Anyone wondering how big a deal it is that women once again have their own Tour de France should consider this: Marianne Martin — who won the race in 1984 — says this year's event made her want to be back out on the road, racing again, for the first time in years.
"I can watch the men's race and not feel like this. But when I watch the women's race, I'm like, 'I miss that so much,' " Martin told NPR. "And I didn't even think about it until I'm saying this right now. But that's the big thing about having the women's Tour, is that other women can see women racing and they can visualize themselves doing it."
Martin, who lives in Colorado, was the surprise winner of the Tour de France Féminin, the first women's version of the venerable race from its long-time 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 her fellow riders had a very different experience in 1984 compared to the male athletes. Asked to describe the gap, Martin replied, "It was huge."
She shared the podium with men's champion Laurent Fignon, who won more than $100,000. Both riders finished in yellow, meaning they were the overall winners, but Martin won around $1,000.
The 1984 women's race had 18 stages covering around 1,000 kilometers — roughly a fourth of the men's mileage. The women raced on the same days as the men, riding the last 60 kilometers of the same route ahead of the male cyclists, "which was very cool," Martin said, "because the crowds were already there and it was just amazing."
The arrangement required the women to conquer the Tour's famous leg-draining climbs and summit finishes in the mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees.
"The French didn't think we'd finish the race," Martin said. And the male riders also stayed in better hotels and ate better food.
"But here's the thing," Martin added. "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 in France racing."
"There's a different feeling about that now," she added, noting female athletes' campaign for equitable salaries and prize money in cycling and other sports.
This year's Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift offered around $250,000 in prize money, including some $50,000 for winner Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands.
Martin barely got on the team for the Tour de France
"I didn't prepare for the race," Martin said.
Health problems had hurt her fitness, and she hadn't been selected to the U.S. squad for the women's Tour de France in 1984, which pitted national teams against one another.
"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 rebounding when she did well in a race against national riders in Colorado. Her friend and fellow cyclist Steve Tilford drove her to the Olympic training center, where they pleaded with national team coach Edward Borysewicz to give her a spot.
Around the same time, Martin was also trying to make the U.S. Olympic cycling team. But the plan changed when she got the green light to ride in the Tour.
"I actually did three of the four races at the Olympic trials and then flew right to France," she said.
"I was really excited about [the Olympics], but if I would have made the team, I still would have gone to France," she said. "I mean, it's like a whole month versus one day, and it's in France. You know, I just can't think of anything that's better than the Tour de France."
How did Martin get ready for the race?
If she had had more time to prepare for the world's most famous bike race, Martin said, she would have tried to do more back-to-back rides. But as her victory margin of more than 3 minutes showed, her training was solid.
"My theory about training, and I'm pretty opinionated about this, is that every time you're on the bike, there should be a specific reason," Martin said.
"When I'd go out on the bike, I went really, really hard — really hard. And then I went really easy. Sometimes I'd need two days of easy to completely recover. And unless I was completely recovered, I would not go hard on my bike. And I never went medium on my bike, never. I was just really scientific about [it]."
She says the approach boosted her fitness level and intensity in just a month.
"You have to train hard to race hard. I don't think people do that, still — not enough," Martin said.
The strategy helped her take charge of the Tour de France in the tough climbing stages, winning both the iconic yellow jersey and the polka dot jersey as the queen of the mountains.
How can women's cycling keep its momentum?
"Whatever happens, it's got to work for the sponsor. That's the bottom line. And I think sometimes cyclists forget about that," Martin said.
The women on Martin's team wore red, white and blue jerseys bearing "États-Unis," (United States), rather than a sponsor's logo. . They weren't promoting anything — unlike the corporate embrace of sports today. In contrast, the current women's race is dubbed the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, because it's sponsored by the gaming company.
Women regained a piece of cycling's crown jewel after female cyclists made their case in part by riding the men's route in recent years. The eight-stage event replaces La Course — a one-day race for women by the Tour organizers.
Martin sums it up this way: "The exposure brings more women into the sport; the exposure makes it work for the sponsors; the sponsorship makes it work for the racers; the racers put on a good show — and I don't mean that in a bad way, I mean, it just is a great show."
If all of those gears are turning, Martin said, "more people get excited about bicycle racing, and the circle just keeps going."