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Women get their own Tour de France — a first in over 3 decades

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Earlier today, the Tour de France came to an end, with Jonas Vingegaard taking home the ultimate prize.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And first place once again, ladies and gentleman, from Denmark, Jonas Vingegaard.

MARTIN: But for the sport's top female riders, the world's biggest cycling race is just beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: (Speaking French).

MARTIN: This afternoon, the Tour de France Femmes kicked off in Paris, giving women the chance to compete in a multiday tour for the first time in more than 30 years. The race will last eight days and cover more than 600 miles. We wanted to talk about the importance of this race for women's cycling and what the future might hold for the sport, so we called cyclist Ruth Winder, who recently retired. She's won numerous races, including the 2020 Women's Tour Down Under, and she competed for Team USA in the 2021 Olympic Games, and she's with us now. Ruth Winder, thanks so much for talking with us.

RUTH WINDER: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: To start us off, could you just explain the importance of the Tour de France for people who may not be cycling enthusiasts? Hard to imagine that that may be.

WINDER: Yeah, it is such a bubble in a world that I live in. I think it's so important because, you know, everybody's not a cyclist enthusiast, but most people you talk to have at least heard of the Tour de France and they're like, oh, it's that cycling event in France. You know, they know it's about bikes, but we don't have very many races as women. So now to have that for women, most people will be able to at least understand it's an event on bikes, and that just brings the level of women in the sport up so high on its own.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people might think, well, gosh, you're an Olympian. What could be bigger than that? But is that the case in cycling? I mean, is - how do you - forgive me for even asking it this way, but how do you compare the Tour de France to the Olympics for cycling? I mean, is it true that the Tour de France is the most watched sporting event in the world?

WINDER: Yeah. I mean, I don't know the exact statistics there, but I know that everybody I talk to that doesn't even ride bikes knows what the Tour de France is, which is similar to the Olympics in that way. And we, as women - the Olympics have been such an important part for us because that's kind of the biggest event. If you talk to a lot of the men, the Tour de France is so huge and there's so much prestige behind the whole thing that's specific just about bikes, right? Being an Olympic champion is amazing, but there are so many sports that's amazing for. But this is specific to our sport and what we do.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking this, but is it hard to see this race happening right after you made the decision to retire?

WINDER: No. And I get that question quite a lot, actually. Women's cycling is in this amazing place right now, where we have so many new races coming on the calendar, so many exciting races that it could be every year for the next five years or plus that I would be, like, oh, there's another new race, and there's another new race. And I really had to make that decision to stop racing this last year for myself. And it was my time to kind of take a break, take a step back from it all. But I love that I stopped at a time that I still really love my bike and I love the sport. And I'm just really thrilled that this is happening for all my friends and competitors that are still out there racing.

MARTIN: There was a survey taken among female cyclists found that more than 50% earn around $15,000 a year, where the minimum wage for a male rider can be about double that. I was wondering, if you don't mind my asking, how have you sustained yourself over the years to stay in the sport? And do you think this tour, the Tour de France Femmes, will do something to narrow that pay gap?

WINDER: Yeah. I feel like I could talk a long time on this topic, so I'll try and keep it condensed. I've worked kind of part-time as a coach alongside my racing career, but when I first started racing, I made, you know, a very small handful of thousands of dollars. And then now my last year, I raced for a team that really has been trying to push the pay gap, which was - Trek-Segafredo was the team I was on for the last three years. And they - now their minimum wage for their women's races is the same minimum wage as their men's team as well, and so that has really helped. I didn't feel any pressure to have another part-time job on that team.

But that's been slowly coming up, and we've had big teams like this, like Trek, have been pushing this pay gap difference, which has kind of elevated other teams like SD Worx and Jumbo-Visma and other teams to kind of have more of a level playing field between the men and the women, which has been really cool to see the teams kind of work together 'cause many of them have had existing men's teams, and then adding on the women's team and showing that same support and level of professionalism with both teams has been really cool.

And I think, you know, something that the Tour de Femmes does for the sport is we can't ask for more pay, we can't ask for, like, a better platform unless we have a better platform. And part of that is this visibility we get, right? The men have so much visibility, and it's one of the biggest sporting events that are watched. And because of that, they have better sponsorship. And that's kind of the way it works with the - having more visibility around the sport just kind of lifts it all up in this way.

MARTIN: All right. Well, speaking of visibility, I know you watched the first leg, which ended earlier today. Give us a primer. Can you just give us a little bit of a primer? Like, what should we be looking for? What should we be watching for over the next couple of days?

WINDER: Yeah. It was a really exciting sprint finish. If you've watched cycling before, a lot of the times, these sprint stages are not typically that exciting, which was a bit of the case kind of most of the day. And then as you come towards the finish, it's, like, all the teams leading out to lead-out their lead-out trains. And it was really exciting to see Lorena Wiebes, who was the winner. She's a Dutch rider who's just been very dominant in all of the sprints this year so far. She won again very dominantly, which was not a surprise to anybody. But the next couple stages get a little bit more hilly, maybe more for an all-rounder kind of rider. And then there's some big mountains towards the end. So I think we'll have kind of a fun - I'm hoping, like, the yellow jersey will kind of jump from shoulders to shoulders for a little bit before it settles on who. I think everybody's got their eye on Annemiek van Vleuten, who is another Dutch rider, to take the overall.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I cannot help but notice that this is taking place in the context of one of the hottest summers on record throughout Europe - also through North America, but in Europe in particular. Are you at all worried about the safety of the riders riding in this heat?

WINDER: Most of them will have done a lot of heat training to be ready. And it's pretty hot - like you said, it's been hot all summer so far in Europe, so they all have been training in the heat. They also have really good staff that will pass them ice-cold water, or they'll go back to the car and get ice socks to keep their body temperatures really cool. And I know most of the big teams, at least these days - that's another thing, is having a team doctor is getting to be more important and be, like, a rule that you have to have one now in the teams. They have doctors around them checking on them, and we also have weather protocols that are set in place to kind of keep track of everything that's going on. But I believe that everybody will be taken care of.

MARTIN: That was retired cyclist Ruth Winder. Thank you so much for being with us.

WINDER: Yes. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.