The Tour de France is synonymous with images of fans lining the side of the road, some camping out for hours before the race, many wearing outlandish outfits or the ubiquitous E.Leclerc polka dot t-shirts thrown away at the promotional caravan.
On the men’s tour we saw many of these images, from the participation of what appeared to be the entire population of Denmark, to the wall of bodies and sounds on the mountain passes of the Alps and Pyrenees. As the race neared its final stage and it was the women’s turn to take the mantle of the Tour, many wondered if the support would continue with the same vigour.
Paris swarmed with fans who marched through the sweltering heat to line the Champs Elysees. As the men’s peloton approached from the outskirts of the city, the women lined up next to the Eiffel Tower. There were many fans, but it was unclear if they were just casual men’s fans or die-hard women’s cycling fans.
Then the exhausted circus of the men’s race got off their bikes to celebrate in Paris, passing the baton to the women – and something amazing happened: the crowds kept coming. Not only that, they seemed to get bigger with each level. Stage three from Épernay saw an entire peloton of school children in yellow jerseys lined up beside the start line, enthusiastically counting down to the shot in unison.
The finish line of the same stage, on a brutally steep climb on the outskirts of Épernay, was packed with supporters all day. At the top of the climb, people swarmed and stood at the barriers to watch eventual winner, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, cross the finish line first.
But it wasn’t just the starts and finishes that drew people in France (and beyond). Wearing yellow for the first time on this stage, Marianne Vos noted the roadside support throughout the day.
“In the last 300 meters I didn’t see anything at all,” she said of the steep climb in Épernay. “But before it got crazy, it was like lines of people coming into town. And not just in the final, but throughout the day and that is something very special to experience. Like I said, wearing the yellow jersey, which of course is pretty iconic for people too, and you get spotted in the crowd pretty easily. It’s really nice to experience that.”
Human Powered Health’s Marit Raaijmakkers was in the breakaway the day before and noted the same thing: “On stage two I was in a breakaway and it was like a crappy country road in the backcountry of France where you don’t expect it [even] One dog that was around and there were people lined up like at the side of the road and I was like, ‘Well, that’s crazy,'” she told CyclingTips.
Vittoria Guazzini (FDJ Suez-Futuroscope) also spoke about the support before heading out onto the gravel of stage four. “There is a special atmosphere here. And we see at the start and at the end, but also during the stage,” she said. “Everyone’s out there cheering for us and it’s incredible, yeah. Yes, the Tour de France is [one of] the major races and we really see it now where we can race.
For one of the most established riders in the women’s peloton, world time trial champion and hour record holder, Ellen van Dijk admitted that going into the race she wasn’t sure how much support she and her peers would get.
“It was obviously hard to know what to expect because we’ve never done it before,” she said. But she didn’t have to worry: “To be honest I’m super positively surprised by the amount of people that are all over here like at the track, the spectators and everything because I wasn’t sure how many people come watch us, but it’s really cool to see it’s getting so much attention. I really feel like we get the same attention as the men.”
Her compatriot and former teammate Iris Slappendel, who was at the race from the back of a motorbike in her role as a reporter for Eurosport, observed the same thing. “The crowds every day, I think that’s the biggest surprise for me, every day, so many people along the route. And yes, it’s really cool. And I think that will bring a lot to women’s cycling, the spectator numbers and the people on the track.”
Le Col — Wahoo’s former Belgian champion Jesse Vandenbulcke spent much of Stage 6 in a breakaway, comparing the crowd to her home World Championship last year.
“It’s almost like against the whole street. They also like to have world championships in Belgium. That was incredible, it’s just Tour de France. Also, many people come here for vacation and enjoy cycling. So yeah, it’s really nice.”
As the race hit the mountains, the fans really made their presence felt. Fans lining the slopes of mountain passes are one of the defining images of the Tour de France and the public really got the Femmes’ memory. On the drive to Le Markstein, at the top of the Grand Ballon, hours before the race was due to arrive, hundreds of people drove, walked and drove in the same direction. At the top, the barriers and poles were packed with people waiting to see the race come by twice.
“Everything is very special, from the fans’ point of view, from the organization’s point of view, from the riders’ point of view, I have the feeling that everyone is just doing their best,” said Kasia Niewiadoma after the stage.
The next day, the Super Planche des Belles Filles exceeded expectations again. On the same day that a record 87,000 fans packed Wembley Stadium to watch the final of the European Women’s Football Championship, thousands more lined the curb of the Tour de France’s iconic climb.
From bottom to top, people lined the roadside, waiting to watch the final leg. For the last few hundred meters of the climb, people draped themselves over the Zwift-branded barriers, with several rows of others at the top behind them. Fittingly, in the corner of a fixed camera angle pointing down at the finish line, two polka-dotted young girls could be seen cheering on their heroes.
At the top of the climb, riders gathered and began reflecting on the experience. FDJ Suez Futuroscope’s Grace Brown agreed with others who said the race exceeded their expectations. “Everything was bigger than I expected,” she told SBS. “Like the media, the fans, just all the extra little things about the driving”
Her Australian compatriot, 21-year-old Anya Louw (AG Insurance NXTG), who was in a breakaway at an earlier stage, agreed. “On the first day everyone was like, ‘Yeah, well, the crowd is amazing.’ But then everyone knew it’s probably down to the men who will be there too. But then it didn’t stop the whole race. It was great to see so many people coming out to watch the women’s race. It’s really yes, it’s really motivating.”
Kirsten Faulkner, who had fallen multiple times throughout the race and fought her way tooth and nail to the point where she passed out at the top of the Grand Ballon, crossed the finish line on the radiant Planche.
“I smiled the last kilometer,” she said. “I just couldn’t stop smiling because there were so many fans out there. I was in so much pain but I just made eye contact with a fan and… just to see them, they’re cheering and screaming and it was amazing and there were more people around every corner.”
“There was a moment on the track where it was dead quiet and I was like, ‘This is so weird’ because we had fans at all points for the rest of the race. I feel pretty self motivated most of the time but today I really needed that. Yeah, I’m really grateful they were there.”
It wasn’t just the roadside support that exceeded expectations, highlighting the importance of giving women access to sport’s biggest stage. France TV sports press Approved that France 3 reached a peak of 2.8 million viewers on the third stage.
Along with roadside fans and TV viewers, those who engaged on social media didn’t go unnoticed either.
“It was incredible to see so many fans lining the roadside. I feel like we received a lot of energy and that also motivated us to go harder and push our limits. Also, getting a lot of recognition from social media and TV was very special, so it was really nice to find ourselves in the position of giving to the public and the public giving back to us,” Kasia Niewiadoma told the stage afterward.
“It was a very special experience and it was nice to feel it for yourself because a lot of people are talking about this race, how great it is, how special and how much attention the race gets. So it was nice to find yourself in the driver’s position and basically feel it.”
The support the women’s field has received over the past eight days of racing is a testament to the sheer scale of the Tour de France. While many are reluctant to overestimate the role this race could play in the growth of women’s cycling, the unprecedented reach it has had and the impact seeing it first hand will have marks a watershed moment for women’s sport.