Patty Peoples of Gaithersburg had been bicycling competitively for only six months when she competed in cycling's most prestigious race, the Tour de France. Now she is giving lectures and making television appearances to promote her sport. She is working with the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

"Regardless of age, cycling is a way of attaining lifetime fitness," said Peoples. "It is something everyone can do."

Peoples, 27, was part of a six-woman United States team that entered the first-ever women's Tour, June 30-July 22.

She placed 16th in the scaled-down version of a race previously labeled "men only." Marianne Martin of Boulder, Colo. won the race's holy grail, the yellow jersey.

Peoples wasn't trying to win. She was the team's domestique. Her responsibility, through skilled tactical moves, was to ward off other riders and advance her teammates.

"There is a lot of responsibility to the position, and a lot of sacrifice," Peoples said. "It gave me a lot of confidence because of the skill involved."

Peoples performed well in races leading to the Olympic trials to make the team.

"They watched us in mountain races on the West Coast, then took the best climbers to Norristown, Pa., in May for a seven-lap Olympic qualification race," she related.

The Tour included steep terrain including the Pyrenees Mountains in the course from Bobigny to Paris.

"I was in a five-person breakaway at the bottom of a hill when my chain slipped," she said. "I'm used to that happening, so I didn't exactly panic, but it really got my adrenaline going. Once it got fixed, I moved. With one lap (21 miles) to go, I caught the pack and finished 200 yards ahead of everyone."

Through Peoples' efforts, the U.S. team placed three riders among the top 10.

"Everyone was convinced that the women couldn't finish the race, that it was too difficult," Peoples went on. The women were restricted to 76 kilometers (about 46 miles) through the 23-day, 18-stage race. The men were allowed only one day of rest, the women five.

"There was never a doubt that we could do it," said Peoples. "And we were so proud to have won the first Tour for women."

Peoples developed confidence quickly. To start competitive cycling at age 26 is not common.

"I was always interested in sports, but I was a cheerleader instead of a participant," said Peoples. "We had six kids in the family, so we were always playing volleyball or softball, but there really weren't any opportunities available to women then."

The l974 Gaithersburg High School and 1978 University of Maryland graduate played rugby in college, but took a four-year vacation from organized sports.

She was a ski instructor in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains and a conditioning instructor at Athletic Express in Gaithersburg when she decided to try a 10-kilometer running race. From there, she tried the Marine Corps Marathon in November 1981.

"I was ready for a triathlon after that," she said.

She was in training for the Iron Man in Hawaii, a grind of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike race and a 26.2-mile run (marathon distance), when she started to think about cycling in itself.

Peoples' first bicycle race was the Tour of Texas in March.

"I knew I could perform well without a lot of experience. There was only me to depend on in a lot of situations. I believed in myself."