The UFC has “ring card girls.” Formula One Racing has “grid girls.” And top racing competitions like the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and their wilder Spanish cousin, the Vuelta a Espana, have podium girls, also called race hostesses. Different sports call their decorative women by different names, but they’re essentially all the same idea — hot, young, upbeat women in tiny clothes who hold signs, give awards, point to things and look sexy doing it. But news that Vuelta is phasing out the practice is a signal that the longstanding tradition may soon be a thing of the past.
“We are sensitive to the social debate and media attention that’s been built up the past few months concerning the presence of the podium girls,” Vuelta race director Javier Guillén told El Mundo, VeloNews reported. “We are not going to turn our back on these concerns, and we will be introducing something new in the next Vuelta.”
That “something new” is not total eradication, mind you, but having the women joined by “elegantly dressed” male counterparts instead. And while that’s technically only evening out the eye candy spectacle scorecard, it’s still an intriguing shift.
Cycling has a sexist history—promoted in part to address a crisis of masculinity in a country that had just lost the Franco-Prussian War and were now contending with newly emancipated women. Supportive women cheering on the sidelines has always been a part of it. Podium girls, for their part, are usually students who work very long hours, present flowers, prizes and jerseys, and kiss the male winners on the cheek, News.com.au explains. Communication between podium girls and cyclists is forbidden. But the rules are often broken; several have even ended up marrying riders. Sometimes the podium girls are cyclists themselves — ironic that it’s the only opportunity they have to participate in the male race.
Over 500 girls apply each summer to work the Tour de France alone, and though originally the women who applied had to be under 30 and about the same height, the requirements have become more than just looking the part.
“They asked me if I could share a bathroom with two other girls for a month and if I could drive a car up a mountain if I needed to,” racing hostess Laura Antoine told The New York Times of the selection process. “Then they asked me about my endurance level and if I could smile even if I’m tired. And I said I could work all day, with a smile. I quickly realized that hey, this isn’t as glamorous as I thought it was.”
The top podium girl assignment is to award the winning cyclists in Paris, and only two girls make the cut. “It’s not an easy decision to make, but it’s all about who will photograph the best on that day, and some girls might have a pimple or might look tired in the eyes,” Sophie Moressee-Pichot, the sponsorship manager of the French bank that sponsors the yellow jersey, told the Times.
But the decision for some tours to part ways with the old tradition comes on the heels of continued less-than-stellar press for the practice. Earlier this year, married Belgian cyclist Jan Bakelants was asked in an interview about how he managed to get through three weeks of the Tour de France. He said he’d miss his 3-year-old daughter and Skype with her daily, and then this happened, according to a translation of the interview at CyclingNews:
He then inexplicably answered an innocent question about when he would call his parents for the first time with “when I run out of porno movies.” After insisting that he was joking, he then dug himself a deeper hole when asked if going without sex for three weeks was difficult by first referring back to the pornographic films, and then by adding, “there are also the podium hostesses.”
But he wasn’t done yet.
To further his point, when asked what items he would take along to use in his free time he stated, “definitely a packet of condoms. You never know where those podium hostesses are hanging out.”
The ASO — the Tour de France organizers (who also organize Vuelta) — demanded an apology, and Bakelants complied.
Bakelants’ team, AG2R-La Mondiale, also apologized for the incident, calling it “in very bad taste,” but it’s become just another entry in an ongoing discussion of whether having the girls in the event at all is what’s actually in bad taste. That debate ignited in 2013, when Slovakian cyclist hotshot Peter Sagan pinched a podium girl’s ass:
The girl in question was 25-year-old Maja Leye, who said she considered slapping him in response, but the pressure to perform in front of millions and the fear of making things worse helped her stay calm. “Suddenly, I felt this hand,” Leye said in an interview of the incident. “I hadn’t seen it coming because I had my back to him. I understood quickly what had happened. I was frozen to the spot.”
Sagan apologized to Leye, vowing to “act more respectfully in the future.”
Undeterred, in 2015 Belgian cycling event E3 Harelbeke used this poster to promote the race:
It was taken down after protest.
Vuelta’s decision to address the issue on some level — and it is the first Grand Tour to do this — comes after a similar move from Australia’s Down Under Tour, one of the biggest races in cycling short of the Grand Tours. They did away with podium girls earlier this year. Instead of two women awarding the race champion Richie Porte with a trophy and jersey and cheek kisses, a junior racer zipped up his jersey instead. Races in Catalonia and Valencia recently replaced the podium girls with children and young athletes, the Telegraph reported.
The response among cyclists, fans, and podium girls themselves has been mixed. Some think of the practice as a key part of cycling itself that heightens the excitement. Others think it’s sleazy and antiquated.
“Hostesses are surplus to requirements on the podium; it is like treating them as mere objects,” Spanish cyclist Mikel Landa said in an interview with a Spanish newspaper earlier this year. Others defend the sexist behaviors as part of the understood humor that allegedly goes with the podium girl territory, one the women are supposed to understand and go along with good-naturedly.
Some fans think it’s a ridiculous unnecessary tradition:
(They don’t, though certainly female cyclists have asked for them.)
Some cyclists think you can’t have cycling without a pretty woman classing up the joint. “It’s part of cycling. I don’t think it’s sexist, unless the organizer dresses up the girl provocatively,” cyclist Peter Stetina told VeloNews. “The problem is when you get that jock mentality and it’s vulgar. I think they should remain. If I win a race someday, I’d love to get the flowers and the kisses on the cheek. It’s a celebration.”
Javier Guillen, Vuelta’s race director, was asked by The Telegraph if he thought the current move to change podium girls into something more respectable would ever trickle over to the top race — the Tour de France. He did not. “That debate about sexism does not exist in France,” Guillen said.
But it’s likely that as other tours drop the practice, the Tour de France will have little choice but to get with the program. Besides, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme has said in the past that he wants to incorporate more women in the race. In 2010, he told the Times:
“We would love to have a women’s Tour, but we already close the roads for hours and hours, so it is logistically impossible to do that twice a year,” Prudhomme said. “But remember, there were no women in the Tour organization for 30 years, so that’s changing now. I am doing all I can for that to change.”
That same year, Prudhomme finally gave a woman—cycling champion Claire Pedrono—one of the more prestigious jobs in the tour: riding on the back of a motorcycle in front of the cyclists with a blackboard that tells race time information to the male cyclists.
“I felt like she deserved that honor because of her accomplishments as a cyclist,” Prudhomme told the Times. “But I have to be honest with you, it also doesn’t hurt that she has a nice smile.”
That was seven years ago, though, and in the meantime, things are changing. A tour for women, La Course, was added in France in 2014. Other sports are catching up to modernizing the hostess role. Formula One grid girls recently got a “classier” wardrobe, though critics argue the outfits (they resemble flight attendant uniforms from the 1960s) don’t undo the sexism inherent in making women beautiful objects “against a backdrop of male achievement.” Female boxer Mikaela Lauren recently refused to fight unless she got a hot “ring boy,” too—it worked—and some male fans have begun pitching the idea that it’s time to move forward and end the practice.
Meanwhile, perhaps these sports could follow the lead of other industries that have also begun updating their trophy girls with more diverse award-givers. In 2013, the Academy Awards began using male and female film students in place of female trophy presenters in 2013, calling it a torch-passing moment where they could finally “blow the dust off these institutions.”
This year, the Grammys recently added a transgender woman and a man to their award presenters. Recording Academy president Neil Portnow said in a statement that the very concept of a trophy girl has “felt antiquated for some time now. Who wrote that rule anyway? The ability to present a trophy has nothing to do with one’s gender.”