Tour boss and director of the Société du Tour de France Félix Levitan is the driving force behind the first edition of the Tour de France Féminin in 1984. Lévitan draws his inspiration from compatriot Jean Leulliot, who already organised a (one-time) Tour Féminin in 1955. In 1984, the Tour has 36 participants, with delegations from the Netherlands, Canada, the United States, Great Britain and France. Between 30 June and 22 July, eighteen stages are ridden on the same route as the 'men's Tour', although in a shorter version. Dutch rider Mieke Havik wins the first stage and thus becomes, not counting the 1955 version, the first female carrier of the yellow jersey ever.
One year later a Belgian team, consisting of Josiane Vanhuyse, Nadine Fiers, Greta Fleerackers, Marina Mampay, Maria Herijgers and Ingrid Mekers, appears at the start for the first time. Vanhuyse, the reigning Belgian champion, writes history on 5 July 1985 by being the first Belgian ever to win a Tour stage. Het Volk immediately looks for the reasons why there are no Belgian women in the first edition. "The Belgian Cycling Federation, which had never been so keen on women's cycling, left them at home with the excuse that they had to ride the Olympics later in the summer. But that turned out to be a sop because the B.O.I.C. did not select any female riders." The fact that the Belgian Cycling Federation (BWB) was not really wild about women's cycling was also evident from the very late decision to put together a Tour delegation. "A letter in the mail on Monday that said to be at the start of the Tour on Friday, that's a bit excessive," said an irritated Josiane Vanhuyse in Het Volk.
However, the federation's lack of enthusiasm is not reflected in the support the ladies receive. The women's team can count on a team manager, a mechanic and a caretaker. Such an entourage is pure luxury in women's cycling in those days. Moreover, the Société du Tour de France guarantees an excellent organisation. The public is also present in great numbers. The fact that the women pass a few hours before the men is not surprising. Vanhuyse is also the best Belgian in 1986 with a seventeenth place in the final classification. However, in the following years the Tour circus runs without Belgian riders. The French Jeannie Longo scores a hat-trick and wins the Tour de France Féminin three years in a row.
In 1990, the Société du Tour de France changes course. The organisation turns the Tour de France Féminin into an international race and changes its name to the Tour de la C.E.E. féminin, or Tour of the European Community. The race moves from July to September and the course is no longer a print-out of the men's tour, but also crosses England and Belgium.
For Heidi Van De Vijver, the Tour de la C.E.E. is a first big international tour experience. "Leader's jerseys of Crédit Lyonnais, the famous lions, Bernard Hinault as master of ceremonies, ... it was all there. We simply took over the fleet and infrastructure of the Tour for Men in July." Together with compatriot Kristel Werckx, Van De Vijver (20) immediately makes a very strong debut. Werckx finishes seventh, Van De Vijver tenth. Teammate Josiane Vanhuyse: "Heidi had a talent for tours, you could see that right away. She already lived 100% for her profession and was an example for everyone."
The editions in 1990 and 1991 are almost completely won by the Netherlands. In 1990 Leontien Van Moorsel and Astrid Schop finished after the French Cathérine Marsal. One year later, Schop was on the highest step of the podium, Van Moorsel one step lower.
The fact that the Netherlands, together with France, dominates international women's cycling is also evident in the Tour de Cycliste Féminin, a new initiative by Pierre Boué-Merrac. Organiser Boué wants to organise a women's Tour pur sang, with only stages in France. The first edition will start in August 1992 and is completely separate from the Société du Tour de France, which organiser Boué likes to emphasise: "We have baptised our race Tour de Cycliste Féminin, to make it clear that it is a different and new race."
According to Heidi Van De Vijver, that distinction was very clear. "There was a big difference between the two races in terms of organisation. During the Tour Cycliste we had to sleep in schools or third-rate hotels, which was never the case in the Tour de France. After each stage it was sometimes a hundred kilometres to our sleeping place. At one point we even stopped because it got too bad." The rparcours, however, was not a problem. "In the Tour of 1992 I realised for the first time that I could really climb. I had won the Tour of Belgium, but racing in France was something else. In the stage with arrival at Luz-Ardiden I finished second. In the final stage on Alpe d'Huez I was able to get enough distance to secure third place in the general classification after Leontien Van Moorsel and Jeannie Longo."
In the Tour de la C.E.E. féminin of that year, Van De Vijver is able to maintain her form curve. Together with two Belgian ladies, she starts in a so-called mixed team, a team with riders from different countries. "That mixed team probably cost me my first overall victory. In such stage races you really need a strong, completely Belgian team that rides in your service. That was the only way to beat the Dutch block." Van De Vijver finishes second behind Leontien Van Moorsel, but does win the points classification.
