no doubt took a lot of work to get to this point. I’m curious to know what challenges you’ve faced in organizing the Tour de France Femmes and how did you overcome them?
Veronneau: We’re proud to be in a position to work alongside the race organizers, ASO, to make this race a reality. The Virtual Tour de France proved the audience is there. Once you know you have an audience, you know it’s possible to build a commercially sustainable model that will help inspire young girls for many years to come.
One challenge when talking about the significance of this event has been a lack of awareness. The Tour de France is the biggest sporting event in the world, so most people assume it has always been a race for men and for women. Speaking with many of the riders, they are excited to finally be in a position to positively answer the question, “Have you ridden the Tour de France?”
Elting: What advice do you have for other women up against similar challenges—like inequities in funding, media coverage, and sponsorships—wanting to make a difference in sports?
Veronneau: Find your allies, and just like sport, build a team around you that can put together a powerful strategy that will lead to sustainable success. Find mentors that have executed successful events and can help you navigate the media landscape. Align with positive, influential athletes who can amplify your message. I was so pleasantly surprised by the conversations I’ve had with fellow sponsors and media to see how much support there is right now for women’s sport. It’s great entertainment, it’s great business, it introduces inspiring new role models. It’s a great investment in the future.
Elting: I love that sentiment and couldn’t agree more. As a former professional cyclist yourself, you’re clearly passionate about bringing more women into cycling. You’ve spoken with great feeling before about the potential you see for women’s cycling as something distinct from the men’s sport rather than just an appendage of it. I’d love to hear more about that. What needs to be done?
Veronneau: Women’s cycling should be celebrated for everything it adds to the sport. The racing is generally more animated from the start line, partially because women race slightly shorter distances. It often makes for a more exciting race.This is also great news for modern audiences whose attention spans have shortened. There’s a lot of dimension to the athletes as well, which makes for great storytelling and inspiring figures. There are riders who have been Olympians in other sports, many have other careers and advanced degrees because they could not rely on just pro bike racing. I’ve found the women pro cyclists that I’ve worked with to be phenomenal ambassadors for the sport—great representatives for their sponsors and savvy marketers to draw further investment in the sport. They’ve naturally been more accessible to their fans, which is great for inspiring the next generation.
Elting: How are you and Zwift working to provide an entrypoint for women interested in cycling, and how does that translate into the wider sport?
Veronneau: We hope that the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift will show women and especially girls that they have a place in cycling, and that they can imagine themselves racing at the top of the sport, in the world’s most-watched sporting event. While the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift is for the best athletes in the world, we hope that it will inspire new riders to try cycling, and of course, to try cycling on Zwift! In our global community, there are ways for any kind of rider to have fun and meet cyclists at their level from all over the world. Beyond cycling, we believe that showing female athletes to a global audience will have a positive effect on inspiring women to be active in many sports.
Elting: There has been no shortage of controversies surrounding women’s sports in the last couple of years, from pay inequality to whether trans women have a “biological advantage” over their competitors to disqualifications that many feel are rooted in racism. Women’s sports seem uniquely vulnerable to this sort of disruption, considering its location along two extremely fraught societal axes: women’s social equality and attitudes regarding our physical capabilities. As a professional cyclist and former basketball player, have attitudes towards women’s sports changed in the last few years, or are these controversies just getting more coverage?
Veronneau: There has always been controversy in sport generally, and women’s sports are no exception. As women’s sports grow in prominence, more people are watching and more stories are being told, both positive and negative. At Zwift, we believe that women’s sport has the power to drive positive societal change, but doing so isn’t always easy, and, yes, sometimes causes us to need to have hard conversations. Though it’s important to have these conversations, we want to ensure the positive stories aren’t lost, like the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. These women have been having difficult conversations for years, while the racing itself has often been overlooked. It’s now time for media coverage to focus on the sport as well and let these women entertain and show just what fantastic ambassadors for sport they really are.
Elting: Just recently, the international swimming federation banned nearly all transgender women from competition following a very public dispute over Lia Thomas’s performance, despite comparable results and multiple losses to cisgender swimmers. And just this month, cycling’s international governing body implemented a new testosterone limit that’s now half what it was previously. These responses are part of a long-brewing backlash that has seen sports establish limits on testosterone levels that have even prevented cisgender women—most famously Caster Semenya—from being allowed to compete due to perceived “unfair advantage.” But the same has not held true for men’s sports, where natural advantages—such as Michael Phelps’ impressive wingspan, foot size, and the fact that his body produces half the “normal” amount of lactic acid—are celebrated. Women have, in fact, always been more heavily policed, with sex tests in the olympics going back almost a century. Why do you think this is, and how do you think that can change?
Veronneau: At the highest level of the sport, we’ve seen all of sports governing bodies struggle with this topic. A dangerous consequence of the scruitiny on transgender athletes at the elite level is that access to sport for transgender athletes at the grassroots level is now also at risk. Zwift is a platform for all riders, and we lead on efforts to make cycling more inclusive. While the highest levels of sport continue to review rules, it’s important that we continue to promote inclusivity and ensure that all people have access to sport.
Elting: What do you want for the future of women’s sports?
Veronneau: I hope that women’s sports continue to grow in terms of participation, viewership, and prominence, so that the conversation and coverage focuses on the incredible action and athleticism rather than the inequities. I’m very optimistic about the current trajectory!
I also hope that we continue to keep it fun, as we’re doing with the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift by integrating elements like Scotty the Podium Squirrel, our mascot in Zwift, who’ll be presented to the stage winner each day of the race. After all, it is a game, and it should be fun!
Elting: Where can readers watch the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift?
Veronneau: In the United States, you can #watchthefemmes on Peacock or CNBC.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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