The return of the women’s Tour de France is making waves in Minnesota

The women’s Tour de France opens on Sunday in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In the minds of some with an interest in the race, the athletes will also race through Minnesota.

Circuit Sport, an Edina-based sports management company with a long history of managing professional cyclists, has a team of six women on the field. The Human Powered Health team is one of 24 teams on the tour, which is weighted significantly on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sunday’s stage race brings a new air of legitimacy to the women, whose track history is mixed over nearly half a century, while the men have grabbed the headlines. The first attempt at a women’s equivalent was in 1955. Almost three decades later, a women’s event ran alongside the men’s circuit from 1984. The Société du Tour de France, then organizer of the men’s race, put on a shorter version for women called the Tour de France Féminin (Female). This lasted until 1989.

Incarnations of the event occurred until 2009, with different organizers and inconsistent race durations, due to lack of interest, sponsors and money. Later, the women’s opportunity was reduced to a single one-day race. Finally, under pressure, Amaury Sport Organisation, the organizer of the men’s tour, launched a timed race called La Course in 2014, preparing the ground for the return of a full women’s Tour de France.

Women’s climbing is also a breakthrough for Charles Aaron, who owns and operates Circuit Sport. Aaron formed the first professional cycling team based in Minnesota 15 years ago.

His first team, KBS/Medifast, was a men’s team made up of American and Canadian riders. Its lead sponsor was Kelly Benefit Strategies (KBS) in Sparks, Md., an insurance broker, and Medifast, creators of a diet plan. He started racing his first women’s team in 2012.

Team names have changed to accommodate shifting sponsorships over the years – Optum Pro Cycling preceded Rally Cycling, which became Human Powered Health this year – but this fleeting aspect belies the long-term support that helped Aaron and his team achieve a long held dream.

“There are so many relationships,” said Aaron, a St. Louis Park native, citing business mentors, friends and support from Minnesota companies like UnitedHealth Group.

Now it has men’s and women’s teams racing across North America and Europe. Through June, the women have one win, seven podium finishes and 26 top 15s, and have more than two months left in their season on the Women’s World Tour, which consists of the top 15 teams.

Closer to home and in recent years Aaron’s teams have had regular success at the Nature Valley Grand Prix which, until 2017 and with its road and road races and time trials, was a summer rendezvous in the metropolitan area. It was the main event of the Great River Energy Bicycle Festival founded by David LaPorte and a major event on the American cycling calendar. Some of America’s best cyclists were regulars. It was something of a showcase for Kelly Catlin, the late Arden Hills cyclist who rode for Aaron and found Olympic glory. She was part of a quartet that won a silver medal in the team pursuit in 2016 at the Rio Games.

With success came scale. Aaron has nearly 90 staff dedicated to the human health squads and their busy schedules. The base of operations is now in Girona, Spain, closer to the action.

“To have this [women’s tour] to come back, to be a part of it, is an incredible historic milestone for everyone involved here [at Circuit Sport]”said Aaron, who left for Paris on Wednesday. “I’m really excited.”

His team’s breakthrough came this year. Circuit Sport applied to the Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body for cycling, and secured a spot on the Women’s World Tour. The Tour de France, or Tour de France Femmes (Women), is one of 22 races.

Aaron said the Women’s World Tour has more organization and strength than in recent years, sort of synergizing with the rejuvenation of the Women’s Tour.

“It was about time,” Aaron said. “Change is definitely better for everyone.”

Does a women’s Tour de France resonate with Minnesota’s cycling community of road racers?

“Absolutely,” said Jenny Beckman, 33, a Gear West employee in Long Lake who organized the race team for popular ski and bike shop, Pretty Fast. “It’s a topic on the band text for sure.”

Beckman found out about the women’s event using Zwift, a popular online platform for cyclists. Zwift is the main sponsor of the tour.

Beckman said news shouldn’t be framed as men versus women — riders want to see other riders at the top of their game, no matter who’s in the saddle.

“Moving more towards inclusivity and representation is super important,” she added. “How do you expect him to grow anywhere… if you don’t show what success at the highest level can look like for both [men and women]? Why would they go there? You need these ambitious stories.”

The women’s Tour de France will take place in eight stages over eight days and 642 miles. (Men have 21 stages.) The longest day is 109 miles in stage five, setting up some severe mountain stages.

Aaron’s women’s team – one of three Americans – has had Olympic-caliber cyclists over the years and it continues in France. In fact, the only American runner on the team, Lily Williams, picked up a bronze medal in the track team pursuit at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

The men’s Tour de France ends on Sunday, in sync with the women’s launch. Aaron’s goal is to one day see his burnt orange Human Powered Health kit also in the men’s realm.

For now, he will let this step take the plunge.

“It’s going to be a very emotional day for me. We’re not just representing Minnesota, we’re representing the United States.

“Chase your dreams – that’s the message here,” he said.

About Walter J. Leslie

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