Well, not exactly.
Though largely forgotten or even ignored by most of the American public, including many cyclists, the first American to win the Tour de France was a woman - Marianne Martin - who won the first edition of the Tour de France Féminine in 1984.
Born in Michigan in 1957, Martin started cycling competitively in the early '80s while she was a college student in Boulder, Colorado -- a great place to catch the cycling bug. Martin showed great promise as a racer early on, and quickly got her license and joined a team in Boulder.
|The Harvest/Mercian team of the early '80s was fielded by The Spoke bike shop in Boulder, sponsored by the Harvest grocery store and Mercian Cycles. This photo appears on the Mercian Cycles website, but the caption there fails to mention that the auburn-haired woman in the front row, center, is none other than Marianne Martin (thanks to Classic Rendezvous friend Peter B. for identifying her!)|
But 1984 would be big for women's cycling for another reason. That was the year that TdF organizer Felix Levitan would introduce the Tour de France Féminine - to run concurrently with that year's Tour, over nearly the same routes as the men's race. The women's route's were shorter -- with much of the distance taken off the front end, but including most of the same climbs, and ending at the same finish line as the men, about a half hour or so before the men's race would finish, and guaranteeing big crowds. That inaugural year, because of UCI restrictions, the Tour Féminine was limited to 18 stages, compared to the men's race with 23.
A recent article from The Guardian described the skepticism among the French press and public about whether women should, or even could, complete a stage race as big as the Tour. French TdF champion Laurent Fignon ('83 and '84) was famously quoted "I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else."
Martin put in a strong performance right from the opening stage, surprising not only the European teams, but her fellow Americans as well. The race really took a turn when it hit the Alps. In the 12th stage with two major climbs, Martin, who was a natural climber, powered away from the rest of the field. She won that stage, moved into second place overall, and pulled on the climber's Polka Dot jersey.
In the 14th stage with more climbing, she took the leader's Yellow Jersey and held it until the final stage on the Champs Élysées. There in Paris, standing on the same podium that would hold the champion Laurent Fignon (along with Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond), Marianne Martin was crowned the first women's champion, and the first American winner as well. Standing on the podium in 3rd place overall was another American, Deborah Shumway. It was a stunning achievement for the U.S. and women's cycling both. And contrary to the predictions by the press, all but one of the women in the race completed the entire Tour.
|"I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else." I wonder if Marianne Martin made Laurent Fignon eat those words?|
The Tour Féminine, while "shrinking" in size, continued to be run alongside the Tour de France through 1989, dominated by Maria Canins of Italy, and Jeannie Longo of France, who traded 1st and 2nd place for five years. American Inga Thompson would finish 3rd in '86 and again in '89. Then the race disappeared for two years. When it was reintroduced, it was smaller still. Then another insult/injury came when the Société du Tour de France claimed that the race name was an infringement of their trademark and ordered them to change. It was renamed the Grande Boucle Féminine ("the Great Loop," which was/is a common nickname for the TdF). It ended in 2009.
There was a small amount of attention paid in the last couple of years about a new women's race in Paris, coinciding with the Tour - La Course by Le Tour de France - but it's really nothing like the true stage race won by Marianne Martin in 1984. La Course is more like a one-day criterium on the Champs Élysées, that just happens to be held on the final day of the Tour.
In 2012, Marianne Martin was inducted into the Boulder Sports Hall of Fame, but so far has not been recognized by the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. Don't ask me why. No, she doesn't have as many major victories and national championships as women like Carpenter, Twigg, or Inga Thompson (all of whom are in the USBHoF) - but it's hard to argue that winning the first (and probably the toughest) Tour Féminine wasn't an accomplishment worthy of the same level of recognition.
Health issues eventually forced Marianne Martin to give up bicycle racing, but I've found several references that say she still resides in Boulder where she works as a photographer. I understand that she still rides occasionally for enjoyment.
It's a shame that there isn't more support for women's cycling. The '80s and '90s saw a number of high-level races for women: The Coors Classic, The Tour Féminine, and The Ore-Ida Challenge to name a few. The lack of sponsors is usually cited as the reason, but there's still a healthy dose of plain old-fashioned sexism behind it. The UCI has long taken stands that have helped hobble women's cycling, arguing that big stage races like the ones I've just mentioned are too difficult for women, and thereby withholding sanctioning of such events. Women have proven again and again that they are up to the challenge.