Marianne Martin: Remembering the magic of the 1984 Women’s Tour de France
1984 was a ground-breaking year for women’s sports and a special celebration for Americans. Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first women’s marathon, and Connie Carpenter-Phinney won the first women’s road race at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Marianne Martin secured the yellow jersey at the first women’s Tour de France in the same summer.
More than three decades later, and as the women’s peloton prepares for the highly-anticipated Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift in July, Cyclingnews spoke with Martin and her former teammate Patty Peoples about their experiences as trailblazers in women’s cycling.
“I’m just so excited that they are bringing the race back. I want it to be fabulous. I want the press to be all over it. I want to see women get an opportunity to race that amazing event. To me, there is so much history there, and the Tour de France is what bike racing is about; it’s part of the magic,” Martin told Cyclingnews
The men’s Tour de France is rich in history, with its beginnings in 1903. A women’s version found its roots much later, and under a different organisation, as a one-off multi-day race won by the Isle of Man’s Millie Robinson in Normandy in 1955.
The Société du Tour de France, which later became part of ASO in 1992, hosted an official women’s Tour de France, alongside the men’s Grand Tour, from 1984 through 1989. Other versions of the event followed it: Tour Cycliste Féminin and the Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale, all managed under different organizers.
Martin described what it was like to race 1,059km across 18 stages the year she won and revelled in having climbed over many of the iconic mountain passes in the Alps and the Pyrenees. She said the women’s peloton followed the last 80km, or so, of the men’s route, and they would finish two hours before the men at the same finish line.
“We had a few more rest days and 18 stages held over 22 days. We did the last 60-80km of the men’s race, so we didn’t have huge mileage, but we had all the big climbs. The Tour de France is a climbing race, and its history is the drama in the Alps and the Pyrenees. I would love to see the big climbs added to the [Tour de France Femmes] in future because that’s a big part of it,” Martin said while also understanding the route limitations of an 8-day race compared to an 18-day race.
“Of course, I am so attached with how it was organized when we did it in 1984 because everything about it was completely fabulous.”
“We knew we could do it”
Martin competed in the first women’s Tour de France as part of a six-rider team that included Patty Peoples, Deborah Shumway, Betty Wise, Yolanda Goral, and Betsy King. They competed against six other national teams: Netherlands, Great Britain, France A, France B, and Canada.
“I didn’t know a lot about racing, but I knew about the Tour de France. It was an unknown, and it had this magic to me. It wasn’t just a one-day thing, but it would show the champion because there were so many days of racing. Anything can happen in one day, but nothing can happen in 18 days if you’re not on your game.”
Peoples recalled that upon arrival in France, much of the media surrounding the event published stories with headlines that questioned whether the women would be capable of completing all 18 stages, especially when they hit the mountains.
“When we first arrived, we weren’t initially welcomed by the French papers. We were all excited, but in the papers, they were saying that the women shouldn’t be doing the Tour; it was too difficult, too hard, and they predicted that not one woman would make it to the end,” Peoples said.
“We felt that this notion of the race being too hard for us was crazy. We didn’t fear it, and we knew we could do it well, and we were definitely going to finish it.
“Our stages were parallel to the men’s, but there were rules to have shorter distances, we were able to do the limit for women, but we did every stage, and more importantly, every mountain stage. When they cut our distances, it wasn’t the mountains that were cut.”
A big battle between the Netherlands and USA
The Dutch team won 15 of the 18 stages between Mieke Havik, Petra de Bruin, Heleen Hage, Connie Meijer and Hanneke Lieverse. After the first week, Canada’s Kelly-Ann Way broke the Dutch winning streak by claiming the win on stage 8.
Martin’s strength shone on the mountainous stage 12 into Grenoble where she netted the day’s win and the overall race lead. She went on to also win the mountainous stage 14 into La Plagne.
“When I got over to France, I wanted to win the polka dot jersey, and I motored on the climbs, and when I got to the top of one of the climbs coming into Grenoble, I was 10 minutes ahead of everyone. I still had 50km to go, and I didn’t think I could do it alone, so I wasn’t killing myself. I thought that I would ride until they caught me – but no one caught me.”
Asked what she remembers most about the mountain stages that year, Martin distinctly recalled the challenging climb up the Col de Joux Plane.
“You’ve had children, right? Was childbirth horrible? But you did it again, right?. So, I think it’s kind of like that. I don’t remember it being horrible, but maybe it was. I remember Joux Plane only because I looked up and saw that, and I will never forget that vision in my mind. I saw the climb, and I thought, ‘no fucking way’. If I didn’t have that experience, maybe I wouldn’t have remembered.”
