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Tour de France Femmes

VN Archives: Marianne Martin on winning the first women’s Tour de France

An interview from August of 1984, one month after Martin won the inaugural race.

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This interview originally appeared in the September 14, 1984 issue of VeloNews. 

In November 1983 Marianne Martin was on the verge of quitting bicycle racing.

“I was so broke,” she recalls. “Every credit card, everything I owned, was maxed out. I owed so much money … ” But she stuck with cycling and, nine months later, it paid off — not in money, perhaps, but in prestige.

In July of 1984 Martin became the first women’s champion in the world’s most prestigious bicycle race, the Tour de France.

En route to the overall victory she won two of the most difficult stages (there were 18 stages in all). In the final standings, Martin was 3:17 ahead of runner-up Helen Hage of the Netherlands and 11:51 up on the third-place finisher, her U.S. teammate Debbie Schumway. Martin also won the polka-dot jersey awarded to the best mountain climber and paced the U.S. to the team title, nearly 13 minutes ahead of the Netherlands.

When first results from the women’s Tour were printed in U.S. newspapers (listing Mary Nanne-Martin in third place for stage one) the general reaction in the U.S. cycling community was “Mary who?” But it wouldn’t have mattered if Martin’s name had been written correctly. Few people knew anything about her.

Tim Blumenthal for VeloNews: When did you first hear about the women’s Tour de France?

Marianne Martin: Last fall at our cycling banquet for Colorado someone mentioned it. I immediately thought, “I want to do that.” I thought it would be a good race for me.

VN: How did it go for you at the Olympic road trials?

MM: That’s when I started feeling better, though I still didn’t feel I was quite there. I had a slow start to the season. Then when I started the Tour … the first couple days I just felt okay, then I started feeling better and better and better.

VN: In the Tour, the Dutch women won just about everything that had a bunch finish. How were they as a team?

MM: Great. They’re a really good team. I have a lot of respect for them because I don’t see Americans ride like that.

VN: The women that the U.S. sent to the Tour had never really ridden as a team before, had they?

MM: No, and we didn’t have a coach or anyone to give us direction on how to do it.

VN: Your jerseys were taped over. It seemed there was some confusion on who exactly was your sponsor.

MM: They were taped over because the letters were too long. The sponsors were Bernard Dangre, Hertefeu and Vitus.

VN: When you realized you weren’t going to make the Olympic road team … ?

MM: I knew I wasn’t going to make the Olympic road team before the trials. I hadn’t been fit. And I’d wanted to go to the Tour (which conflicted with final Olympics preparation) since last November. But then I quit cycling, starting working and when I started riding again I got anemic. It was one thing after another. My first hard ride wasn’t until the end of April, first of May.

VN: So you didn’t ride the Tour of Texas?

MM: I was there, but only because I was on the national team. I was going to go home but Eddie (national coaching director, Eddie Borysewicz) said to stay. Eddie just had a lot of faith in me. I was just so thankful because I would have quit cycling if he hadn’t kept encouraging me.

VN: So you were actually going to quit the sport?

MM: Yes, last fall, I was.

VN: Why?

MM: Because because the year before I did the national circuit and paid for it all myself. My team didn’t help me out. I had no choice. I was working three jobs — one of them full-time — I was just bonzo working.

VN: This year your sponsorship situation wasn’t any better?

MM: No, but I finally asked my dad for money.

VN: And that worked out?

MM: Yes. But during the winter I was doing all these miles, and I started feeling really, really bad. It wasn’t until I was in Texas that I found out I was anemic. And that took a couple months to get over. So all season I didn’t have any results. I finished three races in Texas — all of them flat.

VN: When the Tour de France team met for the flight to France, what were your expectations?

MM: We all wanted to finish.

VN: Were you fearful that because of the low status of women’s cycling in Europe that you wouldn’t be treated well?

MM: I didn’t think we wouldn’t be treated well. But it has to start someplace. I just think it ‘s so cool that they finally have women in the Tour. I never thought it would happen so soon.

VN: At the end of the first day, up went Mieke Havik of Holland onto the podium as the first woman to ever wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. Did people react well to it?

MM: Oh yeah. People were really excited. But it was a small part compared to the men’s race. Still, at the end of the race, people came up to me and said, “I didn’t know there was a women ‘s Tour.” It’s not advertised like races in our country. Coors sponsors the Coors race, so it’s to their benefit to publicize the Coors Classic. But the Tour de France just is.

