When Amaury Sport Organization offered Marion Rousse the job of Director of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift she accepted the role without hesitation, and now she is overseeing the rebirth of the race as it continues its journey from Paris to the peak of La Super Planche des Belles Filles.
Rousse, a former French National Road Race champion and Lotto-Soudal racer, has always been keen to see a development in women’s professional cycle racing. During her racing days most had to work alongside their sporting careers so she is thrilled to see the evolution and increasing professionalism in recent years. By holding and televising the Tour de France Femmes with Zwift, she can be part of the step to normalizing women’s cycle racing and inspiring the next generation of racers.
Rousse spoke with Cyclingnewsreflecting on her role with the Tour de France Femmes, which is running from July 24 to 31, and the part it has to play in the evolution of the sport.
cyclingnews: How did you get into bike racing?
Marion Rousse: Well I’ve been in cycling all my life as I was born into a cycling family. My cousins raced professionally, and my father was a first category rider. As a baby I would watch him at races on the roadside from my buggy. When I was six I had enough of cheering from the sidelines so I announced to him that I wanted to get into cycling.
My father wasn’t in favor of it at first as he felt I was too young and it would be too hard for me. So, one day, while my father was at work my mum signed me up for a race on the sly. Then when my dad returned from work and I showed him my racing licence, he laughed and said, “Okay you can race but I’m telling you now, we won’t be going to races every weekend.” I did my first race the following weekend, and I did more races after that. Eventually, my father became my coach and he accompanied me to all my races after that.
CN: So you were passionate about cycling?
MR: Yes. When I was growing up I was always watching bike races on TV with the family. There wasn’t a single televised race that I missed – whether it was Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de France or Tour of Flanders. Roubaix was special for me because I was in a cycling academy and I did all my championship races at the velodrome in Roubaix.
I grew up in a village near Valenciennes, not far from the early sectors of pavement on the Paris-Roubaix route, so I would go out and ride some of them with my dad.
CN: So do you wish you could have competed in the Paris-Roubaix Femmes?
MR: Yes, I would have liked to do it, even if it is a poisoned chalice as it is nevertheless the most difficult race in the world. I think I would have loved doing it, as much as I would have hated doing it! But it’s sure I would have still been on the start line to do it if I had the chance – which is how a lot of cyclists feel about it.
CN: Why did you retire from professional cycle racing when you were still only 25 years old?
MR: I raced at a time when women’s cycling was not as developed as it is now. There were big differences in the level of racing between the racers. A few who were very strong, had higher salaries and won prize money, and then there was everyone else – and most of us had to work in order to supplement our salaries.
I did different little jobs, including podium girl, then I got the opportunity to be a commentator for a few cycle races on TV. Initially I tried to do both commenting and racing, but I found it hard to juggle both, so I began to reconsider my future given that at the time I already had a 20-year career in cycle racing and thousands of kilometers in my legs. I was enjoying the media work so much that I thought maybe this is the moment to turn the page and move in a new direction. I must say, I don’t regret that decision.
CN: Do you miss being a professional bike racer?
MR: Well, once I have done something I tend not to look back much. My character is to move on without looking back and wishing I was doing what I used to do. I’m not nostalgic. Even if I’m not part of the exciting racing that is going on now in the women’s peloton, I really love commenting on it for France Television, knowing that the racing is reaching a wide audience. Women’s cycling has developed a lot.
Rather than saying “Damn, I didn’t have the opportunity to do this or that when I was a racer,” I’d rather focus on moving forward.
CN: How has cycle racing changed since the time when you were a professional?
MR: When I raced there was a massive difference in level among the women. A couple of teams did their riders well – although that was quite rare in the women’s peloton. So because of that you had a few paid professionals racing alongside others who were practically amateurs. Whereas now, because of the evolution in women’s racing there is a more level playing field than before. It’s not always the same women winning. It’s not easy to predict who will win, as the competition is at a much higher level than when I raced.
The professionalism in women’s racing is now commonplace, where it previously wasn’t. It’s great that we now have things like the minimum salary, but it’s a shame that we had to wait so long for this to happen.
Even if I know we still have some way further to go in the development of women’s racing I am optimistic about the future and look forward to more positive things for women’s cycling and women’s sport in general.
CN: Why did you accept the role of Director of the Tour de France Femmes?
MR: Well, I never imagined that I would be doing this, although I must also say I never imagined working in television either or other things.
When Christian (Prudhomme) called me to say he was really thinking of me for the role of Director of the Tour de France Femmes, and he asked if I’d be interested, I accepted the offer without hesitation. It’s an amazing role that I am proud of. Cycling has brought me so much, so if I can bring something to cycling in my role, I will do it with my heart.
