The Tour de France yellow jersey is the most coveted item of clothing in professional cycling. Marianne Martin (born November 1, 1957 in Fenton, Michigan, U.S.A.) won the first Tour de France for women in 1984, covering the 616-mile course in 29 hours, 39 minutes, and 2 seconds.
“It cost me money to do the Tour de France. But even if I hadn’t won, so what? I got to race my bike every day, I was fed and got massages every day. It wasn’t about money anyway. We di dit because we loved it. And I was in France. To me, that was the greatest thing in the world.
In 1984, the organisers of the Tour de France announced an event for women, the Tour de France Féminin. Compared tot he men’s 23 stages there would be 18, with 1080 kilometers covered as opposed to 4000 km. But the race was on the same course, with all the climbs, run concurrently with the mens’s and having the same finish line. I remember I was desperate to ride in the Tour.
Througout my time at college I raced, but in the very beginning it was just for fun. Working in a hotel, I first saw a race and after that I cycled to stay fit. Not much later someone convinced me to try a race myself. But in the early 1980’s, women’s competitive cycling was not a common pursuit. Where I attended college, in Boulder, cycling was a big deal.
And besides, my dad was not a big fan of the idea of his daughter racing. But my mom was over-the-top enthusiastic about it. When I heard about the first person to ride across America, I wondered if a woman could do that. And my mom said: ‘You can do anything if you put your mind to it.’
In my first race I ended up doing really well. It was an uphill climb and I found that cycling came pretty naturally to me.
In that first year, I competed in races on weekends. The year after I got a racing license, and a Colorado group added me to a team. They helped me enter local races, and from there I started to think about bigger races.
My first national race was the Tour of Texas. I called in sick for the days I’d miss competing in my first national race, the Tour of Texas. But then.. I won the opening time trial, and the news made the Boulder paper. Of course I got totally busted, my bosses weren’t happy with me. But that sweet taste of victory gave me hope that I could get a spot on the national team.
I graduated from the the University of Colorado. As a graduation gift, my father offered to give me money. I told him that I was happy with this gift, now I could buy a racing bike. But instead, he gave me a camera. I ended up taking out a loan to buy my first racing bike. It was $600, used.
I missed out on team selection for the 1984 Olympics, still coming back from a bout of anemia earlier in the year. But when I heard about the Tour de France Féminin, I felt that I was just finding my form and would be good enough. I drove to Colorado to speak to the national cycling coach, Edward Borysewicz. I had just started to come into fitness and I felt good about it, but I really didn’t have any proof, so I tried to convinced him to let me on the team. The last thing I said to him was, ‘Believe me Eddie, you won’t be disappointed.’
A few weeks before the Tour was due to begin, I was given the last spot on the team.
At the start, six teams of 36 women lined up. In the first stage I finished in third place, which actually was a surprise to everyone. Stage 12 took us into the Alps, and I was desperated to earn the polka dot jersey. So early in the race I made a breakaway, finding myself alone fort he majority of the stage. But this gamble worked, I won the race and was placed second overall.
After stage 14 I took the leader’s yellow jersey, and it was so exhilarating for me and my team. This was the best race in the world and we were winning.
We went into the final stage with a comfortable lead, crossing the finish line to ecstatic cheers form the crowd.
With the final stages in my sights, I tried calling my dad to tell him to watch the end of the race on television. He had started to warm up to the idea of his daughter the cyclist after seeing my race in Colorado. But I couldn’t get hold of him.Before the final stage I knew I had all but won the race. But you never know, I was still in the yellow but I could have flatted and I would have been out.
I kept my lead as I completed the final stage, a 30 kilometers ride that ended on the Champs Élysées. When I first passed the finish line under the Arc de Triomphe, I heard an American voice in the crowd yell: “Go Marianne Martin!” I turned toward the voice and recognized my father. He’d hopped on a last-minute flight to see me win. He crawled over the fence – and my dad’s one of those people that obeys all the rules. The officials were trying to stop him. And he’d say ‘Moi, papa! Moi, papa!’ So he was out in the middle with me when I won in France. It was a fairytale. It was unreal.
However, the crowds loved us and the world’s media were forced to sit up and take notice. Eventually the papers were even saying nice things about us. After the 12th stage, The New York Times finally ran its first story on the women’s race since the first stage.
However, though we stood on the same podium, the similarities for the men’s and women’s Tour winners just about ended there. Fignon took home prizes worth more than $100.000. I won a trophy, and then I won $1,000, but we shared that with our team. Some people think I made a whole lot of money, but, for me, it wasn’t about the money anyway. We did it because we loved it.
Unfortunately I had to quit racing in 1986 after struggling with health issues. I worked two jobs for two years to pay off the debt I incurred from riding the Tour de France and the other races I paid my own way to participate in.