by Geoffrey White
How many Potomac Pedalers, reading Marion Clignet's diary on
Cyclingnews.com or seeing her name listed in World Championship and
Olympic Games results, realize that Marion started out as a novice racer
and occasional PPTC rider in the Washington DC area? I remember bumping
into Marion in a Reston Century in the mid 1980s, at the very beginning
of her career. She was riding at what we would now call an honest BB
pace, and faded badly at the end. There was nothing to indicate the
heights to which she would later rise.
Marion grew up in the United States, but her family is French.
They moved from France to Chicago in 1963, a few months before Marion
was born. The family moved again in 1979 when her father took a teaching
position at the University of Maryland, where she would later enroll as
a college student.
She took up cycling after she was diagnosed with epilepsy, which
prevented her from driving a car. The bicycle was a means of
transportation and a source of income as a part-time bike courier, but
it was also a way of refusing to let epilepsy impose limits on her life.
She began hanging around College Park Cycles, where she met more
experienced cyclists and was drawn into the local racing scene. She
joined the National Capital Velo Club, Washington's oldest racing club,
and began competing at weekday training races at Greenbelt and Tysons
Marion herself will tell you that she does not have the physical
gifts - the unusual cardiac and lung capacity - that make a natural
champion. Her success has been the product of sheer determination: an
overwhelming desire to make it to the top and an enormous capacity to
In 1985 Marion decided to leave school and devote herself
entirely to cycling. Within a short time she was winning local races,
and in 1988 she was invited to participate in a training camp at the
Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. In 1989 she won a gold
medal in the Team Time Trial at the U.S. national championships. The
following year she was first in the team time trial, second in the road
race, and third in the individual time trial
When these results did not lead to selections to the U.S. Worlds
team, Marion decided to move back to France and pursue her career on
the continent. Since then, she has become one of the most accomplished
racers of her generation. She has more than 160 career victories,
including ten French national championships and six World Championships.
She medaled twice in the Olympic Games and finished second in the
Women's Tour de France in 1993. She held the world record in the
3000-meter pursuit from 1996 to 2000 with a time of 3'30"974, an average
of 31.8 miles per hour from a standing start. That's almost 30 seconds
faster than the fastest women's qualifying time at this year's U.S.
track nationals, and a faster average speed than the winning men's time.
She retired from competition after winning the silver medal in the
pursuit at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and narrowly missing lapping the
field in the points race.
She came back from retirement in 2003 to try for a place at the
Athens Olympics. Although she did not succeed in dominating on the track
as she had in the 1990s, she blossomed as a climber, dropping riders
half her age in the women's Giro and placing third in the Trophée de
I saw her at the beginning of her comeback, in April 2003,
competing in the "Grand Prix du Mont Pujols" a punishing circuit race in
the Coupe de France series (the French equivalent of the USCF's
National Racing Calendar series). The course included a one-mile hill
which the women had to climb seven times. A Slovakian women, Zlatica
Gavlakova-Bazola, had a 40-second gap with one ten-kilometer lap to go.
Marion launched herself on the flat and was halfway across the gap by
the start of the final climb. She flew up the 10-percent grade at a
speed most of us can only dream of, and missed catching the Russian by a
handful of seconds. And this from a track specialist who, before the
race, had said she hoped she wouldn't be dropped on the climb!
Marion retired for good in July of this year, but remains active
in cycling circles. Although she no longer races, she still rides in an
occasional "cyclosportive" event near her home in Colomiers, a suburb
of Toulouse. (The Assault on Mount Mitchell would be the closest thing
to a French "cyclosportive"). She is a leading advocate of women's
cycling, working to improve sponsorship and racing conditions in France
and throughout Europe. She coaches young riders, and this year she is
starting a series of training camps for beginning racers and strong
recreational riders on the French Riviera, in Corsica, and in the
Pyrenees. Like the Stephen Roche camps that are popular with
Washington-area cyclists, the Marion Clignet camps will be attended by a
mix of French and American riders, providing a deeper immersion in the
European cycling scene than you can get in regular packaged tours. They
are also a bargain, at 999 euros (about $1250) per week, including
lodging and all meals. Readers who are interested in the camps can get
more information by e-mailing Marion at email@example.com.