How the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift Came to Be

·11 min read
Photo credit: Zwift
Photo credit: Zwift

Zwift’s head of women’s strategy and content, Kate Veronneau, is pretty damn excited for the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift—so much so that it’s highly likely that she hasn’t actually taken off her highlighter-pink cycling cap reminding people to “Watch the Femmes” in the last couple of months. At the moment, Veronneau eats, sleeps, and breathes all things women’s cycling as the clock ticks down to July 24, when the eight-day iteration of the long-overdue women’s Tour de France is set to kick off in Paris.

But what exactly went on to finally make a women’s Tour de France happen? After years of lobbying, securing single-day versions of the race, occasionally discussing longer options only to get shut down in final rounds of negotiations, and documentaries like Half the Road chronicling the tireless efforts of women’s cycling advocates like Kathryn Bertine... What made it finally happen?

Unsurprisingly, the answer comes largely down to money and a sponsor willing to step up and make the commitment. However, it's not an entirely altruistic proposition: New research has shown that women's sports are almost certainly a better long-term investment for sponsors. Because women's sport is still new, relatively speaking, it's more open for innovation and rapid growth. It's also a less saturated market than men's sport, making it easier for brands to stand out—and those brands will get more eyeballs for less dollars, if trends in viewing patterns are any indication. Interest in women's sport has skyrocketed in terms of viewership and a growing fanbase, as younger audiences begin to make their own buying decisions. A survey from YouGov found that 44 percent of global sports fans aged 18 to 24 actually preferred watching women’s sport over men’s

And Zwift saw this opportunity and really ran with it. While Zwift might be an online platform for cyclists, it’s bringing the world’s most prestigious bike race to the women’s peloton in real life this season. Veronneau chatted with Bicycling to explain how it finally came about.

Bicycling: First of all, how did you go from pro racer to Zwift’s head of women’s strategy and content?

Kate Veronneau: After my career as a pro racer, I was working for a bike tour company, Thompson Bike Tours, as their marketing director. And I was leading some of the tours as well: I was taking North Americans and Australians to the Tour de France route to climb all the iconic mountains and mountains of Europe. I moved out to L.A. about seven years ago, and while I was there, I noticed that on Strava, my clients were all starting to do this thing called Zwift. After my pro career, I had said I would never ride indoors again, but it was kind of cool, and I felt like Zwift was doing interesting things.

I actually sent an email to partnerships at Zwift that year as part of my job with the touring company and said, “Let’s do a challenge together.” It worked out, and we did this promotion together where somebody won a trip to the Tour by riding 100,000 kilometers on Zwift, and it was a great promotion for both of us. Through that, we became friends, and eventually, they came to me because they had this idea for Zwift Academy, a global talent ID competition to find the next woman pro cyclist using their platform. I was like, “You guys are crazy.” But they wanted me to run this project. It was an exciting concept—the pathway to the pros for women’s cycling is so hard. For me, I was a pretty high-level racer in the U.S., and I just couldn’t get anywhere. There was just not a lot of opportunity. So the idea of using this platform to create a new pathway and to bring people together around the world was too good to pass up.

Photo credit: Zwift
Photo credit: Zwift

So, your background goes from racing to touring at the Tour, to creating pro contracts for women via Zwift, and now being part of creating a women’s version of the Tour de France. That’s a nice closed circle, but how did Zwift end up working with ASO to make it happen?

Stemming from Zwift Academy, we saw such a wonderful opportunity to work with women’s teams and to also create a more inclusive cycling space on Zwift. Because it’s a virtual world, we can help build the future that we want to be a part of. When we launched eSports Worlds and elite racing in Zwift, we did it with complete equality across the board: equal distance, equal broadcasts, equal prize purses. Because why not? And women riders really showed up for it.

When 2020 and the pandemic hit, we started conversations with ASO because they weren’t sure what was going on with the Tour that year. So they’re like, “Let’s do something fun within Zwift.” And of course, we were thrilled to work with the brand behind the Tour de France. So we did a five-stage virtual Tour de France in 2020, with men’s and women’s racing. It was really broadly broadcast on places like Eurosport and GCN, and each day, we switched up the broadcast and swapped men’s and women’s coverage. The viewership was even more engaged for the women because the racing was better! They saw this incredible opportunity to be in front of a global audience. It was super fun, and more importantly, I think that that was the proof that ASO needed to really start those conversations about the fact that it is past time for a real, longer, iconic Tour de France for women. La Course was historic and amazing, but women deserve a bigger stage and a longer race.

The conversation kind of always comes back to the chicken-or-the-egg concept, where there aren’t enough sponsorship dollars or there aren’t advertising dollars to host women’s cycling events. But if we don’t have the races, how can we expect to get sponsorship or advertising? How did Zwift decide to make the leap?

