Marianne Martin was the first American to win the Tour de France.
The year was 1984. Bikes were made of metal, helmets were made of leather, and Marianne Martin, a 26-year-old cyclist originally from Fenton, Michigan, realized her dream of being the first American to wear the coveted yellow jersey as she pedaled across the finish line under the Arc de Triomphe and became the first American winner of the Tour de France.
Two years later, Greg LeMond's iconic victory secured his place in the history books – but not as the first American to win the Tour. That particular achievement belongs to Martin, who earned her place on the podium alongside the legendary LeMond, Laurent Fignon, and Bernard Hinault. Her name should be as well-known as these icons of the sport.
Marianne Martin specifically won the Tour de France Féminin, a race that ran alongside the Tour de France and covered 18 of the Tour’s 23 stages, with slightly abbreviated routes. The grueling climbs were the same, and the spectator-lined grand finales were the same, with the women’s race finishing only a half hour or so before the men crossed the line, to the wild reception of European cycling fans. The Tour de France Féminin lasted five years, and to this day the 1984 version remains the only women’s stage race that most closely mirrored the men’s edition. Even the modern Tour de France Femmes is substantially shorter and not run concurrently with the Tour de France.
Arguments that attempt to discredit or diminish Marianne Martin’s extraordinary performance speak to the chauvinism of the era more than they speak to Martin’s incredible athletic achievement. Unfortunately, this sort of sexism in sport isn’t just a product of its time – it still runs rampant. Thankfully, the Tour de France Femmes is a pedal stroke in the right direction.
So, what was it like to ride in the first year of the Tour de France Féminin, in an era which many cycling fans consider to be the golden era for road racing?
“I still feel like I raced at the best time I could imagine because we had some amazing races around the States. You know, we had the Coors Classic, the South Series… so many big classic races,” Martin said, speaking on a video call from her home in Colorado. “There was a purity to the sport. You know, very few people got any money. It was passion driven, not money driven.”
Over the course of those 18 stages in July 1984, the powerhouse climber fought for every advantage, utilizing the strength, tactics, and guts of a true champion. And she did it all on a Vitus 979, the legendary lightweight aluminum race machine that became one of the most successful racing bikes ever built. Martin remembers it fondly.
“The Vitus 979 was the best bike that I’d ever had. It was light, it was state of the art. You know, I don't know a lot about equipment, and I don't really care. I just wanted it to work. And it worked.”
Her victory didn’t come easily. Martin was still recovering from a bout of anemia, and as a climber she had to wait until the 12th stage – the first in the Alps – to gain a competitive advantage. It wasn’t until the 14th stage that she finally earned the yellow jersey. Luckily, knowing when to go full gas and when to rest is a major part of Marianne’s recipe for success.
“Rest is like my secret weapon. And it's still not taken as seriously as it needs to be. What I learned early on in training was you go really hard, you push your body, you break your body down, and then you rest. And that's where all the magic happens – it's about letting your body rebuild.”
As the Tour de France Femmes launches and with cycling reentering the American popular consciousness thanks to the Netflix documentary series Tour de France: Unchained, Marianne Martin's victory during the golden age of the sport needs to be retold. As Billie Jean King famously put it, “You have to see it to be it.” Hopefully young riders find inspiration in Martin’s story.
Driven by her passion for the sport and an unwavering determination, Marianne Martin etched her name in history and blazed a trail for American cycling and women cyclists. She rightfully earned her place among the greats as the first American to win the Tour de France – no footnotes, no asterisks, full stop.