Eat, sleep, cycle repeat, plus a spot of kit cleaning thrown in for good measure. That was Louise Gibson's routine as she took on arguably the biggest cycling challenge in the world – the Tour de France – as part of the all-female cycling team InternationElles.
This wasn't just any cycling team. Unlike their male, Tour de France-conquering counterparts such as Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome and this year's winner Ergan Bernal, these women aren’t professionals. In fact, they all have fulltime jobs. Gibson, for example, is a mum of two who works full time as a brand consultant.
So why would ten women take on a challenge as mind-boggling as cycling through the mountainous French countryside for 21 stages in a row?
Well, because women can't compete in the Tour de France, that's why. In fact, there hasn't been a complete official Tour de France for women since the eighties. The reasons cited for this range from logistics, to good old fashion sexism, so the InternationElles set out to prove that women can and should be able to ride the Tour.
Gibson says the way the InternationElles got together is thoroughly 2019: “We were formed by the powers of the internet.”
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After French women’s cycling group, Donnons des elles au Vélo, that has been riding the Tour de France ahead of the men since 2015, put out a call for riders to join their team they were overwhelmed with responses. As a result, they put the international riders in touch with each other online, suggesting they establish another team, and so the InternationElles was formed.
For Gibson and the whole team, this was the first time they'd undertaken a challenge of this magnitude. It’s not easy going from amateur cyclist to Tour de France-ready, even when you’re much more than your average cycling commuter. Gibson, for example, represents Team GB at the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships but she’d never completed a multi-stage event. She says: "I was nervous about doing big days and getting back on again and doing the same thing the next day and the next."
We had such a big goal to be fit and ready to cycle the whole of the Tour de France that we all just made it fit
To prepare, the team had a coach but Gibson said it was sometimes difficult to fit training in: “You do have to make it happen. We had such a big goal to be fit and ready to cycle the whole of the Tour de France that we all just made it fit around our family and lives and jobs.” And if she missed a slot? Gibson used a Turbo Trainer to fix her bike indoors and make up the miles. In total Gibson thinks they covered between 5000 and 6000 kilometres before even setting off in France.
Cycling the Tour didn't come cheap for the team either. Gibson estimates it cost each of them around £3000 even though they “kept things fairly budget”. The team did have some sponsors who provided kit and other support, but Gibson says: “We just said this is something we want to do and we're willing to spend that money.”
On a diet of carbs, the InternationElles set off on across France, racking up the miles by day and cooking, washing and sleeping by night in Airbnbs that were sometimes over an hour away from where they finished their cycle ride. It was gruelling, says Gibson: “It was hard because we were doing everything ourselves. We were having to wash our own kit and in some places, we'd make food and look after our bikes which then ate into the evening.” The team did have logistical help, but it’s surely a far cry from the experience of the elite men cycling this year.
This had a knock-on effect to their sleep, something that’s problematic as it’s overnight when your body recovers: “Some days we'd only get 5 hours sleep and then have to do it all again the next day so it was really tiring.” She says: “It was like living a blur, none of us knew what day it was. We were living by stage numbers.” At points, it felt like they were “cycling round like zombies”.
The biggest challenge for Gibson on the road, however, were the mountains: “Each day I'd get quite daunted by them and wonder if it was that day where my body would just say ‘No, you're too tired you can't do it’.”
It's 2019, it's not okay for women to not have the same opportunities as men
Luckily the team's intention to highlight the gender inequalities in cycling was a strong driving force. Gibson says: “Something needs to be done. It's 2019, it's not okay for women to not have the same opportunities as men. It's time to let women have those opportunities and give them coverage.” As their cause picked up interest with the media, the InternationElles were spurred on: “The main point of us doing it was to shed some light on the fact that women don't have the same opportunities as men. To get coverage made the whole thing so worthwhile and motivating for us.”
It wasn't just the media who were on board with their campaign. Gibson says there were crowds cheering them on at every stage: “People would come out with banners and we had our names painted on the road a few times. It was so cool.”
Even more excitingly for Gibson and the InternationElles, as they were taking on their challenge they heard that ASO, the board that oversees the Tour, announced they were assembling a committee to look into creating an equivalent multi-stage cycling event for women. As they finished in Paris, their mission was complete in more ways than one.
Overall the experience was a positive one: “All ten of us rode over that finish line in Paris. We didn't have any crashes, I think we had two punctures overall so we're just delighted.”
Would she do it again? “One or two days before the end I was like there's no way I'd ever do this again. It's so painful, it's so tiring. And already I'm like I wonder where the route goes next year.”
That’s not to say Gibson wouldn't do it differently, she’d want more sleep for a start. And with the Tour organisers looking to erase some of the inequalities inherent in the sport it looks like Gibson might not need to ride for change: “It’s job done for us, we shed some light on it and we heard that changes might happen.”News Now - Sport News