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Anyone wondering how important it is for women to have their own Tour de France again should consider this: Marianne Martin – who won the race in 1984 – says this year’s event has made her want to resume the road, to run again, for the first time in years.
“I can watch the men’s race and not feel that. But when I watch the women’s race, I’m like, ‘I miss it so much,'” Martin told NPR. “And I didn’t even think about it until I said it now. But that’s what’s important with the Women’s Tour is that other women can see women racing and they can visualize doing it.”
Martin, who lives in Colorado, was the surprise winner of the Women’s Tour de France, the first women’s version of the venerable race from its longtime organizers (a 1955 event was set up by a journalist).
There was a gap in how women were treated, on and off the course
Martin and his fellow runners had a very different experience in 1984 compared to male athletes. Asked to describe the discrepancy, Martin replied: “It was huge.”
She shared the podium with men’s champion Laurent Fignon, who took home over $100,000. Both runners finished in yellow, meaning they were the big winners, but Martin took home around $1,000.
The 1984 women’s race had 18 stages covering around 1,000 kilometres, about a quarter of the men’s mileage. The women raced on the same days as the men, riding the last 60 kilometers of the same course ahead of the male cyclists, “which was very cool,” Martin said, “because the crowds were already there and it was just unbelievable.”
The arrangement required women to conquer the Tour’s famous grueling climbs and summit finishes in the mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees.
“The French didn’t think we would finish the race,” said Martin. And the male runners also stayed in better hotels and ate better food.
“But here’s the thing,” added Martin. “I didn’t have different expectations, so it didn’t bother me at all…I don’t care if they’re staying in a really nice place. I just want to be racing in France.”
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“There’s a different feeling about it now,” she added, noting female athletes’ campaign for fair wages and prices in cycling and other sports.
This year’s Tour de France Women with Zwift offered around $250,000 in prize money, including some $50,000 for winner Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands.
Martin has barely made the Tour de France team
“I didn’t prepare for the race,” Martin said.
Health problems had taken a toll on her fitness, and she was not selected to the U.S. team for the Women’s Tour de France in 1984, which pitted national teams against each other.
“I wasn’t fit enough to ride, so I didn’t make the team. But there was one spot left,” Martin said.
Martin knew her body was bouncing back when she did well in a race against national racers in Colorado. Her friend and fellow cyclist Steve Tilford drove her to the Olympic training center, where they begged national team coach Edward Borysewicz to give her a place.
Around the same time, Martin was also trying to make the US Olympic cycling team. But the plan changed when she got the green light to race the Tour.
“I actually did three of the four races at the Olympic trials and then flew to France,” she said.
“I was really excited about [the Olympics], but if I had been in the team, I would still have gone to France,” she said. “I mean, it’s like a whole month versus a day, and that’s in France. You know, I can’t think of anything better than the Tour de France.”
How did Martin prepare for the race?
Had she had more time to prepare for the world’s most famous cycling race, Martin said, she would have tried to do more back-to-back races. But as his winning margin of over 3 minutes showed, his training was solid.
“My training theory, and I have a pretty firm opinion on this, is that every time you’re on the bike there should be a specific reason,” Martin said.
“When I was cycling I would go really, really hard – really hard. And then I went really easy. Sometimes I needed two days of easy to fully recover. And unless I was completely recovered, I wouldn’t go hard on my bike. And I was never average on my bike, ever. I was just really scientific about [it].”
She says the approach increased her fitness level and intensity in just one month.
“You have to train hard to race hard. I don’t think people do that, yet – not enough,” Martin said.
The strategy helped her take charge of the Tour de France in the difficult climbing stages, winning both the iconic yellow jersey and the polka dot jersey as queen of the mountains.
How can women’s cycling keep its momentum going?
“No matter what, it has to work for the sponsor. That’s the main thing. And I think sometimes riders forget that,” Martin said.
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The women on Martin’s team wore red, white, and blue jerseys emblazoned with “USA” (United States), rather than a sponsor’s logo. . They weren’t promoting anything – unlike the corporate embrace of sport today. In contrast, the current women’s race is dubbed the Tour de France Women with Zwift, as it is sponsored by the gaming company.
Women have regained a piece of cycling’s crown jewel after female cyclists made their business partly by riding the men’s route in recent years. The eight-stage event replaces La Course – a one-day race for women by Tour organisers.
Martin sums it up like this: “The exhibition brings more women into the sport; the show makes it work for sponsors; sponsorship makes it work for runners; the riders put on a good show – and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean, it’s just a great show.”
If all those gears are turning, Martin said, “more people get excited about bike racing, and the circle just continues.”