We feel that women’s racing has never been better. It’s the time to introduce the world’s biggest cycling audience to the power and the magic of the women’s pro peloton. There have been a couple of years of stronger investment, some big moves with minimum salaries so women are able to do this more professionally, and the racing is getting better because of the depth of the peloton, the amount of teams and, of course, the race broadcasts we’ve been seeing. So we felt like this was the time to make a big move and to make a big investment to show our support. This comes from years of really believing in the entertainment and the excitement of women’s racing. I think anybody who is investing in women’s cycling right now is getting a big return, because it’s just great business as well.

Do you think Zwift’s younger roots and being U.S.-based helped make sponsoring a women’s Tour a more obvious decision?

Definitely. Honestly, we are already known for being disruptive, for changing the game. And we want to invest in a cycling future that we want to be a part of—and that is one that is inclusive, that has parity, that’s fun for everyone. We’re bringing our ethos to the race, not just putting our name on it. Racing is so often seen as being really gritty, cloudy, kind of dark. But then, for instance, we sponsored the Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift, and it was sunny, and the bright Zwift logo was all over the course, and it just felt like a ray of light. It feels like we’re turning towards a truly bright future for cycling with this energy. It’s fun, but at the same time, we have a deep interest in elevating women’s cycling.

Photo credit: Zwift
Photo credit: Zwift

How do you balance the fun and bright with keeping the “old-school spirit” of road racing alive?

I think it’s OK if it does shift. I think it’s less about us and branding, though, and a lot of it is actually simply shining a light on the superstars of the women’s peloton, because that’s what’s exciting and authentic. They have great energy and killer personalities. The women’s peloton is really vibrant. There’s so much depth, there’s so much dynamism. Many have advanced degrees, other jobs, kids, or even are Olympians in another sport. The storytelling is endless.

And I think Instagram has been one of the best things to happen in women’s cycling, because women could take over their own narrative, and they could use the platform to showcase the inside of the women’s pro peloton. Women are incredible ambassadors for the sport, because they’re relatable, but they’re also superstars. They’re incredible pro athletes, but they are willing to share their story and offer a glimpse into their day-to-day. I think for sponsors, it’s very exciting and it’s a great investment, because they’re just more engaging.

OK, so we’re having this race, the Tour de France Femmes aves Zwift. It’s really happening, which, I’ll be honest, when it got announced last year, I wasn’t sure. We’ve been burned before. Have there been any roadblocks?

Truly, it’s such a good time to launch this that we haven’t had a lot of resistance. Funny enough, most of the grumbling is that it’s “only” eight stages. But anybody on the inside, and anybody who’s ever talked to a Women’s WorldTour rider, knows that you have to build slowly. To launch the race in a sustainable fashion and build year after year is the goal—to ensure that it’s a thrilling race from start to finish, and to ensure that the teams are prepared for it. Compared to the men’s Tour, the women’s teams don’t necessarily all have the budgets to go for three weeks. It takes a huge amount of capital to pull off.

What are you most excited for, being able to be at the Tour to watch this happen in real life?

For the men, do you know what the leader gets on the podium every day? A stuffed lion, because Crédit Lyonnais is the sponsor and the lion is their mascot. I don’t know if you know what the Zwift mascot is… It’s a squirrel. So the best, the most exciting, fun thing I got to do for the race was source a podium squirrel. So we have a giant squirrel that’s going to be given out on each stage for the winner, and I’ll be able to hand it out. I cannot wait. I’m irrationally excited about this.

Photo credit: Zwift
Photo credit: Zwift

Scottie the podium squirrel even has an Instagram profile.

What can viewers expect?

It’s a really well-designed eight days that will really showcase a lot of different strengths. You’ll maybe see a different winner every day. We kept as many iconic sprint stages and QOM stages as possible, but also threw some challenges like gravel segments in there. It’s a really modern race for a modern audience, and that is what is going to draw new investors and new fans.

How can people sort of make it bigger and amplify the message that this race is happening, and help ensure that we get another year of this? What can the viewing public do?

Just tell people that this is happening. It’s about awareness and letting people know that this, the most iconic race in the world, is now stepping into modern times. Let them know that it’s going to be thrilling, it’s going to be great entertainment, and it is a huge moment—not just in women’s cycling, not just in cycling, but in sport. These are the things that change the game. I joke that I’ve been telling strangers on the street about it, and it’s getting awkward. But seriously: The race starts on July 24. And if you go to the Tour website, or if you go to Zwift’s site, you’ll see exactly where it’s broadcast in your region. It’s being widely broadcast for two and a half hours each day with the best coverage. Tune in.

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