anna brones

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Marianne Martin

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“Achievement is not success if it comes at the cost of goodness.”

-Marianne Martin

In 1984, Marianne Martin secured not only a yellow jersey, but a place in sports and cycling history: the first ever American to win the Tour de France.

But indicative of the gender inequality that still exists in many sports, particularly cycling, you may never have heard of Martin. After all, some of the greatest sporting feats have gone unnoticed simply because they were accomplished by women.

I read about Martin last year in a Peloton article that I came across around the start of the Tour de France. That led to a Guardian article, where I read the following:

“In 1984, one of the Tour de France’s organizers, Felix Levitan, decided to hold the Tour de France Féminin. News of women joining the Tour de France in its 71st year was met with opposition by many in France, according to Christopher Thompson in Tour de France: A Cultural History. The 1983 Tour winner, Laurent Fignon, was blunt in his assessment: ‘I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else.'”

If that’s irritating, consider the opinion of Jacques Anquetil, the five-time Tour champion, who is quoted as saying: “I have absolutely nothing against women’s sports, but cycling is much too difficult for a woman.” I wonder what Anquetil would have to say about Alexendera Houchin, who just rode the entire Tour Divide on a singlespeed, setting a new record.

Things have changed over the last few decades, and today there is an ongoing growth of women in sports—in part thanks to policy changes—yet women still struggle with many inequities, like pay gaps, making it every more important to highlight some of the changemakers in sports history.

When it comes to one of the most quintessential bicycle races, Bicycling notes, “for the majority of its history, the Tour de France kept women squarely on the sidelines, with the only female roles being played by a loyal wife or fresh-faced girlfriend… Over the years, podium hostesses remain one of the most visible roles for women at the Tour.”  The same went for essentially every big bike race in the early and mid 1900s, although in 1924 Alfonsina Strada managed to fool the organizers into thinking she was a man and rode the Giro d’Italia.

While there was an attempt at a women’s tour in 1955, in 1984 the organizers behind the Tour de France launched the Tour de France Féminin, a notable moment in sports history. A moment of change. The overall race was shorter than the men’s, 18 stages instead of the men’s 23, yet despite the difference in distance, the course followed the men’s, and took the women up all the same climbs, each men’s and women’s stage ending at the same finish line. For their efforts, the men enjoyed ample prize money and an apartment even went to the cyclist claiming first place. The women however, couldn’t even cover their expenses. Martin told Peloton, “I won $1,000 at the Tour and had to share that with my team. I paid for my own flight to New York, to get to Paris. I funded everything myself, bought my own bikes, got into debt to fund my career.”

Many years later, and the Tour de France Féminin is defunct, now replaced by La Course, a daylong race (compared to the men’s 21 days). I was at the inaugural event in 2014 and got to cover it for Bike Portland. I’ll always remember that day, not just because the riding was just as exciting as any men’s race (and it was), but also because of the camaraderie that was displayed during and after the event. The entire thing felt so inherently different than the men’s race, and for me, that’s what made it special. In 2018, a group of women riders took on the entire Tour de France course on their own terms, no podiums, no prize money.

Where does that leave us? The push for equality is essential, but in our interview, Martin notes that for her, equality does not mean “sameness.” That’s a similar sentiment that Sally Jenkins wrote about in regards to the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team during the recent World Cup: “The lame idea of sameness is actually a “profoundly conservative goal” for women. Replicating male sports structures with their baked-in disenfranchisement of athletes in favor of “owners,” with their lousy assumptions and values, has never been what the women in the U.S. soccer program were really interested in.”

Whether it’s cycling, soccer or any other sport, we need to value women for their contributions, and continue to promote a culture in which women and girls are encouraged to pursue any athletic goal, and provide them the means to do so.

Thank you so much to Martin for saying yes to doing an interview for the Women’s Wisdom Project, it is an honor to feature her.

What does wisdom mean to you?

To me wisdom is the deep knowledge of how things really are, and the ability to see the good in it.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you?

My mom was a really good, good, person. She was mentally ill and that would come and go and made her life very, very challenging for her….but despite all of her challenges, she remained a deeply good, loving person.

When did you start cycling and at what point did you start racing?

I started cycling to race. I was in my early 20s, and I saw the Red Zinger, and a local race that my sister did, and I said “I want to do that!” I always loved sport but have no eye to hand coordination and most sports were ball sports. Bike racing was fast, colorful, and seemed so do-able to me. I loved the excitement of it all. I did ride a bike in elementary school quite a bit to get places—that I wasn’t supposed to go!!

How did riding a bicycle and racing make you feel?

More than powerful, the bicycle made me feel empowered. Even today, without sport or physical activity I feel my soul is less empowered—I cannot be happy and whole without fitness.

Laurent Fignon, who won the Tour the same year you did, is infamously known for saying, “I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else.” How do you think our culture around women’s sports has changed since then, and in what ways do you feel that we still have work to do?

I think some men (falsely) feel more powerful than women so that helps them feel strong and needed, and therefore powerful. When they are around women who are strongly independent—in sports or career—they feel less so. It is so deeply engrained in some cultures it will take decades to shift… if ever. I meet so many men who feel they are enlightened and above that, but have no idea how deeply they still believe it.

I believe there are differences and men and women can’t always be equals in sport…. I mean we aren’t. The Tour is a great example: the men’s race has a huge history, it is even a tradition. To bring women in to that same tour is unrealistic and wrong. Society these days says women and men need to be equal. Equality, yes, but not the same. Having a men’s race that has been going on for 100 years does not mean that all of a sudden we have to have the same for women. I think it is great to bring women into it and I would LOVE nothing more than to have the women’s tour the way it was when I did it, because then they would grow their own following and create and prove their worth. But to demand it is not the way to go, and to be the same is not the way to go. Women are women and I think we need to embrace that and bring a different element and grace to sport.

What lessons would you say you learned from racing and winning the Tour in 1984? And to add on that, what lessons from cycling do you feel that you have taken on into the rest of your life?

1. That we are capable of way more than we ever believe.

2. That our beliefs are a huge part of what is holding us back.

3. That some people only want to know us because of something we’ve done, not who we are. I won the Tour but that is not who I am. I am (or at least I strive to be) a kind, funny, thoughtful, loving person. Winning the Tour is only something that I did. It might say something about me—my drive, my abilities—but not who I am. For example I really respect Lance Armstrong’s athletic abilities; drugs or no drugs, he is an amazing athlete. But I don’t respect how he treated others and handled himself—he showed himself to not be a good person. When I meet someone and they are aloof… then they find out I won the Tour and then they are friendly, I don’t like that. I lose respect for that person when they only want to get to know me because of something that I accomplished.

From your perspective, what do girls gain from participating in sports?

Empowerment, self confidence, inner strength, maturity.

What wisdom would you share with your younger self?

Even the best of the best have self doubts so just acknowledge that you have them, they have them, and we are all equal. What someone has done does not make them a good person. Kindness, thoughtfulness, honesty, generosity, friendliness: those are the qualities that make a good person. Achievement, in sports or work does not make you a good person, and to me, achievement is not success if it comes at the cost of goodness. Above all be a good person.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

July 12, 2019 at 06:51