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Three Portland women to tackle Tour de France route

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The Tour de France is the ultimate stage in all of pro cycling; but it’s a stage where only men stand.

What would happen if a team of women with regular jobs and just a little racing experience upstaged the men and rode the exact same route a day before them (all 3,479 kilometers/2,162 miles of it)? This summer we’ll found out.

In July, a team of six women — including three from Portland — will attempt an epic challenge that will pit them against the legendary mountain passes that make up the world’s most famous bike race. Rêve, a company that specializes in taking “teams” of riders on the exact same route of the Tour the pros ride, is behind the event. They’ve partnered with the pro cycling lifestyle and culture publication, peloton magazine (it’s always lowercase they tell me) and the ride will benefit national advocacy org Bikes Belong.

“To be honest, I think that this is an interesting challenge regardless of gender and I think that’s what makes it powerful. If we continue and drive the ongoing national discussion about women on bikes (and I expect we will) by providing one more point of visibility and a story that is compelling, all the better.”
— Heidi Swift

“The Rêve women’s team will ride the complete 2012 Tour de France route,” reads the official announcement released this morning, “proving to themselves, other female cyclists, and women thinking about taking up the sport, that any bicycle dream is possible.”

Three Portlanders — BTA staffer Susan Peithman, freelance writer/photographer Heidi Swift, and dental hygienist Jennifer Cree — will be on the team. They’ll join Santa Rosa, California bike shop owner Kym Fant (who graces the cover of this month’s Bicycling Magazine) and Maria del Pilar Vasquez, a recent Paris-Brest-Paris finisher from Puerto Rico. To learn more about how this all came about, and what impact it might have on women’s cycling in America, I emailed a few questions to Ms. Swift earlier today…

You were big on this idea from the start. Why?

It’s true. Michael Robertson [of Reve Tours] and I were eating dinner together during the Lululemon-Specialized team training camp in Carlsbad in December when he brought this idea up. I was immediately interested and went back to my hotel room that night to call my partners at peloton magazine to see if they would get behind it. Everyone was into it – absolutely no hesitations – so we decided to go for it. For me, it was kind of a no-brainer.

If someone asks you if you want to go to France and ride your bike for three weeks while being completely taken care of the entire time, you say yes. The fact that it’s the Tour de France route just ups the ante. It’s crazy and hard and, yes, there’s a chance we might not be able to finish all 3479 kilometers, but that’s what makes it interesting. How many chances do you get to attempt something of this magnitude? Not many.

Besides the fundraising for Bikes Belong, how do you think the ride (and accompanying media coverage) will help women’s cycling in the U.S.?

To be honest, I think that this is an interesting challenge regardless of gender and I think that’s what makes it powerful. If we continue and drive the ongoing national discussion about women on bikes (and I expect we will) by providing one more point of visibility and a story that is compelling, all the better.

That said, I think this project will really resonate with women. In the summer of 2010 I did a lot of solo touring. I rode all around Central and Eastern Oregon and then rode up to Canada past Whistler. I camped for most of that trip and spent very long days on the road by myself. I was lucky enough to be able to write a few columns for the Oregonian about it and the response really shocked me: women of every age and background contacted me about the adventure with questions or personal stories about things they’d always wanted to do but had put off for various reasons. I corresponded with women about what it’s like to ride alone, how to prepare physically and financially and the realities of being safe in the world.

What struck me most about that trip, those stories and those interactions was that the appeal was pretty universal – some of the women actually wanted to do a solo bike tour but some of them wanted to fly planes or simply take a long roadtrip in a car. Regardless, the more universal idea of planning and then actually doing some big “life dream” type adventure really resonated. I think similar principles will apply here. Also, I know that for me personally, when I see someone doing something really challenging, it always inspires me to question my own assumptions about what I’m capable of.

This ride seems like it will appeal mostly to competitive/race-oriented women, but Bikes Belong’s work focuses mostly on getting more women to ride for everyday errands and transportation. Do you think the appeal of this ride will cross-over from racing into more commuter-oriented bike fans?

It’s important to note that our ride is not a race – more like a very long, supported cyclo-tour. Most of us have a little racing experience and one of our team members is a PBP finisher, but this is not a competitive event – I think that will broaden the appeal beyond racing circles. By all counts, I am a very mediocre bike rider – the idea here is to challenge notions about what is possible. This challenge is undeniably huge, but probably attainable. Maybe it’s not – maybe I will step off my bike and cry and get in a support car – either way, it will be a good story.

As someone who likes to ride bikes for both sport and commuting purposes, I continue to be interested in how the industry and advocates can find ways to work together and I’m particularly inspired by Tim Johnson’s work with Bikes Belong. Seeing a professional racer step up to take on advocacy and give some visibility to those efforts is refreshing. I think it’s important for more racers, recreational and competitive riders to get involved with advocacy efforts. As for women, we have been called an “indicator species” for cycling and I think, especially in the past few years, the cycling world has really begun to realized that supporting the movement to get more women on bikes is absolutely critical. As far as I’m concerned, the more exposure the better.

How can people follow along with the trip and read/see more about it?

I’ll be posting weekly to peloton magazine’s website (exact location on the site is TBD, but I can let you know when it’s confirmed) with introductions of team members as well as updates about our progress, training and inevitable emotional meltdowns. I will also post updates daily from France, though these will definitely be short! Michael Robertson will also document his side of the process on the Reve blog and Cannondale, Bikes Belong and other partners will likely have some ongoing coverage, but peloton magazine is the central location to keep an eye on.

Similar to pro racer Tim Johnson’s Ride on Washington (which is also in support of Bikes Belong), this Tour tour has the potential to grab people’s attention and imagination. I’m looking forward to following along.

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