In accepting the role, I had to know that Amaury Sports Organization were treating the Tour de France Femmes with Zwift with the same attention as they do with Tour de France – not just doing the race for the sake of it. They needed to really want to do it, and I hope that young girls can watch this race and be inspired to become a cycle racer.
CN: How have your previous roles helped you in this role of TDFF Director?
MR: Well, I have worn various caps in the world of cycling. I haven’t just come from nowhere when doing this role. Working in the media with France Television, means I know the media side of things as well. Then I stepped into the world of event organizing, being Assistant Director of the Tour de la Provence. I learned the various aspects – having meetings with the town councils, identifying sponsors, designing routes and many other things. So my experience in organizing the Tour de la Provence helped me in quickly assimilating into the role as Tour de France Femmes director.
Also having been a racer I know the difficulties in women’s cycle racing. I raced at a time when women’s racing was a lot less developed, so I am very aware of the path that we have traveled to get to where we are today. So I know what it means for women’s cycling and women’s sport to have a specific Women’s Tour de France for us.
CN: Why is it important to have the Tour de France Femmes with Zwift when there are already big women’s races, including stage races?
MR: Yes, there are more and more important races for women, like Flèche Wallonne, Tour of Flanders, Giro Donne, and last year for the first time there was the Paris-Roubaix, which was brilliant to watch and even got really good viewing figures.
But we were missing a stage race of reference for women. Well, the most beautiful cycle race in the world is the Tour de France, which is such a big race that goes beyond sport and resonates so much for the sport of cycling. So having a women’s Tour de France is the best thing that can happen. Amaury Sports Organization is treating it in exactly the same way as they do with the men’s Tour de France. This is the best thing that can happen for women’s sport.
CN: Which stages are you looking forward to?
MR: Well, all the stages will be interesting given that we marked out the route in such a way that each type of rider could potentially win a stage. There are stages for sprinters, all-rounders, punchy riders, and climbers. It’s true that the stage to Bar-sur-Aube is exceptional for a Tour de France race, having the appearance of a Classics race in July! In fact, that there has never been such a long stretch of unmade road included in the men’s Tour de France.
So I am very excited to see how things go over these 13km of “strade bianche”. The stage will be difficult because these “strade bianche” are preceded by steep roads. So it will be the stage with a lot of complications because you have to be strong on those roads. It will be a touch and go in terms of keeping your position on the General Classification during this stage. A lot can happen during this stage.
For this stage, I would be looking at Lotte Kopecky, Annemieke Van Vleuten, Kasia Nieuwiadoma, or Elisa Balsamo. Although it might be a bit tough for Balsamo given the steepness of the climbs.
CN: Who do you think will really shine over the eight days of the Tour de France Femmes?
MR: Well, I think Van Vleuten won’t be far off the top of the GC for sure. Then there’s Elisa Longo Borghini, and Marianne Vos. I think Vos will be present on quite a few of the stages as she does well on all types of terrain. So it’s women like her who are going to make it a spectacle, and show that women racing bikes is a normal thing. For me, Marianne Vos has been one of the greatest ambassadors for our sport.
CN: Do you feel you, as a woman, that you had to work harder in your roles within a male-dominated environment?
MR: Well, I am comfortable in the jobs I have done, and I just get on with my work without thinking whether I am a man or a woman. I’ve always been keen to move up the ladder, but I also think that if I move up it was because I have worked and proven myself. It’s not because the organization was just looking to have a woman in place, but because I knew what I was talking about and I had earned my place.
So the best reply I can give to people who are stuck on the fact that a woman shouldn’t be on a bike, or in cycling, I don’t have anything to say to them, and it is through my work – be it the Tour de France Femmes or other activities – that we deserve our presence. We have nothing to explain because we are in our well-deserved places and we do our jobs well. It’s up to the cynics to change their opinions, rather than us needing to explain anything to them.
CN: What advice would you give to women who would like to become a professional cycle racer?
MR: Well, I think that the Tour de France could serve a role in inspiring little girls to want to have a go at racing at this level. They will switch on the TV and see women on a bike, and they may even say to themselves “well I could have a go at that too” and they won’t pose themselves the question about whether they can do it or not. By staging and televising the Tour de France Femmes with Zwift we are showing that it is possible to do bike racing, and it is perfectly normal to see women’s cycle racing on TV.
So my advice would be that women should go out and do exactly the thing that they love and not get a complex about having a go at it, be it cycling, rugby, or any other sport. Do whatever you want to do.