The long-overdue arrival of the Tour de France Femmes will feature two of New Zealand’s most promising cyclists. Henry Rounce caught up with them.
Ally Wollaston’s friends – the ones who don’t know too much about cycling – have always asked her the same thing before she heads overseas on another trip.
“Are you doing the Tour de France this year?” they’d say.
Her answer was always the same.
“Well, no. The Tour de France is just for the men,” she’d replied.
Wollaston and her Kiwi compatriot Henrietta Christie will line up in the Tour de France Femmes on Monday, an eight-day race that finally gives women’s cycling the grand stage it so desperately deserves.
The event starts in Paris as the men’s Tour de France finishes, with both races sprinting over the iconic Champs-Élysées circuit on the same day.
In total, the women will ride over 1000km, before ultimately arriving at the summit of the unforgiving La Super Planche des Belles Filles climb. The race has worldwide television coverage – often a luxury for women’s cycling – and over $400,000 (NZ) of prize money up for grabs.
“I feel like I’m a little kid talking about her crush or something, it’s ridiculous,” laughs Wollaston, as she sizes up the significance of the tour.
If she can’t quite believe it, then neither can Christie.
“You’ve got to pinch yourself every now and again that we finally have a women’s Tour de France,” says Christie, who hails from Christchurch.
There have been various iterations of a women’s event before. Between 1984-1989, an 18-day race was held at the same time as the men along a similar, but shortened, route. Then there was La Course by Le Tour de France, which was a one-or-two stage event from 2014-2021.
This time is different.
“Everyone knows the Tour de France, even if you’re not into cycling, and to have the women’s version of that and to be televised, it’s helping close that gap which is really cool,” Christie says.
Wollaston agrees. “You can see from all the live streams of the racing now that these women in Europe are just amazing. The way that they’re racing, the aggressiveness of it, the shape that all these women are in is just unbelievable. I think the Tour de France Femmes just raises awareness of women’s sport in general,” she says.
The two Kiwis grew up with the Tour de France. Wollaston would watch the highlights with her dad the next morning, while Christie used to view it religiously with her parents, even before she started cycling.
And now they’ll be transported from their lounges in New Zealand to the famous roads of France. Wollaston is riding the first three stages for her AG Insurance–NXTG team, before leaving early so she can compete on the track for her country at the Commonwealth Games. She’s a former world junior 2000m individual pursuit champion.
“I am expecting it to be a little bit overwhelming. I’ve only ever done one Women’s WorldTour race – Ride London – and even that was such a big step for me. I don’t know if I’m ready for the Tour de France, but I’m doing it anyway,” she laughs.
The 21-year-old is downplaying her ability, especially after a rollicking second season with her Dutch development team. She collected podium positions at the Tour de Bretagne in May, before outsprinting a pair of WorldTour riders to claim an incredible victory at GP Morbihan later that month.
“The results really came through thick and fast, and I think they were really surprising. I knew I was capable of doing well over here, but I just didn’t know it would be so soon,” she says.
Wollaston, a part-time law student, initially struggled to get used to navigating the bunch when she first arrived in Europe, transitioning from riding with 30 riders in New Zealand, to over 100 on foreign overseas roads.
Her first season was all about getting comfortable in the washing machine-like chaos of the peloton. When she arrived at Bretagne earlier this year, she told herself that whatever happened, she just wanted to get involved in one bunch sprint.
On the opening day she did, and she came third.
“I think that first result for me was a really big wakeup call to actually just try and get in amongst the racing, and to stop being a passenger and back myself a little bit more,” she says.
The first two stages, and potentially the third, of the Tour de France Femmes are likely to provide her with a similar opportunity to drive to the front. They should finish in a sprint, allowing Wollaston to do what she does best.
While Wollaston is targeting the flat roads, Christie is waiting for the vertical ones. The skillful climber is racing the entirety of the tour for American team Human Powered Health.
At just 20, she didn’t expect to be selected and thought for sure they’d be taking some of the older girls.
“The team said they’re backing me and they think I can climb well, so I’m quite excited to see how I can go,” she says.
Christie’s was preparing in Andorra, soaking up the sun and the altitude after a bumpy season.
“My health has been up and down recently with Covid and a stomach bug…so I think it’ll be good going into the Tour with good health and good legs after a hard block of training. I’m just going to push as hard as I can and see what I’m capable of doing,” she says.
Christie is planning to help her team-mates as much as possible during the eight days, and is also likely to get a look at riding for her own ambitions, depending on the terrain at each stage.
“I think because it’s something new, everyone is really determined for this tour. Everyone is going into it with their best-possible fitness, so I expect it to be really hard, honest racing,” she says.
Like Wollaston, Christie will also end up in Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games, competing in the road race.
For now though, Paris is the focus. And before they both get to the start-line, Wollaston can finally send a message to those friends in New Zealand again.
Yes, I’m riding the Tour de France. It’s for women now too.