PARIS (AP) — Finally, the Tour de France is giving women a more visible role than just congratulating the male riders during cycling's marquee event.
On July 27, the race will stage "La Course by Le Tour de France" — a one-day women's race that will take place just hours before Tour riders race on the same circuit to finish the three-week event on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.
The International Cycling Union announced the event Saturday as part of its 2014 racing calendar. The Amaury Sport Organization, which organizes the Tour, said it aims to make the women's competition "one of the most decisive races of the season."
"Women's races have had financial difficulties — little television exposure, little media fallout and, as a result, few sponsors," UCI sport director Philippe Chevallier said. "We are working hard so that will change."
Until now, the 110-year-old Tour has been almost exclusively a male preserve, with women sometimes employed as team staffers or on the winners' podium handing out flowers.
Several women's races have collapsed in recent years, most of them plagued by poor funding and promotion. A "Tour Feminin" event in France has not been staged since 2009.
A group of cyclists, including Olympic gold medalist and road race world champion Marianne Vos of the Netherlands, launched a petition last summer to push for a professional women's race in parallel to the Tour de France over the same distances.
"There was a petition, which I found inappropriate by the way, during the Tour de France," Tour director Christian Prudhomme told The Associated Press by telephone.
"After the Tour, in September, October, a delegation of (women's) champions came to see me, led by Marianne Vos," Prudhomme said. "What they asked us was for a bit of spotlight, they insisted upon the fact that women's cycling does not get enough media coverage and only this event — and only organization ASO — could help them to get more coverage for their race."
Vos said she was "delighted" about the announcement of "La Course" event.
"I am particularly happy to take part, especially thinking about the majestic finish on the Champs-Elysées," she said in a statement provided by Tour organizers. "The birth of this race is a revolutionary development in our sport. The Tour is the pinnacle of professional cycling ... (and this) could open up a new era for women's cycling."
U.S. rider Evelyn Stevens, who in 2012 won the Route de France Feminine — the only major women's stage race in France — called the development "a great step for women's cycling."
"Hopefully it will be the beginning of even more races alongside the Tour for women, and I hope it even encourages races in the USA," Stevens told the AP. "It is really exciting to see how women's cycling is just continuing to grow and I am very enthusiastic and appreciative to have the chance to race on the Champs-Elysées. As a cyclist, it is something to watch and dream about."
Still, Prudhomme expressed some reservations about running the two races at the same time, pointing out the logistical difficulties along with security challenges.
"It's complicated," he said. "We're totally incapable, logistically and technically, to run two events at the same time, whatever they may be. We don't know how to do it, (so) we'll have to wait to see what happens."
AP Sports Writers Jerome Pugmire in Paris and Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.