In July, a group of 13 women lined up to start riding the entire Tour de France one day ahead. Known as the Donnons des Elles Au Velo J-1, their aim was to highlight the absence of a female equivalent of cycling’s biggest bike race, The Tour de France, and to prove that if 13 amateurs can do it, the pro female peloton is more than capable. Amongst the women (all of whom were amateur cyclists with fulltime jobs) was Spanish sports scientist, Anna Barrero.
In this Q&A interview, Anna chats about the highs and lows of riding 3351km over 3 weeks – including the challenging 1am bedtimes.
Congratulations on completing your Tour one day ahead ride! How did you come to ride for the Donnons des Elles Au Velo J-1 project?
I am a doctor in Sport Sciences and 3 years ago I was working as a scientist collecting medical data during the project (Ed: this is the fourth year of the one day ahead project). When I knew about the goals of the project, which I share, I decided that the following year I wanted to be part of the team as well. So this has been my second Tour de France as a rider and my third as a scientist.
Who were the rest of the riders – were they all amateur cyclists with jobs?
We are all amateurs that have our own normal jobs working 40 hours per week.
What’s your own personal sporting background?
I was competing at the elite level in the Spanish winter triathlon championships (run-bike-cross country skiing) but I left the competition to focus on my academic career.
Part of your role within the group was to seek sponsorship for the ride. Was this a difficult task?
Yes, it was the job of all the riders. It was difficult because there are not many brands willing to invest in women’s sport.
How was your experience riding the Tour one day ahead this year?
It was a magical experience. The Tour de France is the most important cycling event in the world and it is hard. There are difficult moments of course, and it is not easy, but the reward is worth it all the ‘suffering´. You end up having a love/hate relationship with your bike 😉
What’s your favourite memory of your Tour de France ride this year?
The arrival at the Champs Elysees with all my teammates, or seeing my parents and brothers at the top of a climb waiting for me to celebrate my birthday.
How did you prepare for cycling 3351km over three weeks?
I prepared myself from two different perspectives: Strength and endurance. The strength training was mainly to protect my muscles and prevent injuries. And the endurance training was because cycling is indeed an endurance sport.
A typical week looked like two sessions of gym and two cycling interval sessions during the week. Plus two long rides of 100/150kms during the weekend.
You didn’t have the luxury of closed roads like the pros. How did this affect the ride?
That makes a huge change. Not only because it’s dangerous but also because we lose a lot of time at the traffic lights and when there’s traffic jam, which often occurs in the climbs – and that takes up time we could be resting after the stage.
Can you talk through what a typical day on the Tour looked like?
A typical day would be waking up at 6am to do a heart rate variability test for 15 minutes, and after that an echocardiography which takes 40 minutes.
At 7am we had breakfast and got ready to be at the hotel door at 8am to drive to the starting point of the stage. We’d usually start the stages around 8:30am. If there was media attending with us we started later. Depending on the type of terrain, we finished between 5pm if it was a flat stage or around 7/8pm if it was a mountain stage. Mountain stages were long on top of the fact that they were hard, because each of us climbs at a different speed and we wait for all riders at the top of each mountain.
After we arrived at the end of the stage, we would put all the bikes in the truck to drive to the next point. It may take 30 minutes or 1-2 hours depending on the next starting day. We would arrive at the hotel, take a shower, and have dinner around 10pm. At 11pm or midnight we’d repeat all the tests: heart rate variability and echocardiography… and we finally got to go to sleep around 1am, or some days even later.
Which stage did you enjoy the most and which did you find the most challenging?
I especially enjoyed the first one in the mountainous Alps and all those that were in the Pyrenees because it’s ´home´ for me, and I know all these roads. For me, the Pyrenees are special.
The worst stage was the one that finished in “La Rosière” because there I hit the wall. I got gastroenteritis and that left me feeling knocked out.
Physically, what was the most challenging aspect of cycling 3351km?
Physically it’s quite challenging due to the fact that we do not sleep much and that makes us feel devastated. It’s awful the feeling of falling asleep while you’re riding.
It must have been mentally tough at times too?
Yes, when your legs can’t pedal anymore and you just want to stop and sleep, it’s your head that must be the one that makes you push.
What did you eat before and during each stage – did you have to take on a certain number of calories each day?
Before the ride I ate a lot – milk, cereals, fruits, eggs, bread, yogurt, and whatever I had in front of me, lol. During the ride I was eating and drinking according to how I felt. I guess I was eating around 5000 calories a day.
Were you surprised by the level of support you all received from spectators and the media?
Yes, this year has been crazy the amount of support we got. We are all really happy and we hope that this brings about a change [in women’s cycling].
Has the support you’ve received confirmed to you that the public want to see a female Tour de France equivalent?
Did you get any feedback from ASO [owners of The Tour de France] about your ride? Or their thoughts on a future women’s TdF?
Apparently they were not very happy with our project. And for the moment we haven’t heard anything about any women’s Tour de France.
How have you been recovering from your Tour ride?
I just stopped riding my bike completely. I needed that break. I changed it for some hiking which is my other passion.
What’s next for you this year?
This year the idea is to finish analysing all the scientific data we collected during the Tour de France, but the project ran out of funding. For the moment my task is to find that funding in order to be able to finish all the analysis and publish the results in international scientific journals and international conferences. But we haven’t been lucky enough for the moment. If anyone is interested, do not hesitate to contact me!