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A good broadcast plan may be key to the success of the female Tour de France

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Tour de France is bicycle racing's most famous competition for men. It ends Sunday in Paris. And on the same day, in the same city, another Tour de France begins for the world's best women riders. It's been more than 30 years since women have competed in a bona fide race like this. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, they're finally getting their chance, in large part because of the pandemic.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: With the coronavirus surging in 2020, elite cyclists, pretty much like everyone, were on lockdown. But for them, as the proverbial door closed, another opened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Hello, and welcome to stage five of the virtual Tour de France.

GOLDMAN: The company Zwift, which combines fitness and video gaming, put on virtual races for riders worldwide. Men and women competed in the biggest events, pedaling away in their homes. Some professionals rolled their eyes. Others, like South African veteran Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, embraced the chance to break the drudgery of indoor training, and it paid off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Ends up cracking, and Moolman-Pasio flies away to the stage victory.

GOLDMAN: Moolman-Pasio won the so-called queen stage, the toughest stage in a multi-day road race. The next day, she and her husband ventured outside their home in Spain and noticed other people pointing.

ASHLEIGH MOOLMAN-PASIO: He's like, well, it's because of the Tour de France. You know, you were on TV, and everyone saw you winning the queen stage.

GOLDMAN: According to Zwift, more than 16 million people in more than a hundred thirty countries saw the virtual races. And viewership was equally split between the men's and women's events. This prompted Tour de France organizers to talk to Zwift about launching a real women's tour. Kate Veronneau of Zwift says her company was game, but only with a really good broadcast plan.

KATE VERONNEAU: That's the key to the success of the race, to building that audience, to building future investment and growing the race and keeping it around.

GOLDMAN: She says broadcasting to 190 countries on each of the race's eight days - that certainly can help keep this new women's tour around after so many others went away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: (Speaking French).

GOLDMAN: French newsreel footage chronicles a five-stage loop from Paris to Normandy in 1955. But that first women's Tour de France only lasted a year. It wasn't until 1984 when organizers tried again. The multi-stage event ran for six years and featured three wins for French cycling legend Jeannie Longo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: (Speaking French).

GOLDMAN: Longo won the last event in 1989. It folded, like other versions after, because of uneven media coverage and sponsorship. Both are there now. Zwift won't say how much money it's poured into its four-year deal, but it's enough for about $250,000 in prize money with 50,000 to the winner.

Moolman-Pasio, in her 13th year as a pro cyclist, has been fighting for a viable women's tour. She's thrilled about finally getting to race cycling's most prominent event and about the girls and young women who'll be watching.

MOOLMAN-PASIO: Instead of sitting on the couch and seeing men race up these epic climbs and fighting for the yellow jersey, finally, they will see woman. And it's the opportunity for them to recognize pro cycling as a career choice.

GOLDMAN: It's still a challenging choice. Many female pro cyclists have to work as well as race, and women's teams aren't big enough yet to support a 21-stage Tour de France like the men. But eight stages, supporters say, are just right for this initial effort. The road racing will be intense and explosive, they say, with sprinting and hard climbs and even riders navigating gravel sections. Sunday in Paris, before the men arrive for their finish, the women will own the city streets. Their 50-mile first stage starts at the Eiffel Tower. Eight days later, they plan to finish the tour with new fans and a promise to be back, year after year.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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