Thursday, September 15, 2016

The First American to Win the Tour de France

Who was the first American to win the Tour de France? Everybody knows that one: Greg LeMond in 1986 - right? The first (and officially the only) American to do so.

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!)
After fighting anemia in the early part of 1984, Marianne failed to qualify for the '84 Olympic team, which would prove to be huge for American cycling - particularly for the women. Recall the Gold and Silver one-two by Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg at the Los Angeles games.

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."

Having missed out on the Olympic team, Martin learned that there was still one more spot for the team headed to France. With some encouragement from racer Steve Tilford, she approached national coach Eddie Borysewicz, or "Eddie B," and convinced him to let her take the last spot. It turned out to be a good decision.

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?
Reflecting the biases that hobble almost all of women's sports, even 30 years later, coverage of this incredible success was practically nonexistent. Even here in the U.S., few in the public would ever hear about the success of the American women in Paris. Add to that the difficulty in finding sponsors for the women's race, and it gradually shrank in scope and size. There was a huge gap in prize money as well. Quoted in the Guardian article, Martin says her prize was the winner's cup and about $1000, which was split among all the women on team. In the end, it actually cost her and her teammates money to compete.

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.


  1. Sexism indeed. i witnessed it at local races in the '70s and 80's from the State rep on down. Some women were eventually allowed race "with the boys" but only in cat 3 or 4 races. i was at a race where Debbie Bradley -working in a breakaway of 3 or 4- lapped the field in a men's cat 3 crit, and IIRC, finished on the podium, much to the chagrin of some of "the guys." There were fewer female racers, but the talent pool was pretty deep and most could hold their own in any peloton.

  2. I think there were two reasons why we heard so little about Marianne Martin's victory:

    1. Women's racing was considered a second-class sport, at best, and a sideshow, at worst, in most of the world. Fignon's comment is evidence of that.

    2. To the extent that Americans paid attention to racing in the early '80's, they were watching the Olympics and races like the Coors Classic because, well, those are the races where American men made their mark.

    Brooks, I am so glad that you write about women in racing. We can't let this part of cycling history--forget about that, this part of history--be lost!

  3. ""I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else." I wonder if Marianne Martin made Laurent Fignon eat those words?"
    I doubt it. He probably could have rode her out of his wheel...we are talking about one of the best rider of his generation. At a time when the gap between women and men in cycling was even bigger than today. And you imply that his sentence was sexist, when he just said that he didnt care for it.

    Look, there is a simple reason why la grande boucle femininE (you forgot the last E) folded: money. Women could not bring enough money in for it to be profitable.

    The uci sanction, but do not organize races. Promoters do. I have a friend who is one and lost money on every women's race he organized. Every single one. And got flak about it because the prize money for women was lower. He tried to give the same prize money to women,but did not see more women coming to race (and pay their fee) nor he had more sponsors. In the end, he just dropped them altogether. Less grief, no more financial losses.

    And he organize small criterium type races. For a tour de france, the logistics a far far more costly. Then you have to block roads, wich some mayors do not want since the women's tour do not bring the same publicity to their town/region than the men's version do, but anger people who dont care for cyclism the same.

    On a personal level, i rarely watch women's cycling. Why? Because i have limited time to watch sports and i want to watch the bests there is. And thats the men.

    Don't get me wrong: i am all for women competing. Thats their right, and if it motivate young girls to become cyclists its a huge win. But professional sports is a business. Entertainement business. And sexual dimorphism make men better at it. The same way it make women better at gymnastics...

    1. Can't the UCI just remove the restriction on women not competing in the race? Let men and women start and finish in the same race. The same should go for professional football, baseball, basketball, soccer, etc. Bathrooms can't discriminate in some people's minds - just let the player's abilities discriminate between the winners and losers.

    2. They could, but most of the women would be disqualified because they would not make the time cut. On average, women are 4-5kph slower than men over shorter distances. The difference is bigger on time trials.

  4. I think an indepth sexism in cycling would be a great followup to this article.

  5. "Half the Road "by Bertine, a documentary on the ladies of the peleton , reccommended!

  6. Great article! This is the best bike trivia question, who was the first American to win a Tour de France stage, and the first American to win the Tour de France. Guaranteed to spark a hot discussion, and maybe win you a beer!