VN: As a climbing specialist, did you have any trouble staying in the field in the early stages?

MM: The first couple stages I was just hoping that I’d last the whole Tour. Without the fitness background I thought that as soon as it got hard, I ‘d get fried and be history. We all went into the first couple stages not knowing what to expect. That went on for two or three days and then we realized that it was easier so we started doing some chasing, and started doing more work. Actually I got third in the first stage. I attacked with six kilometers to go and Mieke (Havik of Holland) was the only rider to stay with me. We worked together, although she wasn’t really working.

VN: And she won the sprint because she hadn’t worked?

MM: Oh no, she could have out-sprinted me anyway. I can’t sprint (laughs). Then one of my teammates pulled the pack up to us and just before the finish, another Dutch rider passed me.

VN: Did that third place raise your expectations?

MM: Oh yeah. I thought that was great and figured it would be the best finish that I’d have the entire Tour.

VN: You won two stages near the middle of the Tour. The first moved you into second on GC, then the next one put you in the yellow jersey to stay. What happened there?

MM: The 12th stage was a 72km race that started out with a 10km climb. I like being in the front when I climb anyway so I just went to the front and started climbing at my pace. All of a sudden, I turned around and there were only two riders with me. And then they were gone. All I wanted to do was get the mountain prime. So I thought, “Well I’ll just keep climbing at my own pace and then I’II get the prime.” I was getting near the top when all of a sudden the motorcycle came up and the guy said, “Une minute, une minute, ” which meant I was a minute up. I was totally psyched — I couldn’t believe it because it wasn’t a hard climb.

VN: Not a hard climb by Colorado standards?

MM: Well, I wasn’t hurting. You have to realize that I just wanted to get the mountain prime.

VN: How much money was involved for that?

MM: I didn’t think about money. It was personal.

VN: So what happened when you reached the summit?

MM: I slowed down because I thought, ” I can ‘t do 62 kilometers by myself. ” But then I decided to just keep going and make them work hard to catch me. Then we came to another climb and I just gained more time.

VN: Were you still getting split times from the motorcycle?

MM: Yeah, pretty much, but he was giving them to me in French. So he was doing onze or douze or whatever and I just didn’t … you know, une minute was real clear.

VN: So you were confused?

MM: I had no clue. Through the whole Tour, the French people would talk to us in French. They’d come up and just start a conversation in French. They knew we didn’t speak French, they knew we didn’t understand it and they’d still do that the whole Tour. It’s just a different mentality.

VN: Was there ever a time during that stage where you were fading and you thought you couldn’t keep the lead?

MM: No, I felt great.

VN: And you won by 2:40?

MM: Something like that. Actually Helen (Hage of Holland) and a couple people ended up breaking. So I finished just under two minutes up on them, which wasn’t enough to put me in the yellow jersey.

VN: When did you start thinking you could win the Tour de France?

MM: Well that day I thought I could. It was the weirdest feeling in the world to go from somebody who just wasn’t finishing races to all of a sudden feeling good. I just couldn’t believe that they (the field) were back there. The second stage I won was at La Plagne and it was straight uphill. I was looking forward to that from the start because I know I’m good at those.

VN: And you won solo again?

MM: Oh yeah.

VN: Once you won that second stage were you pretty confident that you’d win the Tour de France?

MM: No, because I knew about the descent into Morzine. My sister had done that ride before and she told me it ‘s a hairy descent. And I knew Helen was very good at descending. And I also knew they (the Dutch) had a strong team of six riders and I had myself. I didn’t have a team working for me.

VN: Why? Your teammates were all interested in individual results?

MM (hesitates): It was frustrating. Going into the last three stages I was really skeptical about what would happen. Three minutes is conceivable for a team like the Dutch to get. This is how they’d work: One person would attack with Helen on her wheel. Then three riders would box me in. Finally, I’d get out of being boxed in and I’d chase and chase — and I’d catch them. Then they’d box me in again and another Dutch rider would attack with Helen on her wheel. It was three days of that.

VN: Was there ever a time when you said, “Oh no, there goes the Tour de France down the road. There’s nothing I can do. Or did you always succeed in getting out of the box?”

