Kate Veronneau’s Zwift voyage into the world of women’s cycling

Written by: Neil Cormier
Posted 2 weeks ago

For anyone involved in women’s cycling, Kate Veronneau needs little, if any, introduction. As Director of Women’s Strategy at Zwift, she played a pivotal role in the indoor virtual cycling competition, Zwift Academy, and the launching of the first Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift in 2022. Known for her vibrant style and colorful “Watch the Femmes” attire, Veronneau has become one of the more recognizable figures each summer at the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. Besides that, Kate is a wonderful person with an approachable personality.

Unlike those who follow conventional paths into the cycling industry, Kate Veronneau’s involvement came about almost accidentally. As a student majoring in Modern Culture and Media in the late 90s at Brown University, Veronneau was not known as a cyclist, but as a basketball player for the university’s NCAA Division I women’s team. A talented player, Veronneau was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 1997 and rose to become captain of the team, but it wasn’t until later, after her basketball career, that she discovered cycling by chance.

We were lucky enough to have a drink, with the always-smiling American woman, a day before Paris Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift in a typical French café in Lille where she explained to us how she was introduced to the bike.

“All the time playing basketball was not kind to my knees. So, after three knee surgeries, I was always recovering on a bike. And I started riding more and more and really was enjoying it. Then somebody invited me to a bike race, it was the Philly bike race (Liberty Classic/Philadelphia Intl. Cycling Classic) and I saw a pack of guys go by, and then ten minutes later, a pack of women went by. And I had never seen women’s bike racing before. And I just loved it and wanted to do it.”

Bitten by the cycling bug, Veronneau started competing in races and found out early on that she had a good natural engine and a capacity to suffer. She became adept as a stage racer and found herself suited to being the workhorse of the team, chasing down breaks and setting the pace when called upon. In no time, she found herself competing in Argentina at the Tour Femenino de San Luis and in elite-level stage races in the U.S. like the Nature Valley Grand Prix and Fitchburg Longsjo Classic. In her final year of racing, she joined a high-energy “fierce and fun” team focused on the U.S. criterium circuit called Fearless Femmes, which later, by sheer coincidence, became the bookend of the catch-phrase, “Watch the Femmes.”

After retiring from competitive cycling, Kate worked in marketing before settling down with Thomson Bike Tours as their marketing director. It wasn’t long before she began to notice that many of Thomson’s clients were on Strava uploading data, not only from outdoor rides, but from an indoor training platform. Looking into it more closely she discovered that it was none other than Zwift, the virtual indoor cycling platform, which at the time in 2016 was still in its infancy. After finding out that the company headquarters was only twenty minutes away from where she lived in Los Angeles, she sent them an email suggesting a collaboration.

Veronneau’s eyes light up when she explains how she got involved with the Zwift company: “I told them, I’ll give you a VIP trip to the Tour de France, and we’ll run a challenge where you have to ride 100 kilometers on Zwift to be entered into a chance to win this VIP dream trip of a lifetime to the Tour de France. And right away, I got an email back from Zwift saying, come on down to the office. So I went down to the office, met the guys, and we did this promotion together that went really well. I got to know the team well and we started to be ride buddies and friends in the industry, and then a couple months later they came to me and said, hey, we’ve got this idea to host a global talent program to win a pro cycling contract.”

it has given women the opportunity to finally see themselves represented on the biggest stage at the world’s most prestigious cycling event

This marked the beginning of Veronneau’s involvement with Zwift as the lead coordinator for Zwift Academy, the virtual indoor competition that allows riders to test their potential to become professional cyclists. In the first year, 2016, 1,200 female cyclists competed, with former marathon runner Leah Thorvilson winning and signing a contract with the Canyon/SRAM team. The next year saw participation almost double, with 2,100 entrants in the women’s category, and 9,200 entrants in the men’s competition. Then in July 2020, due to the Tour de France being postponed by the COVID pandemic, Zwift and the A.S.O. (Amaury Sport Organisation) collaborated to host the Virtual Tour de France, a professional virtual indoor cycling event for men and women. The popularity of Zwift’s indoor cycling platform spread quickly, and shortly thereafter, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) collaborated with Zwift to launch their first-ever virtual indoor cycling championships, the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships.

The success and popularity of these Zwift competitions not only showed the cycling world the enormous potential of virtual indoor cycling, but more importantly, it demonstrated that women’s cycling was on par with men’s cycling in many ways and could be a viable product if marketed properly. In their collaboration with A.S.O. on the Virtual Tour de France, Veronneau and her Zwift team had been adamant about gender equality, insisting on identical races for the men and women concerning the number of stages, distances, difficulty, prize money, and TV exposure. By leveling the playing field between genders in the virtual indoor cycling world, Zwift challenged traditional notions about female athletes and showed there was great potential in investing in women’s cycling.

“Through that, because we did it (Virtual Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift) on our platform, the women’s race had complete parity with the men’s tour,” explained Veronneau. “We showed them that people want to see women’s racing, that women’s racing is a viable product with great characters and great action, and that there was a true appetite for it.”

With convincing data showing how popular the women’s Virtual Tour de France had been, Zwift and the A.S.O. began to explore the possibilities of a collaboration to bring to life a women’s Tour de France. Soon thereafter, in June 2021, A.S.O. announced that the first Tour de France Femmes would take place in 2022 with Zwift as the presenting partner.

Since the first event in 2022, the numbers have been overwhelming for the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, with figures showing a TV viewership of 23.2 million across 190 countries, and over 100 million views on official social media sites. While there are other cycling events that draw substantial audiences, none come close to the numbers generated by the Tour de France brand. For the men, the power of the “Tour” is such that it extends beyond the race itself by acting as a revenue anchor in the middle of the race calendar, ensuring the viability of other events that precede or follow it. For women’s cycling, a Tour de France becomes even more crucial due to the enormous amount of media exposure it provides that isn’t available at other events. And without this kind of media coverage, it becomes difficult for potential sponsors to see the value of investing in women’s cycling.

“We sponsor these races (Tour de France Femmes and Paris-Roubaix Femmes) because we want the greatest stage race in the world and the greatest one-day race in the world. And there’s a need. There’s a real need for it,” emphasizes Veronneau. “Because I think it’s something like 75% of sponsorship value for men’s pro cycling is in the three weeks of the Tour de France. So, without women having a place on that stage (the Tour de France) how is women’s cycling going to progress?”

Veronneau expresses a great deal of optimism when discussing the future of women’s cycling, highlighting ample opportunities for women to engage as leaders, supporters, and competitors. She envisions a near future where women assume larger and more influential roles within the sport, but also acknowledges that progress hinges on a collective effort from the entire cycling community. With the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift now in its third year, audience viewership and media coverage have exceeded expectations and given women’s cycling the attention that it finally deserves. But more than that, it has given women the opportunity to finally see themselves represented on the biggest stage at the world’s most prestigious cycling event.

“That’s what it’s all about to me, really, the growth and elevation of women’s cycling,” says Veronneau. “I think we can do that by shining a big light on the world stage. But it’s also about inspiring that little girl on the side of the road, that little girl at home watching TV with her parents, that maybe this is something she can do, that maybe one day she can be a racer.”

The Tour de France Femmes Avec Zwift starts on August 12 in Rotterdam in The Netherlands and finishes on August 18 on the famous Alpe d’Huez in France.

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