The InternationElles: Breaking down barriers in women’s sport

In 2019, a team of female cyclists from around the world came together to cycle every stage of the Tour de France route, the day before the professionals. That’s 21 days in the saddle, 3,460km and over 54,000m of elevation all with relatively little support!

We spoke to Helen Sharp, one of the courageous InternationElles, to learn more about this heroic feat, the importance of calling for gender equality in sport and her training tips for newbies and old-hands alike.

Helen Sharp by Mona Pantel

How long have you been cycling? What about the sport keeps you in it year after year?

I took up cycling about seven years ago. I used to run quite a lot but was frequently injured. I started to do more yoga and Pilates – but I missed the cardio high from running. I took up spinning first and then bought a bike to get outside!

There is so much about the sport that keeps me engaged. The physical challenge helps me set and achieve goals whilst the many types of cycling provide many new challenges. I recently bought a gravel bike and there is a lot of joy that comes from being a beginner again, exploring different routes and having no expectations on speed or distance!

The freedom and the mental release you get from cycling is an incredible stress buster. It is also such a community sport. I have been very fortunate to meet lots of people who inspire me. You also meet lots of different people and it is great to rub shoulders with people you might otherwise not have met.

Things are changing slowly but cycling events tend to be dominated by male cyclists; has this affected you personally in training and racing? What would your advice be to women specifically who are thinking of taking up the sport?

Male-dominated events are the norm so the default expectation is you’ll be in the minority as a woman. Personally, I try to enter events that are trying to make the sport more accessible to women and other groups that are less present in cycling.

For women looking to get involved, I recommend joining a cycling club. There are mixed groups, female-only, fitness focussed, socially-minded – join something that suits you and your goals. It should always be fun. Try not to worry about male-dominated events and what everyone else is doing when you first start out. Know why you are on the start line – adventure, health, explore the countryside, realise your athletic potential – and be confident with it.

For your first race or group session, it can be helpful to go with someone – to help pin your number on, give you some encouragement or to ride together and share the nerves!

Also, it must be said, there are a lot of great men in the sport who are encouraging and supportive. By and large, cyclists are a friendly bunch.

How did you get involved with the InternationElles? Why was it important for you to be part of such an active conversation starter on women’s sport?

A French team Donnons des Elles au Vélo have been riding the route of the tour, one day ahead for five years (now six after the summer). The InternationElles was setup as part of this umbrella project. I was invited after someone dropped out – I found out in March that I would be riding the route of the Tour in July!

Beyond a sense of adventure and personal athleticism, our three core goals were:

  • To influence positive healthy behaviours and change mindsets about what can be achieved. We wanted to inspire anyone, regardless of gender, to get on their bikes and explore this great sport.
  • To highlight the inequalities that exist in women’s cycling and to raise awareness – a lot of people assume there is a female equivalent of Tour de France and that they just haven’t seen it.
  • To start the conversation and lobby for change. We have seen with the Lionesses that there is demand to watch women’s sport and that it can have commercial value. We want professional female cyclists to have the same platform and opportunities to race as men.

Ultimately, there are great things happening in women’s cycling but any cyclist will know that with its history and ability to transcend sport – the Tour de France is the classic and we would like women to have the opportunity to race a true equivalent, in France.

What did your training look like for such a mega-feat? How do you balance training load with work and life?

I had done the Haute Route Oman in 2019 and so despite signing up late, I had a good fitness base. I work with a coach to make the most out of the time available and fit indoor turbo sessions in the week around work. With long rides at the weekend, I totalled around 10-15 hours a week on the bike – plus a little strength and flexibility work in the run up to July.

Generally with training, and to add balance, I try to make sure that one of my weekend rides is a social ride. Switching the focus from numbers to chats with friends and good coffee gives you a bit of mental rest whilst still spinning the legs. I also cycle Audaxes from time to time. These are self-supported ride where you follow a route with checkpoints. It is a fun way to explore different parts of the UK and get yourself prepped for the longer sportives.

For a long day in the saddle, what do you eat on an average day?

An average day riding the route of the tour was about 200km. We actually weren’t counting calories but just trying to eat a lot. I have the added challenge that I am is coeliac.

An average day started with a big bowl of overnight oats, milk, chia seeds, almond butter sachets – and terrible instant coffee! On the bike, we devoured endless bananas and bars. I tend to eat fruit bars and flapjacks that I know are gluten-free and that I eat all the time in my training. We also had extra carbs and electrolytes in our bottles. We made sandwiches at the side of the road for lunch and took anything cold to cool us down! Dinner was more of the same; sometimes eating out at restaurants, sometime cooked for by our hosts where we were staying and sometimes making our own dinner.

What was the highlight for you? And the toughest part?

The highlight was absolutely the team. I looked at the rest of the girls and I was just so inspired. We laughed a lot, taking the mick out of each other on a daily basis. Despite most of us being strangers, we rode really well together and strong bonds were formed!

I had a really good day when we rode the Tourmalet (the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees). I felt really good, got into a great rhythm and had a beautiful climb. The scenery on a daily basis took your mind off the riding and seeing so many parts of France was really quite special.

The toughest part was riding through a heat wave and getting food down. And no toilets! One day, I felt terrible. Everyone had gone ahead and I had that horrible feeling most cyclists are familiar with – that I am never going to catch the group. That day was also supposed to be an easy day relatively speaking so mentally I struggled. I felt much better after my teammates stuffed me with food at lunch to pick up my energy levels.

What are your tricks for gritting it through the tougher moments?

I had previously taken part in a 330km UK ride so I knew I was capable of each day’s distance. This gave me some foundation for mental fortitude.

That said, backing together that many days in the saddle was one of the toughest things I have ever done. Working as a team was invaluable. We would drop back to pull people to the group and we learnt what to say to encourage each other. One particularly tough day, a teammate gave me permission to get in the van – this was all the encouragement I needed to do anything I could to avoid that!

When I ride alone, I focus on my pedal stroke. Playing around with maths – converting miles to kilometres or calculating remaining distance and time – helps pass the time. Sometimes distraction is key.

What did you learn from so long in the saddle that will stand you in good stead for future events and races?

Knowing I got through this experience gives me confidence for whatever I come up against. To be honest, all events, no matter the distance, help build self-trust and confidence. Whether it is your first ride around the block or the Tour de France, take the small successes and bank them!

Whatever your gender, it is impossible to not be inspired by your efforts. For the new cyclists out there, what would be your top tip in getting ready for your first sportive?

Start with a manageable goal and build from there. You want to pick something challenging enough to motivate you but not something that is so hard you give up or don’t enjoy it.

For people who have been in the sport longer, trust the process and try to train where you are at. After a break, you must adjust your expectations. Take baby steps and with patience, your fitness will come back. Each year is different so try not to make comparisons. I am finding I am having to remind myself of this a lot at the moment as I took about 4 months away from training after coming back from France. Also, whilst training data provides great indicators to your fitness and performance, also look at general indicators like how you feel, what your breathing is doing, level of comfort etc. You will always nearly feel better after a training session. This is why we ride after all!

Stay tuned because the InternationElles are riding again in 2020

Feeling inspired? You can watch the full Attacus Taking on the Tour documentary here.

Entries are still open for Dragon Ride and L’Etape UK. Let’s make 2020 the most balanced, diverse field yet!