AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Top world sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics have men's and women's competitions. But cycling's most prestigious race, the Tour de France, which begins Saturday, has no women's competition. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley met a group of cyclists who are riding to change that.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Early this morning in the town of Evry about 20 miles south of Paris, two large vans were being loaded with bicycles, gear and equipment.
BEARDSLEY: Thirteen amateur cyclists - all women - were getting ready to head off to the west coast island of Noirmoutier where the Tour de France begins this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHEELS SPINNING)
BEARDSLEY: Marine Thieubault showed her high-tech bike which weighs just 16 pounds.
MARINE THIEUBAULT: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "It's light and resistant because it's made of carbon," she says, "so it's going to climb very well. And it has electronic, not mechanical gears."
BEARDSLEY: These women will make the same grueling climbs up the Alps and Pyrenees as the men. They'll ride the same treacherous cobblestones of Roubaix, all three weeks, 2,000 miles of it, one day ahead of the men. They start Friday, not Saturday. And they'll have to contend with traffic because the roads won't be closed off. Their tour is not a race that pits one rider against the other, says Claire Floret, who began the venture four years ago.
CLAIRE FLORET: (Through interpreter) We consider it a sporting adventure but also an activist and human adventure. We're trying to get our message out about the need for a women's tour, so we ride together. We have to be in shape because it's very difficult. But we also have to be engaged activists.
BEARDSLEY: These riders say there are not enough opportunities for female cyclists in France. The Giro d'Italia has a women's race, even if it's shorter than the men's. Mathieu Islet is a trainer for this team. He says cycling and its prejudices are entrenched in France, and there's more equality in places where the sport is newer.
MATHIEU ISLET: In the U.K., United States, Australia, there's many race for women professional.
BEARDSLEY: France is behind.
ISLET: Yes. In France, it's an old country for cycling, but women don't practice cycling in competition.
BEARDSLEY: Islet says things are changing. Every year, this group has more riders, sponsors and fans. Some 400 cyclists, women and men, rode along on many stages to support the team last year. Ukrainian rider Tetiana Kalachova says she feels buoyed by the fans.
TETIANA KALACHOVA: When you come to the mountains, you climb, and you have all these people cheering you up, believing in you. And even if though you don't have any more force, you just push on. You just stand up and finish that. So it's enormous source of energy. It's a great feeling.
BEARDSLEY: The head of the Tour de France said recently that a standalone women's tour is almost inevitable, and the French president of the International Cycling Union said he wants to see a women's Tour de France in place before his term is up in 2021. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.