Marie Marvingt is better than you. She’s better than all of us. Even if your name happens to be Tim Cook and you’re reading this on a private jet, being fed grapes by robots, you’ve lost. The wildest part of it all is that at 37, I’ve only just discovered her. Searching Amazon for biographies I can only find French and German language editions... A few used and out of print books in which she is mentioned in passing. In our hero obsessed culture that seems so odd to me.
Perhaps that’s because Marie Marvingt’s life is too large. I must confess that I don’t really know how to even start this article. Typing words and then erasing them. Starting over and over. I have no reference point. Her life a language I cannot grasp.
Aah! Well, let’s make a mockery of it! Here I go!
I’m going to tell you one story about Marie Marvingt as it pertains to cycling, and that’s all I’ll say. I’m not qualified to write about anything else.
The 1908 edition of the Tour de France was the sixth running, and featured a brutal 4,488km race broken up over 14 stages. Unlike modern grand tours, the stages occurred every other day. This was by no means a crutch, more a testament to the length and difficulty of each day’s route. The 415km 13th stage from Brest to Caen was a great example. Georges Passerieu’s winning time of the day was a staggering 16 hours and 23 minutes. With most stages consisting of over 10 hours of ride time, it just wasn’t possible to race each day.
Marie Marvingt, an exceptional, multi-faceted and already award winning athlete in several other arenas must have thought,
“This sounds great! I love bikes! Next item on the bucket list, be the first women to compete in the Tour de France!”
The Tour responded with a classic of the time:
“You’re a woman, so obviously you can’t do this. We’re going with a hard NO.”
This wasn’t really a surprising answer. What was the greatest surprise was what Marie did with the information. In a Phil Liggetesque “show of defiance,” Marie decided to ride every stage of the Tour the day after it was contested. She would complete the exact distance and route alone, not only showing that a woman could accomplish the feat, but also challenging herself and her abilities.
“Well how about this, distinguished misogynists. I’m going to ride every stage of your precious Tour after the men. What's that? Peloton? Posh… Who needs one? You just get on your bike and keep going until the end, right? I don’t need anyone else around to help me do that.”
I may have forgotten to mention that Marie’s nickname was “La fiancée du danger.” As far as monikers go, that one's is pretty good.
And as a true member of the Vanguard, Marie accomplished exactly what she said she would. Official or not, she was the first women to complete the Tour de France. Even better, Marie’s times bested several of the male competitors in that 1908 edition of the race. In fact, of the 114 male riders who started, only 36 managed to completed the event two weeks later.
Marie Marvingt was 33 at the time.
She was the first female to complete the Tour. The first female pilot to ever fly a combat mission. The first woman to balloon across the English Channel. She was the first woman to climb many of the mountains in the Alps, and at the age of 15 she canoed 248 miles from Nancy, France to Koblenz, Germany. Even more astonishing, at the age of 86, two years before her death in 1963, Marie cycled the 200 plus miles from Nancy to Paris.
I don’t know why she did these things. I only know that I am humbled by them.
Marie Marvingt, The Queen of the Vanguard.