'An absolutely beautiful moment': How the inaugural Tour de France Femmes can change women's cycling

    The 2022 Tour de France Femmes is the first official women's Tour de France in 33 years.

    (CNN)It seems somewhat of an understatement to call the Tour de France a bike race.

    It transcends cycling, shutting down every mountain pass, village, town and city it passes through, drawing huge crowds along the roadside like some kaleidoscopic carnival.
    But -- except for a brief period between 1984 and 1989 -- women have been excluded from these festivities and, therefore, a place at the very pinnacle of the sport.
      "The biggest race that most people have ever heard of ... is the Tour de France," pro cyclist Ayesha McGowan tells CNN Sport.
        "And so whenever I tell people what I do ... they would always ask, 'Oh, like ... you ride in the Tour de France?' And I'd have to inform them that women didn't currently have a Tour de France. But now I don't have to do that anymore."
        On Sunday, the same day as the men's race finished, the inaugural edition of the Tour de France Femmes began beside the Eiffel Tower in Paris as the women's peloton set out on its own eight-day odyssey across France.
        The Tour de France Femmes began in Paris on Sunday.
        This week, it winds its way eastwards through the vineyards and gravel roads of Champagne, climbs mountains reaching altitudes of more than 1,000 meters, and finishes atop La Planche des Belles Filles -- a wooded mountain with upper slopes rearing upwards at a frighteningly steep gradient of 24%.

          'A rebirth'

          The road to the Tour de France Femmes began in September 1955 when French sports journalist Jean Leulliot launched a five-day women's race won by the Isle of Man's Millie Robinson.
          A sequel was not held until 1984 when it assumed a different form, this time stamped with the Tour de France's official seal.
          "In France, they didn't think we would finish," Marianne Martin, the eventual winner of the 1984 Tour de France Féminin, tells CNN Sport from the banks of the River Seine in Paris.
          "That was the word on the street or that was the overall feeling. And of course, we all knew that we would."
          Six national teams, each comprised of six riders, started the race and Martin completed the 18-day, 1059-kilometer (658-mile) route the fastest -- a feat for which she received $1,000 while Laurent Fignon -- the winner of the men's race that year -- won over $225,000.
          Marianne Martin stands on the podium in Paris with Laurent Fignon in 1984.
          The Tour de France Féminin survived until 1989 when it was discontinued and replaced by an unofficial race that, in time, dwindled down to four stages and was eventually scrapped in 2009.
          Four years later, professional cyclists Kathryn Bertine, Emma Pooley, Chrissie Wellington and Marianne Vos formed a pressure group to lobby race organizers ASO and distributed a petition that gathered almost 97,000 signatures, calling for a women's race "running in conjunction with the men's event ... over the same distances, on the same days."
          Responding to this increasing pressure, ASO created La Course which began life as a one-day circuit race on the Champs Élysées, briefly became two stages long, and then returned to its original state as a one-day race.
          An eight-stage Tour de France Femmes, organized by ASO, emerging from this fractured history is "a whole new start," Martin says.
          "It's like a rebirth. It's so needed."

          'Showing the strength of women in cycling'

          The reintroduction of a women's Tour de France marks a seminal moment for gender equality in cycling.
          "Women just traditionally did not have the access to resources or even the ability to do a lot of the things that men were able and allowed to do," McGowan observes.
          "There's been a huge push to show the strength and the ability of women within cycling ... cracking a lot of those myths about what women could and could not do."
          A lack of funding, live television coverage and prize money hindered the growth of women's cycling for many years.
          "I self-funded," Martin recalls. "To get on the US team in America, you had to do certain races all around the country. And I decided I've got my body now, I'll get my money later.