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Tour de France

Q&A: Marianne Martin won the first women’s Tour de France 35 years ago

American Marianne Martin won the first edition of the women's Tour de France in 1984. She reminisces about her experience 35 years later.

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While Marianne Vos may have won the 2019 La Course on Friday, 35 years ago another Marianne won a much bigger title.

Marianne Martin is the first winner of The Tour de France Feminin, which ran alongside the men’s race from 1984-1989.

Martin wasn’t supposed to win. In fact, the American was the last woman chosen for her team. Today, her winner’s trophy sits inconspicuously on a shelf in her living room in Boulder, Colorado. It holds the random objects Martin says she hasn’t had time to put away — a credit card, an ornament, a picture of her mother.

“Who we are isn’t what we did, it’s what we do,” says Martin. Thirty-five years ago this month, the camera lens was focused on Martin as she rode her way to the first women’s victory at the Tour. Now Martin, 61, spends a lot of time behind the camera as a professional photographer shooting portraits and weddings. While still an active athlete — mostly running — she’s traded in time on her bike for time on her horse.

VeloNews caught up with the trailblazing Martin, who has yet to be inducted into the Bicycling Hall of Fame, to hear her thoughts on La Course and her unique Tour de France experience.

Photo: Courtesy Marianne Martin

VeloNews: Were there any key moments leading up to the Tour that made a difference in your performance?

Marianne Martin: When I met the national cycling coach Tim Kelly at a restaurant, he invited me to his house where he led athletes in visualization. There we were — Davis Phinney, Ron Keifel, and I — all lying on his floor. He told us to imagine ourselves at the world championships. I almost started laughing. I thought, “I’m this farm girl from Michigan. Who am I to even think about the world championships.”

But thinking that way let me walk through doors I never would have approached, including pushing for a spot on the Tour team and even then thinking, “I could win this!” Soon after I met a cancer doctor who did visualization with his patients, and I worked with him quite a bit. These sessions helped me build strength, manage pain, and develop confidence.

Photo: Courtesy Marianne Martin

VN: The Tour de France Feminin ran alongside the men’s race from 1984-1989. You are an entrepreneur. What would it take to bring the Tour de France back for women?

MM: Unfortunately I feel it comes down to money. It’s a business, and if something is not profitable, it goes away. The market is prime for someone to come in and sponsor a women’s Tour de France. There’s so much interest and controversy around it, it would get press worldwide… a lot of press. People want women in the Tour. But somebody has to go out and find the right people and make the right offer. Nobody is going to make it happen by saying, “Give me, give me, give me.”

The U.S. team won the inaugural Tour de France Féminin in 1984. Betsy King, Debra Shumway, Patty Peoples, Marianne Martin, Jolanta Goral, Bette Wise-Steffan (L-R). Photo: Courtesy Marianne Martin

VN: Are women being challenged enough in La Course?

MM: For the one day, yes. It’s a 120km course. But it’s only one day. We completed 18 stages over 23 days, despite the French thinking we wouldn’t finish. It’s unfortunate that it’s not more, but it’s fabulous that women have a foot in the door at the Tour. It’s a shame that it’s not run like it was when I won it because it was an amazing experience. Hopefully one day it will return.

VN: You stayed in second rate hotels compared to the men, received significantly less coaching, and made a lot less in winnings. Didn’t it bother you?

MM: But what’s important here? Racing my bike! I took home less than $1,000 in winnings. I later retired from cycling $12,000 in debt and worked two jobs in L.A. to pay it off. But it didn’t matter. I felt so lucky to be in France. I got to race my bike every single day for a month.

VN: Was competing in the Tour de France the highlight of your life?

MM: I suppose it was, but it wasn’t the hardest thing I did. Running the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc course was the hardest [106 miles and 32,940 feet elevation gain]. But anybody can go out and run Mont Blanc. Not that many people get to do the Tour de France.

Martin stands atop the podium with 1984 men’s Tour winner Laurent Fignon. Photo: Courtesy Marianne Martin

VN: How did ending your career as a professional cyclist inspire the book that you’re writing, Soaring after Sport?

MM: The transition from having my sport be my life was difficult. Cycling was my family. My focus. My life. At the time, my cycling family understood me better than my real family. Athletes need to understand that the transition is a hard thing and to treat it like a hard thing. The goal of the book is teach people how to make that transition from sport to “real life” easier and more successful. It’s a compilation of interviews with athletes who have been successful and unsuccessful at their transition into the real world.