One of sport’s most recognisable scenes involves a peloton of more than 170 men hurtling down the Champs-Élysées, where the Tour de France yellow jersey wearer is traditionally crowned champion of the gruelling 21-day bike race.
But just hours before the latest chapter of men’s cycling history is written, the first of a monumental era for women’s cycling will be signed, sealed and delivered.
On Sunday afternoon the inaugural Tour de France Femmes will begin in the French capital when more than 150 riders take a circuitous 82km route from the Eiffel Tower to the grand Parisian avenue adjacent to the Arc de Triomphe – just 1km as the crow flies.
“I think it is one of the best sights in sport to see a peloton gliding along,” reigning Paralympic road race champion Dame Sarah Storey told City A.M.
“It looks so effortless and when you’re in one it’s like a washing machine of grit and determination to get the best position to feed your teammates and yourself.
“The Tour de France is like a monument, it’s such a historic race and to have had a women’s race alongside the men’s get canned was a shame. But for it to be reignited for this year is magnificent.
“I’m really, really excited to see how the women’s peloton responds because we know that the racing will be exciting and it’ll be on a different level of platform to the one that they’ve had previously.”
Storey is a British record 17-time Paralympic gold medalist – first in swimming and then cycling – and has been on the podium at every Games since 2008.
The Tour de France Femmes will see the peloton compete over eight stages from the French capital to the finish in La Super Planche des Belles Filles, a ski station in the Vosges Mountains in the east of the country.
“Even if it doesn’t look like it’s a challenging course on paper it will be because the profile of the course is never true to what you find on the road,” Storey added. “The women’s peloton will race so hard from the outset.
“I guess that’s one of the benefits of slightly shorter stages [ranging from 82km to 123km]. There’s a lot of talk around the disruptions to the normal run of things in the men’s race over the last couple of days. But this is what we see in the women’s races all of the time.”
And which teams and riders does the six-time national road champion think are worth watching?
“DFJ [-Suez-Futuroscope] are going to be an incredibly exciting team to watch,” she says. “They’re a French team racing on French soil and they have Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, who is a very animated racer.
“And then you’ve got the old timers like Marianne Vos who’s been racing for this race since the outset of her career, with [her team] Jumbo Visma planning their race around their leaders.
“And of course you cannot take your eyes away from the likes of Trek-Segafredo who are always really well organised.”
In the window
A version of the women’s Tour existed until the late 1980s and the 30-year-plus period has seen attempts at reviving the race in various guises – notably La Course, a one or two-day event finishing on the Champs-Élysées which has run since 2014 – but this is the first time we’ve seen an eight-stage tour for decades.
“It’s hugely important [to have its own window] but it has to be done with a view of how it fits with the rest of the world calendar,” she said.
“There’s three Grand Tours and the women already have a Giro [d’Italia] but it’s almost eclipsed a little bit because it’s at the same time as the men’s Tour de France.
“Sometimes it’s about seeing something you recognise as being an older version of you or as a position you aspire to be in – and it’s harder to do that as a female athlete if other women aren’t doing the same.”
Storey has been a trailblazer in motherhood, disability and gender equality, and this year’s women’s Tour, too, could inspire a generation of women and girls to see professional sport as a viable, achievable career.
“Of course everyone wanted it to happen yesterday and it would have been amazing to see it come off the back of the announcement of something else,” said Storey, an ambassador for Tour de France Femmes partners Skoda. “But this is when it is and this is history.
“We’ve waited a long time and it’s going to be worth the wait. Let’s hope this is the next step towards even more recognition for women’s sport in general – both for the women’s peloton and the equality that needs to be there for our daughters alongside our sons.”
Dame Sarah Storey is an ambassador for Skoda UK, Skoda Auto is a partner of the Tour de France Femmes. For more information visit www.skoda.co.uk/discover/cycling-hub