Celebrating the inaugural Tour de France Feminin with a pioneer

Elite women will race on the Champs Élysées this year, but La Course isn't the first time women have raced at the Tour

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Patty Peoples competed in the first-ever Tour de France Féminin with only a few years of experience as a cyclist. Her U.S. team claimed the GC, team and climbers prizes in 1984. Photo: John Pierce
Patty Peoples at the end of the mountainous La Plagne road stage.  Photo: John Pierce

The Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the sprint for the finish up the Champs-Élysées — those who follow the mother of all grand tours will be familiar with the icons of the Tour de France’s final day, to be held this year on July 27.

However, there is a unique addition to the Champs-Élysées in 2014. It is perhaps unique, but not new. This year brings the new La Course by Le Tour de France. Amaury Sport Organisation and the UCI have been supportive of the addition of a women’s race to this year’s Tour de France, stating, “Women’s racing on the iconic parcours of the Champs-Élysées is a tremendous step forward, and we are pleased to welcome this addition to the UCI calendar.”

With the spotlight shining on the new La Course, the original Tour de France Féminin has slipped off the radar. For those unfamiliar with the Tour Féminin, it’s easy to assume that La Course is the debut for women in the French grand tour.

Recognizing the rich history of Tour de France Féminin is necessary, and it is flawed to refer to La Course as a historic moment in women’s cycling. It’s misleading to insinuate that this will be the first time women have raced the Tour de France in any capacity.

To share her thrilling experience, and to set the facts straight, Patty Peoples spoke with VeloNews. Peoples’ experience as an athlete is prolific and most notably, she was wholly involved in the inaugural Tour de France Féminin in 1984. Peoples has felt the perils of women’s racing firsthand, and her passion for the sport is contagious — she hopes to inspire and inform the public about where women’s racing has been, not just where it is going.

With 30 years in the sports/fitness industry, one glance at Peoples’ race resume highlights her exceptional talent, boasting over 130 career victories in duathalon, triathlon, and cycling. Peoples did not start racing bikes until 1983 when she was 27 years old, and that was simply to fulfill her role as an elite triathlete. “I did not come from an organized sports background but once I set my mind to something, I work hard to be successful,” Peoples told VeloNews.

And successful she was, earning an invitation to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado in 1984 to train with the U.S. National Team prior to the Olympic Trials — all before Peoples had ever participated in a bike race. 1984 was a landmark year for women’s sports with the first Olympic marathon, road race, and the Tour de France Féminin.

When Peoples made the U.S. team for the Tour de France Féminin, she was not aware of the magnitude and significance of the inaugural women’s Tour de France: “It took time to sink in since 1984 was my first year racing bikes … as I became more involved in cycling, I came to realize the significance of the opportunity.” Peoples experience with the inaugural Tour de France Féminin proved to be a success that surpassed expectations. The U.S. team swept the race, taking the overall win as well as the team title and polka dot jersey.

The winner of the 1984 Tour de France Féminin was Marianne Martin who currently resides in Boulder, CO. Martin had an impressive turn-around that year, as she suffered from anemia earlier in the year. She didn’t take the lead until the 14th stage in the 1984 race, but climbing was her strength and the mountainous stages proved to be favorable for the American champion.

While this year’s La Course features just one stage for the women, the 1984 Tour de France Féminin nearly mirrored the men’s race, with the only notable difference being the distances raced. The women raced the same 21 days and every mountain pass. Each day, the women would finish roughly 30 minutes before the men. The mileage was shortened on the front end (flat, parade pace sections) to comply with UCI rules regarding women’s racing distances.

Peoples said the “fans were fabulous!” They were thrilled to have the women racing in tandem with the men, and the women experienced the very same fanfare the men did. With such an excellent response from the public, what ultimately kept the Tour de France Féminin from growing into a larger, long-lasting event? Peoples can only speculate, but the roadblocks proved to be sizable.

“I can only give you my opinion, but I think the logistics of doing both events was a nightmare and there were probably some influential men who didn’t want women there,” Peoples said. “The French media was against us being there. They basically said we had no business doing the Tour.”

Even with the incredible success of taking the overall win for the inaugural women’s Tour, Team U.S. hardly received any recognition, even in the United States. Peoples recalls one story in the Washington Post about her team’s triumph, but that was it — and this was after surpassing expectations in an astonishing way. “They [French media] predicted not a single woman would make it to the Champs-Élysées,” Peoples told VeloNews.

In the years that followed, the Tour de France Féminin experienced significant changes and a serious decrease in stages, but also the number of riders dwindled. Peoples’ 1984 experience was undoubtedly one of the closest experiences any woman has reached to racing the very same iconic Tour as the men. In 1998, the Tour de France Féminin was changed to The Grande Boucle (The Grand Loop) because of a trademark breach. With each year, the race faced further challenges, and in 2004 it was not held at all. When it returned in 2005, it was significantly smaller.

And with the shrinking of the race, the history behind the original Tour de France Féminin seemed to dissipate as well. Emma Pooley (Lotto-Belisol) joked that the race should be referred to as a Petite Boucle rather than a Grande in an interview with Cycling Weekly, as the race was only four days long.

Other stage races were held in France for women in the recent years, but even these, with no relation to the Tour de France, have not survived. When The Grande Boucle was terminated in 2009, the only race left was the 10-day Tour de l’Aude Cycliste Féminin … and that was gone by 2010. For the last four years, France has been left without a single major stage race for women for the first time since the 1980s.

With thirty years having passed, the significance of Tour de France Féminin and the U.S. team’s success continues to grow, and it means more to Peoples with each passing year. As four years have gone by without a single significant race for women in France, La Course has been flooded with media involvement and Peoples is “glad to see that the women racing today will get the opportunity to experience what it’s like to compete in the biggest cycling event in the world, if only for one day.” But, with the spotlight on La Course, Peoples takes a step back.

“I would like to see the media get the facts straight. Several of the media outlets are reporting that the upcoming one stage for women in the Tour is ‘history making for women.’ It is not. The 1984 inaugural Tour de France Féminin was history-making.”

Better late than never, Peoples hopes that the pioneers of the 1984 Tour de France Féminin will receive more respect and recognition from the media as cycling fans prepare for the women’s circuit around the Champs-Élysées. La Course is an outstanding step for women’s cycling, but it’s not the first step. Recognizing the history behind women in the Tour de France will only help the sport and the involvement grow further — especially with the passion from pioneers like Patty Peoples.

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