PARIS -- Finally, the Tour de France is giving women a more visible role than just congratulating the male riders.
On July 27 cycling's best-known race will host "La Course by Le Tour de France" -- a one-day women's competition staged hours before Tour riders race on the same circuit to finish the three-week event on Paris' Champs-Elysees.
The International Cycling Union announced the innovation Saturday as part of its 2014 racing calendar. Tour organizers, the Amaury Sport Organization, say they aim to make the women's competition "one of the most decisive races of the season."
Until now, the 110-year-old Tour has been almost exclusively a male preserve, with women sometimes employed as team staffers or on the winners' podium handing out flowers.
A number of women's races have collapsed in recent years and some competitors have criticized poor funding and promotion. A "Tour Feminin" event in France was staged in the past, but not since 2009.
"Women's races have had financial difficulties -- little television exposure, little media fallout and, as a result, few sponsors," said UCI sport director Philippe Chevallier in a phone interview. "We are working hard so that will change," he said, acknowledging that "it's a long-term job."
A group of cyclists, including Olympic gold medallist and road race world champion Marianne Vos of the Netherlands and Olympian Emma Pooley of Britain, launched a petition last summer to push for a professional women's race in parallel to the Tour de France over the same distances.
"There was a petition, which I found inappropriate by the way, during the Tour de France," Tour director Christian Prudhomme told The Associated Press by telephone.
"After the Tour, in September, October, a delegation of (women's) champions came to see me, led by Marianne Vos," Prudhomme said. "What they asked us was for a bit of spotlight, they insisted upon the fact that women's cycling does not get enough media coverage and only this event -- and only organization ASO -- could help them to get more coverage for their race."
Vos said she was "delighted" about the announcement of "La Course" event.
"I am particularly happy to take part, especially thinking about the majestic finish on the Champs-Elysees," she was quoted as saying in a statement from Tour organizers. "The birth of this race is a revolutionary development in our sport. The Tour is the pinnacle of professional cycling ... (this) could open up a new era for women's cycling."
In contrast, Prudhomme emphasized the challenge of running two races at the same time.
"It's complicated. You have to do things step by step from a logistical point of view," and in terms of security, Prudhomme said. "We're totally incapable, logistically and technically, to run two events at the same time, whatever they may be. We don't know how to do it, (so) we'll have to wait to see what happens."