The 1993 Tour de Cycliste Féminin starts on 27 July with a prologue in Paris. Jeannie Longo impresses and finishes with an average speed of more than 45 km/h. Leontien Van Moorsel takes the yellow leader's jersey in the fourth stage and will not relinquish it. In the queen's stage, which includes the climb of the Tourmalet, Heidi Van De Vijver finishes second after an unapproachable Van Moorsel. In the final stage with arrival at Alpe d'Huez, Van De Vijver shows her climbing skills and finishes third. Her strong performance results in a second consecutive third place in the final classification.
One month after the Tour Cycliste, the Tour de la C.E.E. gets underway in Rochester, England. For the first time Van De Vijver starts as the leader of an all-Belgian team. Besides Kristel Werckx, Anne-Marie Cooreman, Vanja Vonckx, Anja Lenaers and Godelieve Janssens also get a place in the team. The Canadian Clara Hughes wins the prologue. One day later, Van De Vijver is unequalled. She breaks away at more than one hundred kilometres from the finish and rides solo to the finish. Van De Vijver wins the stage and takes the yellow jersey. The rest of the race is controlled by a well-performing Belgian team: "On the flat I could count on a very strong Kristel Werckx, who was my biggest rival in her own country, but who sacrificed herself completely for me in the Tour. Heidi herself uses the tactics of Spanish Tour rider Miguel Indurain, who already has two Tour victories on his record. "Controlling the race, countering and shadowing the main competitors."
Heidi's Tour accomplishments are reported daily in the national press, albeit in a five-line report and a sporadic photo. As the race progresses, media interest increases. When Van De Vijver succeeds in keeping the coveted yellow jersey until Cambrai, even some journalists travel to France. Heidi Van De Vijver's top performance is rewarded with a report in Sportweekend. That is also allowed. Apart from the prologue, she does a 'Romain Maeske' by cycling in yellow from start to finish. On the podium Van De Vijver is flanked by Leontien Van Moorsel and the Russian Aleksandra Koliaseva.
Van De Vijver's (Tour) victory shook up the Belgian cycling federation. One year later, three female cyclists - Heidi Van De Vijver, Patsy Maegerman and Anne-Marie Cooreman - received their first professional status. They are part of the Vlaanderen 2002 project, where youngsters get the chance to taste professional cycling for a few years. A real revolution, because in the year of her victory she had only received financial and material support from the federation for the first time (!). Before that, she had to pay for everything herself. Thanks to Heidi's victory and the perseverance of team coach Kristel Herremans, Belgium and the cycling federation discover that women can also do (good) cycling. This brings an end to the bold, but striking statement made by the Dutch top cyclist Monique Knol in 1993: "Women's cycling is still in the prehistoric era with you (in Belgium, nvdr).
Did Heidi win the Tour de France for women or not? Does Belgium claim 19 instead of 18 Tour victories? The bright yellow, Crédit Lyonnais sponsored leader's jersey suggests the best but the European flags on the chest raise doubts. At the moment that Heidi wins, the Tour de France Féminin no longer exists. However, the organisation behind the Tour de la C.E.E. remains the A.S.O., the successor of the Société du Tour de France and founder of the actual Tour for men. One thing is clear: Heidi Van De Vijver wins an internationally renowned stage race in 1993 that is at least comparable to the calibre of the Tour Féminin. It is up to you to judge.
The rise and fall of Le Tour de Cycliste Féminin
With the disappearance of Le Tour Féminin in 1989, Longo sees a fourth consecutive final victory go up in smoke. She will not win the Tour de la C.E.E. either. The Frenchwoman is at odds with her own cycling federation and cannot count on being selected for a stage race with national teams. Longo is forced to accept this decision, but in her own way she manages to plague the French Cycling Federation. She follows each stage of the Tour de la C.E.E. on a racing bike with a backpack in the wake of the caravan.
Longo and husband-trainer Patrice Ciprelli then think up their own Tour. They convince their friend Pierre Boué-Merrac to organise a new French stage race. Ex-journalist Boué-Merrac had been fascinated by women's cycling for a long time and was happy to meet Longo's request. Le Tour de Cycliste Féminin was born. And Boué-Merrac is serious about it. In 1993, he starts his race under the Eiffel Tower, at the same time as the men are completing their last laps on the Champs-Elysées in their Tour de France... The beginning of a power struggle between Boué-Merrac with his Tour de Cycliste Féminin and the Société du Tour de France with their Tour de la C.E.E.
In 1998 the battle between the two organisations seems to be definitively settled. A.S.O., the successor of the Société du Tour de France, stumbles over the term 'Tour' in the French stage race and forces the organisation to change its name. Boué-Merrac renames its race to La Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale. The bombastic sounding name cannot prevent the race from slowly fading away. In 2004 no new edition takes place because of differences of opinion. In 2005 the race is reduced to one week and in 2006 it gets competition from the Route de France, another new French stage race for women. In 2009 the provisional last edition of the Tour Cycliste/Grande Boucle takes place.
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