Marianne Martin – Winner of the first Tour de France Féminin
This is one of my favourite stories from my book ‘Pedal Power’ – I just love the thought of women triumphantly riding the Tour de France. It’s a tragic indication of the status of women’s sport that this no longer happens.
It wasn’t about the money anyway. We did it because we loved it.
When Marianne Martin’s father offered her money as a graduation gift, she said, ‘Great – I can buy a racing bicycle.’ So he withdrew the offer and bought her a camera instead. In 1980s America, competitive women’s cycling was not really the thing.
Marianne had raced throughout her time at college, discovering an aptitude for climbing. Her first national race was the Tour of Texas; she’d called in sick from work in order to compete and then ended up winning. With her picture in the paper she ‘got totally busted’.
In 1984, the organisers of the Tour de France announced an event for women, the Tour de France Féminin. There would be 18 stages compared to the men’s 23, with 1,080 km covered as opposed to 4,000 km. But the race would run concurrently with the men’s, on the same course, with all the climbs, and the same finishing lines. The women would ride ahead and finish their race around 30 minutes before the men. Huge crowds would be there to cheer them on.
Marianne was desperate to ride in the Tour. She had missed out on team selection for the 1984 Olympics, but felt that she was just finding her form and would be good enough. She drove to Colorado to speak to the national cycling coach, Edward Borysewicz, trying to convince him to let her on the team. ‘Believe me, Eddie, you won’t be disappointed,’ were her parting words; she was given the last spot on the team a few weeks before the Tour was due to begin.
Six teams of 36 women lined up at the start. Marianne finished the first stage in third place, with two Dutch riders ahead of her. It was a surprise to everyone – the Americans were largely unknown, and even within the team, Marianne wasn’t thought to be the best rider.
Stage 12 took the riders into the Alps, with two mountain passes. Marianne knew she could climb and was desperate to earn the polka dot jersey. Early in the stage, she made a breakaway, finding herself alone for the majority of the 45 miles. Her gamble worked. ‘I raced ahead because I wanted that jersey and when I got to the top of the hill, I was 10 minutes ahead of the next riders.’ She won the stage and was placed second overall: 1 min 4 sec behind the race leader.
Rather than merely providing a sideshow to the men’s event, the women’s race was proving a huge success. The crowds loved them; the world’s media were forced to sit up and take notice. Following Marianne’s success in the mountain stage, The New York Times finally ran a story. One photographer reported:
‘I got a sense that the women were having more fun than the men – there was less pressure on them.’
Marianne took the leader’s yellow jersey after stage 14. The team knew their job was now to keep Marianne in yellow. ‘It was just exhilarating. This was the best race in the world and we were winning.’
The team went into the final stage with a comfortable lead, crossing the finish line to ecstatic cheers from the crowd. Marianne and the men’s winner, Laurent Fignon, stood side by side on the podium to receive their trophies. Marianne was awarded $1,000, which she shared with the team. Fignon took away prizes worth upwards of $100,000.
Funding and support dwindled in the following years, and there was no race in 1990 or 1991. When it returned, the race was no longer staged concurrently, and in 1998 was renamed La Grande Boucle Féminine. Over time the race shrunk, with fewer days, shorter stages, and in some years no race at all. By 2009, La Grande Boucle had become a four-day race, causing eventual winner Brit Emma Pooley to call it ‘more of a petite boucle’. Then it stopped for good. In 2016 it was reintroduced – as a one-day race called La Course.
Marianne retired from cycling, taking on two jobs to repay the debts she had incurred while racing and riding in the Tour de France. But she had no regrets.
Even if I hadn’t won, so what? I got to race my bike every day, I was fed and got massages every day. And I was in France. To me, that was the greatest thing in the world.’
This is an excerpt from my book ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’