The first time I met 61-year-old Marianne Martin, she was hosting a birthday party at her home in Boulder, Colorado. As Martin buzzed about entertaining her guests, her gregarious charm filled the room.
Martin spends much of her time riding her horse, Starbuck, and running mountain trails and drinking margaritas with a local group of friends who call themselves the “Banditos.” She seemed to be everything those best-loved characters in old Westerns were made of: grit, curiosity, adventure, and a shot of tequila.
Not to mention, she was a dark horse, too.
At a lull in the party, my fiancé, a friend of Martin’s, nudged me and directed my attention to a trophy tucked away on a shelf: “Tour de France 1984” was inscribed on its base, and its glass body was painted with a pastoral scene of sheepherders in front of a blazing sunset.
The trophy celebrated Martin’s first-place finish in the first Tour de France Feminin in 1984—the women’s Tour de France—making her the first woman and first American to win the Tour.
This month marks the 35th anniversary of Martin’s groundbreaking win. In the three-plus decades since she walked away with that trophy, women’s professional sports have made progress toward equality, from the inception of the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the WNBA to the hiring of women as coaches and referees for the NBA and NFL.
Although women’s professional cycling has come a long way in the past three decades as well, it has not yet achieved equality with the men’s side. For one, women no longer have the opportunity to race on the iconic Tour de France stage—the Tour de France Feminin disbanded in 1989, partially due to lack of funding and dwindling interest, just five years after Martin won the inaugural event.
After activists called for an equivalent women’s race to the Tour de France five years ago, race organizers launched La Course by Le Tour de France. But since its debut, it’s been just a one- or two-day race, a far cry from the 18 stages in 23 days (totaling over 600 miles) that Martin rode back in ’84—and much shorter than the men’s race, which includes 21 stages over 23 days, and covers more than 2,000 miles.
To Martin, though, focusing on inequality isn’t going to help female cyclists get their Tour back—and it’s not going to help close the pay gap, either.
While the U.S. women’s national soccer team has made headlines and garnered support for their “Equal Play, Equal Pay,” campaign, Martin worries about the repercussions of female cyclists doing likewise—whether in prize money or base salary. She thinks they are asking for too much money in their effort to gain equal footing with male cyclists by having a full equivalent to the Tour de France, and are “going to shoot themselves in the foot.”
“I think it’s presumptuous of women to go to the Tour directors and say we deserve our own Tour with equal prize money,” she says.
She believes that asking for equal prize money right off the bat might scare off investors, undermining the potential renewal of the Tour and preventing pay equality from eventually being reached.
She says there is no Tour de France Feminin simply because somebody hasn’t approached the right sponsor in the right way—by showing that it could become a successful financial investment down the line.
“You can’t tell somebody how to spend their own money. You have to show them it’s a good business decision,” she says. “The men have been riding the Tour for over 100 years. Things don’t change overnight. But whoever decides to fund a women’s Tour is going to make headlines.”
That’s why she offers this advice to female cyclists who want their own Tour now: “Get your foot in the door,” she says, talking about a potential renewal of the women’s Tour. “Embrace it for what it is: a fabulous race all over France. Then let it grow.” Once it has established it can draw crowds and interest, then female cyclists can focus on closing the pay gap, she believes.
Riding Her Way to the Tour
Martin, who grew up grew up a dancer in Fenton, Michigan, began riding after college when a running injury sidelined her from lacing up. She quickly became hooked: There was more thinking involved in cycling than running, she believed.
Her first cycling race in 1980 was her first competition of any kind, and she did well enough to motivate her to keep improving: “I found I liked bike racing better than bike riding,” she says. “And I loved winning.”
When she heard that the first women’s Tour de France was being organized for the summer of 1984, she set her mind on making the U.S. team. With the encouragement of her friend Steve Tilford—a legendary mountain biking and cyclocross champion who died in a car crash last year—she drove to the U.S. Cycling Federation in Colorado Springs and successfully pleaded her case for the last spot on the team.
Martin didn’t stop to think about money or perks—she was just ecstatic to be riding her bike in France every day for a month. It didn’t matter to her that she and the rest of the women’s team stayed in mediocre hotels and received minimal coaching compared with the men’s team. Nor did it bother her that when she (and the U.S. team) did win the Tour, she came home with less than $1,000—significantly less than the male champion, Laurent Fignon, who received around $100,000.
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“The thing that still excites me to this day is doing something that someone says you couldn’t do,” says Martin.
But winning at that level was uncomfortable at first.
“The first couple times I went on the podium, I didn’t throw my arms up in victory because I wasn’t comfortable. I didn’t feel like I was supposed to win,” she explains. “Growing up we [as women] weren’t taught to win. We were taught to be nice to everyone.”
In fact, Martin often suffered from imposter syndrome, thinking she didn’t belong at the level at which she was performing. To combat that, she listened to guided-visualization tapes—which she received from a chance meeting with oncologist before the Tour, who used them with his patients—to help improve her self-confidence through meditation.
“In anything we do in life, there are all these little factors,” she says. “You’ve got to be open to all the little things that take you on your path.”
Moving Past Her Historic Win
For Martin, the path that took her to the highest level of women’s professional cycling with her 1984 victory curved off to another direction. She raced in Europe the next spring, but chronic illness over the next year made it difficult to continue competing. Martin stopped racing, and picked up two jobs so she could work off the debt amassed by her brief—and victorious—cycling career.
Now, more than three decades after her groundbreaking victory, Martin still rides her bike a couple times a month, enough to keep her in shape for her twice-a-year cycling trips, which have taken her everywhere from the Pyrenees to wine country to Vietnam. She spends much of her time riding her horse, hanging out with her “Banditos,” and shooting portraits and weddings for her photography business, Real Life Portraits.
The name has meaning to her: Martin has spent a lot of her life helping people see who they really are, whether through photography or interviews for her forthcoming book, Soaring After Sport. Through a compilation of interviews with athletes who have transitioned from an existence consumed by sport to “real life,” Martin hopes to help her readers visualize their best life going forward.
Just as Martin is pushing for individual progress, there are signs that women’s pro cycling is evolving, too: There has been a push over the past few years to improve funding and increase opportunities for women’s pro racing. This year, the Colorado Classic, for instance, has become a women’s-only race, making it the only women’s standalone pro road race in the Western hemisphere. According to its site, the race “is advancing women’s pro cycling with harder, longer routes; unprecedented financial support; and daily live TV streaming coverage that puts women’s racing on a global stage.”
On July 19, Reuters reported that the Tour de France organizers are looking to start a new women’s race that “would be to women’s cycling what the Tour de France is to men’s cycling”—though it would not be held during the same time as the men’s race.
Martin, though, doesn’t need a global stage to celebrate her achievements. Just as she had been 35 years ago, she remains humble about her victory. Her old jerseys aren’t framed on her walls; they’re buried in her closet “somewhere,” she says.
And her Tour de France winning trophy? She uses it as a catch-all container. “It’s valuable to me, but it doesn’t define me,” she says.
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