Peoples recalled the day Martin took the leader’s jersey and the fans who cheered for the US National Team along the sides of the roads. Many camped out overnight to catch a glimpse of the women’s race and then the men’s race that followed. She said even the press members began to show some enthusiasm in their reporting of the women’s event.
“The only women who didn’t finish the Tour de France were the same as the men; they were either sick or injured or crashed out. The fans loved it. The US team … when we became the leaders, fans were shouting ‘Allez, Allez, Allez États-Unis,’ and we wore our yellow caps to signify the winning team, and it was unbelievable. The crowds loved us, and the newspapers came around because we were proving them wrong.”
A gift to Dad
Martin remembered the cheers coming from the side of the road while racing along the Champs-Élysées. They were from her father, James, who had flown into Paris to surprise her on the final stage.
“We did a bunch of miles and then came down the Champs-Élysées where I heard someone say ‘go Marianne’, and the next lap I saw my dad. I turned and said to Heleen Hage, ‘that’s my dad,’ like she gave a shit,” Martin said.
“I grew up in this little town. Everyone knew me as Dr. Martin’s daughter. I couldn’t get into any trouble because everyone knew me. After I won the Tour de France, we joked that now he was Marianne Martin’s father. He surprised me and flew over there, and he took a week and travelled around France. He took my newspaper article clippings with him everywhere to show the people at the vineyards and said, ‘moi papa,’ and they would make a big fuss over him. It was a treasure to be able to give him that win.”
Martin went down in the history books as the first woman to win the women’s Tour de France. She won the race by 3:17 ahead of Hage and 11:51 ahead of her teammate Shumway. In addition, Martin also secured the polka dot mountains jersey, and the US National Team won the best overall team classification.
“They did all the women’s podium first, then the men’s podiums, and then at the end, they put Laurent Fignon and me up there together. It was surreal,” Martin said.
Martin was inducted into US Bicycling Hall of Fame 37 years after winning the women’s Tour de France. She accepted her induction at a ceremony on November 6, 2021, at the USA Cycling Headquarters in Colorado Springs.
“It feels like I’ve been getting more press in the last five years than I did right after winning. It’s in my heart, and I’m very proud of that win, but it’s a personal thing, and I’m proud of that accomplishment whether anyone else knows about it or not,” Martin said.
Martin, now a professional photographer, told Cyclingnews ahead of her induction ceremony that her victory at the 1984 women’s Tour de France was largely unknown to most people in her life outside of close family and friends.
While she is honoured to have been inducted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame, her accomplishment isn’t something she speaks about very often.
“Half my friends don’t even know that I was a cyclist. It’s not something I carry out in front of me. It’s not who I am; it’s something that I did. That’s how I feel about people, whatever their accolades are, that’s not who they are, it’s something they did, and it’s more important to be a good person than doing something fabulous,” Martin said.
“Just because I [won the Tour de France] doesn’t mean that I have to shout it out. Some people ask, ‘aren’t you proud of it’ or ‘why don’t you tell people?’ It’s not like it comes up in conversation with a new friend; you don’t say, ‘oh, by the way, I won the Tour de France’. I almost don’t want people to know because that would be who I am to them, instead of just being me. It’s a very exciting thing for me, and I’m very proud of it, but just because I don’t go around shouting about it, doesn’t mean that I’m not proud of it.”
The women’s professional peloton will, once again, compete for the prestigious yellow jersey at the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift from July 24-31. The eight-day race will cover 1,029km beginning at Eiffel Tower and concluding with the summit finish of La Planche des Belles Filles.
Peoples hopes that the women who raced in the 1984 women’s Tour de France will be remembered as the trailblazers that have paved the way for those who will be competing for the yellow jersey this July.
“The 1984 peloton – all of us – we were all pioneers. People thought we couldn’t do it, but none of us felt that way. We all knew that we could do it. We were just there to race our bikes. I’m more excited now about being one of the first because when you’re in it, it doesn’t feel so historic or like you’re making history,” Peoples told Cyclingnews.
“Now, I look back and realize how important it was to be racing at the 1984 Tour de France. We won the yellow and polka-dot jerseys, placed first and third on the overall podium, and won the best team classification. It was an opportunity, and we took it and rose to the occasion.”
Want even more women’s Tour? Click here to read “A Brief History fo the Women’s Tour de France” from Velo Magazine