‘I want people to rethink how they view women’s cycling’

The Hell of the North. The aptly-nicknamed cycling race, formally known as Paris-Roubaix, is contested over the rough terrain, mud and cobblestones of northern France.

It is one of cycling’s oldest races, but female riders were included for the first time only last year. Lizzie Diegnan was the victor of the inaugural women’s race, which was originally slated for April but pushed back to October as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overnight rain had left the cobblestones caked in mud and slippery, with Deignan’s bloodstained handlebars testament to the grueling conditions each rider had to face.

This year’s race, back in its intended slot in April, was very different. The weather was hot and dry, with huge plumes of dust rising from the cobblestones as the cyclists rattled over each sector.

Elisa Longo Borghini was the winner in the absence of her Trek-Segafredo teammate Deignan, who announced she was pregnant with her second child in February.

Keen observers would have also noticed a change in the hoardings and banners throughout the race. This year, the Zwift logo was displayed in eye-catching colors, alongside the slogan “Watch the Women”.

Indeed, the official name of the women’s race is now the Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift. The global online fitness platform became a presenting partner of the event in March, building on the momentum of a groundbreaking investment in the inaugural Tour de France Femmes.

GiveMeSport Women sat down with Zwift’s director of content and women’s strategy Kate Veronneau to find out how the company is changing the shape of women’s cycling.

Veronneau played Division One basketball for Brown University, before becoming a professional cyclist in the United States. She joined Zwift in 2016.

“I was working for a bike tour company that was running trips to the Tour de France,” she explained. “I noticed all my clients that would come on trips were doing this thing called Zwift, on Strava.

“I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I looked them up. And they were in Los Angeles. I was like, ‘this is curious’, so I sent them an email.

“I suggested doing a fun collaboration, doing a Strava challenge with a VIP, all-expenses paid trip to the Tour de France as a prize.

“We did and it worked out great. And I got to know the founders of Zwift, back in the early days. I became friends with them, and started riding bikes with them.

“Next thing you know, they came to me and they said, ‘Hey, we’re having this program we’re going to do this summer called Zwift Academy, and we think you might be a really good fit for it.'”

The inaugural Zwift Academy, which focused on female cyclists, was a talent identification program for the professional women’s cycling team Canyon – SRAM.

“Being in the position to create some opportunities, creating a new pathway to the professional stage was really exciting,” Veronneau said. “So I joined Zwift in 2016. And that program, that first year, we had like 1000 women join. It was very exciting. ”

Zwift has since gone from strength to strength – Veronneau revealed around 150,000 male and female cyclists were involved in the latest edition of the Zwift Academy.

The online fitness platform soared in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented millions of cycling enthusiasts around the world from taking to the roads. Instead, they turned to Zwift.

“They found community, they found connection, they found group rides, they found fun races,” Veronneau said.

“So, I think a lot of people that would never have tried Zwift, did, and it was a way for people in a hard time to connect and to find people to ride with, just from the comfort of your home. It was incredible. ”

Veronneau explained why women in particular took to Zwift with enthusiasm.

Cyclist using online fitness platform Zwift

“I feel women really take more advantage of the social side of the platform, of being able to connect with other cyclists and just having people to ride with.

“Most cycling communities are male dominated. So to have a place where they feel safe, welcomed, encouraged, supported, they can ask all the questions that we all have when you first start riding, is so powerful. ”

It was during the pandemic that the relationship between Zwift and the Amaury Sport Organization, the company in charge of the Paris-Roubaix and Tour de France, began to develop.

With the uncertainty shrouding the 2020 Tour de France, Zwift and the ASO hosted a virtual five-stage competition featuring the top World Tour teams, both male and female. Veronneau believes this event proved there was significant interest in women’s cycling.

“The best part about it is, on Zwift we have always believed in a complete parity, because we’re a virtual platform,” she said. “We do whatever we want, we can make our own rules, so there was always equal prizes, equal broadcast, equal distance for men and women.

“We switched up the broadcast every day. Some days the men would start first, some days the women would start first, and the audience was the same.

“People were really interested in women’s racing. And honestly the women’s racing was actually better. They had been on Zwift more and the format of the races was shorter, so there was more attacking style and aggressive style.

“The races for the Tour de France Virtual were so exciting, and I think it just proved the concept that we could do this. It showed that women’s cycling deserved a stage, and it should be taken beyond Zwift. ”

From there emerged the partnerships with the Paris-Roubaix Femmes and Tour de France Femmes, the first ever edition of which is scheduled for July 24th to 31st.

Veronneau was present at this year’s Paris-Roubaix Women with Zwift, soaking up the atmosphere at the start and finish line.

“I learned that there is a real desire, a real interest in women’s racing,” she said. “It was so much fun walking around, and seeing people waiting outside team buses to take photos of their cycling heroes.

“It’s going in the right direction. I think that anything we can do to shine a light on the personalities, the passion, and the power of the peloton is going to really reinforce that. ”

“So many races, sponsors, and industries are stepping up to put their support behind women because they truly believe in it.

“They truly are starting to believe in athletes and believe in entertainment. It’s a great sport to watch, it’s just a great sporting event. So, I think it’s only going to go up from here. It’s really exciting. ”

Zwift are doing their bit to promote the personalities of female riders through the New Rules campaign, which celebrates the unique and dynamic nature of women’s cycling.

“I want people to rethink how they think about women’s cycling,” Veronneau enthused. “To think of it as a fantastic new sport, to get to know the personalities and their teams, and to appreciate how much it has to offer the sport and the future.

“I want every little girl watching and thinking that they have no limit to their cycling dreams. When they see women lining up for the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift this summer, they’re going to realize that’s something they can dream of doing. ”

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