MM: There were many times when I thought, “If they attack right now, there’s no way I can do it.” The first of those three days it was really psychologically hard. Jolanta (Goral) really came through that day and helped me just stay on Helen ‘s wheel. The next day was kind of hilly and Patty (Peoples) was also trying to help. She’s a little inexperienced but she was willing to do anything I wanted. The second day both Patty and Jolanta had mechanicals near the beginning so I was on my own chasing. On one descent – after I’d done about six or seven chases – they had me boxed in and Helen was off with five or six women. I was scared. I thought that break could work. They had about 30 meters on us. Connie (Meyer of Holland) had me glued to the side of the road and I just couldn’t go anywhere. So finally I blew around her, chased and caught the group.. I must have gone around her really fast because Connie didn’t even have my wheel. She came up to me about 10 kilometers later and said, ”I’m sorry I won’t do that again.” And I looked at her like, C’mon, give me a break. And she said, “You are very strong.” And that was a neat feeling because she’s a good rider and to hear that from her …

VN: Did you get any other statements of respect from the Dutch?

MM: Yes, I got a lot. After every stage the Dutch coach came up and commended how I rode. They were really good sportspeople. I have a lot of respect for them.

VN: What about the last day? I guess you finished on the Champs Elysees, just before the men did. It must have been something to ride in front of so many people?

MM: It was the coolest thing in the world. To come around that corner and you’ve got this huge street with no cars on it at all. It’s lined with trees, French flags hanging down and police standing at attention. And there’s the Arc du Triomphe — what a rush! We came by the start-finish line and I heard someone yell “Go Marianne MARTIN.” I thought that was an American. Next time around I saw someone waving and I looked over and it was my Dad.

VN: He’d flown over and you had no idea?

MM: No idea.

VN: You came across the finish line, you’d won the Tour de France, the men are still out there — did they wait until the men finished to do any ceremonies?

MM: They gave me my mountain jersey and they did the stage awards. They gave me everything but my final yellow jersey. We went to shower. I even went to medical control. The whole parade came before the men finished. They throw Tang and postcards and key chains …

VN: Would you say that coming on to the Champs Elysees was the emotional high moment of the race?

MM: That and the stage that I was winning into Grenoble. You’re coming out of this valley and you come around this corner and there’s Grenoble with all the mountains. I was glad I was alone because it was so beautiful. You really can’t look when you’re descending. Also, the third or fourth day, when the team was starting to have problems and there were disagreements about the way the race should be run I was really getting down and I wanted to go home. Patty and I were rooming together and she said, “We’re here to have a good time.” At that point I decided that it didn’t matter how I did. So we took the attitude that, okay, there’s going to be problems but we’re lucky to be here. I was just lucky to be chosen — I had to beg and plead to get on the team. The last thing I said to Mike Fraysse was, “Believe me, Mike, you won’t be disappointed.”I had absolutely no results. I was a salesman. I told him, ”I’m a great hill climber and I’m not going to be intimidated by the mountains.”

VN: How many yellow jerseys did you collect?

MM: Five yellow jerseys and five polka-dot.

VN: What kind of press coverage have you received in the U.S. since you got back?

MM: The Washington Post, the (International) Herald Tribune, the New York Times all called me. I don’t think Boulder knew I was in the Tour. In other parts of the country I heard it was pretty good.

VN: Among U.S. women — when you ‘re on your best form how would you rank yourself as a stage racer compared to Carpenter or Twigg or any of the other top riders? Do you have a feeling of where you are when you’re at your best?

MM: No, I don’t, and that’s what was so frustrating about this race (the road nationals in New Hampshire). If it was a hard course I could have gone really well. I was ready for a really hard race.

VN: How has winning the Tour changed your future cycling plans?

MM: The first thing I have to do is get on a good team so I have a team to ride with.

VN: Financial backing?

MM: And teammates. To have someone to travel with and do it together because right now I’m pretty much traveling by myself.

VN: Do you need more U.S. results to get a spot on a good team ? It seems that with all the top U.S. women racing in the Coors Classic instead of the Tour. It’s hard to put your win into perspective.

MM: Right, and that’s what was frustrating about yesterday. I rode really strong and a lot of people were sitting in. And if it had been a hard race, then I could have seen how I compare. One reason I rode really strong yesterday is because I’ve heard people say that there really wasn’t that much competition at the Tour. But it’s not like I won by 30 seconds. I won by three minutes over Helen and 11 minutes over the next rider. So I feel like I did a good job — that I would have done well no matter who was there. Maybe I wouldn’t have won but I know I would have been up there. Maybe subconsciously, yesterday, I wanted to say, I ‘m stronger than you guys think.

VN: Are you ‘re going to continue to take the sport seriously?

MM: Well, I don ‘t like to take anything too seriously, but yes.


An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.