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The Triumph of the First Woman to Win the Tour de France

By Tereza Antonova

Imagine it’s 1984 and you’re watching the award ceremony for the Tour de France. It’s the first time both a man and a woman are standing on the platform, the winners of separate races.

Two years later, the male winner, Laurent Fignon, would still be in the midst of a successful professional cycling career, while the woman, Marianne Martin, would be retired from racing and working two jobs to pay off her debts. But she wouldn’t have any regrets, because she would forever be the first woman to win the Tour de France Féminin, a race that almost never happened.

Women on the Tour: A Controversial Idea

In 1983, Felix Levitan, one of the Tour’s organisers, sparked a heated debate in France with a daring proposal: organizing a women’s Tour. The French weren’t so thrilled about the idea. As the 1983 Tour winner Laurent Fignon put it, ‘I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else’.

Luckily, Levitan pushed his plan through and in the summer of 1984, 18 stages and about 1,083 km were ready and waiting for female racers. The press took particular interest in the Dutch national team, because it had one of the greatest female racers in Europe, Heleen Hage. No one knew much about the American team, so expectations for them were low. Who would have known that the US team’s underdog would get most of the attention in the coming weeks!

The US Team’s Hidden Star

In the spring of 1984, only a few months before the race, Marianne Martin was recovering from anemia. The 26-year-old American had discovered her talent for cycling in college and was soon entering major races throughout the country. Racing became her passion, and nothing could stop her, even illness.

When Marianne heard there would be a women’s equivalent of the Tour, she knew she had to race. With no recent wins to her credit, Marianne basically had to beg the US national cycling coach to let her join. Luckily, he accepted the young lady as the sixth and final member of the American women’s team.

The bicycle Martin was riding in 1984.

The then-leader of the US team was Betsy King: the first female participant in the famous Bordeaux–Paris race. So everyone was surprised when Marianne finished third in the first stage, but no one was very excited. On the contrary, Marianne got into trouble for not being a team player. The racer disciplined herself and kept a low profile for the next 11 stages.

The Challenging Alpine Passes

The game changer came in the 12th stage. Two mountain passes in the Alps awoke the inner climber in Marianne, who cut loose and left the pack. Once at the top, she planned to wait for the other racers, but eventually she just kept on riding her way to the polka-dot jersey, an award for the Tour’s best climber. That’s when she knew she might actually have a shot at winning the race.

Suddenly, the American team started getting attention from the media. In a few days, Marianne passed the famous Heleen Hage with a five-minute lead in the La Plagne stage, adding a yellow jersey to her collection. And so the team rearranged around a new leader.

Go, Marianne Martin!

Right before the final stage, Marianne tried calling her father to tell him to turn on his TV and watch his daughter finish the race. But she couldn’t get a hold of him. When she reached the finish line of the final stage under the Arc of Triomphe, Marianne heard someone in the crowd cheering: “Go, Marianne Martin!” That someone was her father, who had jumped on a plane so he didn’t miss his daughter’s triumph.

Marianne collected the award: a trophy and $1,000, which she shared with her team, and then returned to America. In 1986 she quit racing for good due to health issues, and started working to pay off the debts she’d built up during her cycling career. But she never really cared about prizes: even when she recalls the 1984 Tour, Marianne mostly talks about how much fun she had.