The Grande Boucle

Colour photos © Graham Watson

*Words by Kati Jagger*

The 1984 Tour de France covered nearly 2,500 miles and was comprised of twenty-three stages. Standing on the finishing podium at its conclusion were Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. But these men were not the first cyclists that day to ride into Paris and climb onto the winners’ platform to celebrate.

A few hours earlier, in the late July sun, standing in their places were Marianne Martin (American), Mieke Havik (Dutch) and Deborah Shumway (American). These were the top three finishers of the first-ever women’s Tour de France, or Tour Cycliste Féminin as it was then known. This gave the women’s side of the sport an unprecedented level of publicity, with an estimated two million people watching the final stage in Paris.

Prior to the introduction of an all-female Tour de France, only one woman had ever managed to ride one of the Grand Tours – the aptly named Alfonsina Strada (1891-1959). Strada completed the 1924 Giro d’ Italia, outside the time limit and 28 hours behind the main finishers, but 20 hours before the lanterne rouge. Her nickname, ‘Devil in a Dress’, suggests that there were more than just raised eyebrows directed at women cycling competitively during that era.

From the age of 10 she would ride her bicycle through her Italian village, with elderly women crossing themselves in indignation as she flew past. She won her first race when she was 13 (the prize was a live pig) and in 1911 set the hour record for both men and women near Turin, at 37.192km, whether it was ‘unladylike’ or not.

In 1924, individuals were allowed to compete in the Giro as race organisers struggled to attract riders (the top professionals refused to participate after their demand for start money was denied). Alfonsina stealthily entered the race by dropping the ‘a’ on her first name in the paperwork. Race organisers thereby mistook her for a man, ‘Alfonsin,’ and gave her the number 72. Once the error was realised, she was allowed to stay in the race due to the irregularity of that year’s entry requirements, and also because La Gazetta’s Emilio Colombo realised that he had a very good press opportunity.

Strada rode the first seven stages well but crashed badly in the eighth. One side of her handlebars snapped from the impact, but she managed to mend her bike (a wedding present from her husband) with half of a broom handle, thus finishing the stage with dropped metal bars on one side and a straight stick of wood on the other. Having finished outside of the time limit, she was disqualified from the Giro, but Colombo allowed her to continue in the race as an unofficial entrant. In the end, she finished all twelve stages despite her disqualification. The crowds were so appreciative of her effort that once she struggled through the final kilometres that day, they lifted her up and carried her across the finish line.

Sixty years later, the first women’s Tour de France covered 616 miles (991 kilometers) and consisted of eighteen stages. Put together by Félix Lévitan, co-organiser of the men’s Tour, the race was held in July alongside the men’s edition, finishing two to three hours before them each day. Unlike the men’s event, however, the women’s edition lacked sponsorship and so could hold stages only in the towns that agreed to host the race, making transfers long and technical support scarce. The race was renamed The Grande Boucle in 1998.

US rider Marianne Martin won the 1984 Grand Boucle in just under 30 hours having fought to attend the race in the first place. After making the controversial decision to skip the coinciding Los Angeles Olympics in favour of riding in France, she was then banned from wearing her national jersey. Martin ended up racing for an unidentified professional team instead, taking the lead in the mountains during stage fourteen. She was an excellent climber, and from that point forward retained the yellow jersey to win by three minutes and seventeen seconds. Her win in Paris is credited with bringing awareness to women’s cycling in the United States, despite her completing the race without team support from the USCF. The claim that Greg LeMond was the first American to win the Tour is therefore somewhat questionable…

Martin was succeeded on the winner’s podium in 1985 and 1986 by Italian Maria Canins. Nicknamed the ‘flying mother’ due to her abilities as a child bearer, she was thirty-six years old when she won in ‘85. Three years later, she would go on to win the inaugural Giro Donne (the Giro d’Italia for women) in 1988. Her training was fundamentally different to that of her peers – it was widely reported that Maria would put in long training hours in the Dolomites after a full day of childcare and domestic duties.

Also standing on the winner’s podium with Maria Canins in 1986 was Jeannie Longo, who took second place. She would win her first Tour the next year. Today Longo boasts a prolific career: A thirteen-time world champion, her notoriety is based largely in her astonishing longevity in the sport. In the history of the women’s Tour, she finished on the podium eight times. In recent years, she placed fourth in the 2008 Olympic road time trial, separated from the gold medal by two seconds.

The comparatively short, but no less illustrious, career of Inga Thompson underlines the physical and mental toll of the sport. Thompson was a professional cyclist from 1984 to 1993 and during that time, in addition to two podium finishes on the Tour in 1986 and 1989, was a four-time US national road race champion, finished second in two world championships, and competed in three Olympic Games. Despite struggling with the Epstein-Barr virus for a year between 1985 and 1986 and weathering various personal difficulties, she compiled one of the best women’s road cycling career records in United States history. She also occasionally raced against men and was easily identified in the peloton by her hairstyle – a long braid which she clipped to her jersey so it would not get in her way when sprinting for the finish line.

An example of her commitment to both the sport and her family was her successful bid for a place on the women’s Olympic road race team in 1992. Inga’s partner, a fellow road cyclist, had been seriously ill that year, and she had almost completely foregone training in the three weeks before the trials to stay by his side. Upon completing the qualifying race (winning by two minutes on the 65-mile course after escaping from the pack at mile 28), she was reported to have skipped the selection announcement at the finish line in order to return to her partner’s side.

The Grand Boucle ran in successive years until its temporary discontinuation in 2003, with some shorter races between 2005 and 2009. In a sport that is geared heavily towards the men’s racing, the women of the Grand Boucle have demonstrated true panache, courage and determination.