Martine de Cortanze has an impressive record as a rally driver, a motorcycle rider and a speedboat racer. She has also made her mark as a sports executive and author.
Martine initially competed on four wheels in the French Cross-Country Rally Championship from 1968 to 1972 before she shifted to two wheels and to racing in the French Enduro Championship from 1975 to 1979 and during which period she also contested five editions of the Le Touquet beach race.
The late seventies saw Martine switch to Cross-Country Rallies where she won the women’s motorcycle category in the French Croisière Verte Rally in both 1978 and 1979.
This was to lead to her participation in the Dakar Rally from 1978 to 1981, with Martine being the highest placed female rider and eleventh overall in the first ever edition of the race. The early eighties
saw Martine engage in various high profile endurance races with her gaining several results of great note including winning the women’s class at the 24 Heures de Mauléon.
Water became the new fascination for the French lady from 1984 to 1988 as she took part in speedboat racing, both inshore and offshore.
Martine, who started out her career as a journalist, wrote a book about her rally experiences entitled “Une fille dans le désert” (a girl in the desert) in 1980 and co-authored a book on cross-country rallies entitled “Les Raids” in 1982. Finally in 1988, Martine took part in parabolic flight tests for Nasa at the Space Centre in Houston, USA with French astronaut Patrick Baudry.
The queen of sand, water and space. What does this all mean?
In 1968 I started my career with rally cars and once in a while, for pleasure, I happened to ride my boyfriend’s motorcycle in the forest. In fact one day I decided to take motorcycling lessons just for fun! Afterwards, a bunch of friends took me to an enduro race. This is when I saw a sort of demon, emerging from the paths in the forest. It was smoking, roaring, making a really loud noise and all of a sudden it stopped for a few minutes. It showed me its card, put the card away again, and continued on its path, roaring back into the forest. That was a sort of revelation for me and I said to myself: “Oh wow, this is so cool. I want to do that!” That was my first contact with racing motorcycles. After that I bought myself a bike and started enduro – with small ambitions, which grew and grew. I was almost the only woman amongst hundreds and hundreds of men – who most of the time looked at me…with a smile. At the beginning I didn’t get many good results, but then I steadily improved.
One day, Thierry Sabine, who was a friend of mine at that time, launched the Paris-Dakar. I thought this was a cool thing but at the same time I was also a bit scared. We were only about six women taking part, and of course, the others had many more kilometers of experience on a bike, but they had actually never raced in enduro – so we were pretty much on the same level. Fortunately, an acquaintance of mine, who was head of competition at Honda at that time, had a factory team. So I called him up and asked him whether he had a spare bike for me. He said to me: “Ok, I’ll take you. You will be the third rider racing for the team.” That really was a stroke of luck and gave me a great start. I finished in the rankings as the 11th motorcycle out of 250/300 men. After that, Jean-Claude Olivier who was the head of Yamaha, took me in his team.
My career in motorcycling then continued until I decided to try speed racing with boats, which had appealed to me for a long time. I used to see speedboats training on the river Seine in the outskirts of Paris. That definitely got my attention. I wanted to try it. Someone called me, telling me they were planning to organise a 24-hour women’s endurance race. This is how I started leaving motorbikes little by little and started racing speedboats, both endurance and offshore. I didn’t do too badly. My best career ranking against men during my entire was in fact in speedboat racing.
What were your feelings about racing against so many men in all these sports?
I only felt like I wanted to do this. I didn’t care about being a girl and seeing so many boys. They didn’t frighten me. In enduro I was very shy, but quickly got over it. My position improved step by step and I think I earned respect as a racer – and that was my main goal.
Do you still remember your first main motorcycling event?
I remember it very well. It was in enduro. Unfortunately, however, I bought myself a trial bike and drove around the fields, but it was absolutely not suitable for that. It was winter time and cold, and I remember it was the hunting season in France. I fell down and my handlebars went upside down and so did I. Suddenly, two people who were hunting came close to me and said: “Ah, it’s a girl! What are you doing here?” After this experience I chose an appropriate bike to do enduro.
What was your first victory like? My first victory was in the Paris Dakar. It was a victory for me in terms of the female ranking – three women out of six arrived at the finish line, and I was in fact the 11th best bike overall.
What is it that gave you this will to ride?
I have always loved motorcycles. For me it was like ballet – my body and bike always in harmony; it was like a dance. I adored driving bikes in enduro. I think that was me – I don’t think I would have been able to ride in motorcycling speed races.
Where would you have worked if it hadn’t been with motorcycles?
I did other sports, which I loved – waterskiing, karate, and I would have loved horse riding. I think that this love of motorcycles, in the back of my mind, has something to do with horse riding in the cross country discipline. I always compared a motorcycle to a horse – a horse wouldn’t go directly into a tree, whereas if you do not tell a bike where to go, it can drive straight into the tree. If you tell the horse to stop, it has four legs and is stable, whereas if you stop the bike it only has two “legs” and you have to control it.
Do you see your future involved in motorcycling?
When I stopped racing I worked for the French Olympic Committee. For me this was a way of giving back to sports what sports have given me. When I grew older I stopped my career and went back to school – now I am working in a school to learn how to be a coach. That might be another way for me to give something back to people involved in the sports world.
What would you like to tell women who participate in male sports?
Have no inhibitions. No complexes. Stick to your motivation. Do not compare yourself to anybody but just yourself – if you want to do it, you do it. The ground we gain from men is not something we steal from them.