Written by Senta Scarborough
No one rode fiercer than the competitive racers in the first woman’s Tour de France in the mid-1980s.
Uphill Climb: The Women Who Conquered the Impossible Race, a documentary film currently in production, will tell the story of those international trailblazers who rode in the first women’s Tour de France, then called the Tour de France Féminin.
This is the third sports documentary film by Jill Yesko, a former journalist turned filmmaker who has directed and produced the films: Broken Trust: Athlete Abuse Exposed and Tainted Blood: The Untold Story of the 1984 Olympic Blood Doping Scandal.
She has teamed up with an award-winning producer and lifelong cyclist, Allyson J. (Ally) Davis, whose experience spans television, sports production, and global marketing. Davis has worked for E! Entertainment Networks, Universal Sports Network, and FOX Sports, and now serves as Uphill Climb’s executive producer.
“These women competed under really onerous circumstances and rode this incredible race. As a woman independent filmmaker, I feel like this is my own uphill climb. I don’t have a big studio behind me at this point. It’s just Jill and Ally essentially staring up at that mountain,” Yesko says.
The Tour de France Féminin ran from 1984 to 1989, following the same course as the men, including the legendary climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees Mountains. Each stage of the race finished at the same place as the men’s, which drew huge crowds cheering on the women.
The start of the Inaugural Womens Tour de France, 1984 in Bobigny, Paris. Photo by John Pierce
“It’s an inspiring story. Even in the 1980s, the Tour de France organization wasn’t particularly keen on doing something for women, but their viewership was down, and they were looking for the new shiny thing to attract people to Tour de France—maybe we’ll have women ride the race,” Yesko says.
Cycling back then was far different—and perhaps much harder than now, Yesko adds. Bikes were heavy steel, not the lighter ones being ridden today.
“Those steel bikes had tires that punctured very easily, and they are just completely unforgiving. Every little pothole in the road travels through the bike and into your body,” says Yesko who competed as an amateur cyclist in the 80s.
Back then, cyclists rode five or six speeds instead of the 11 or 12-speed hubs today.
“It was a really rough ride. You can see the difference now, like in the men and women climbers. We would gnash those gears and get out of the saddle going up because that was the only way to do that. You had to keep pedaling that hard or you’re going to fall over. Today you can put in a really low gear and just spin up hills,” Yesko says.
Since the 80s, women haven’t competed in the Tour de France until this year. In July, women return to the race, but the women’s Tour de France teams are well-supported compared to the barebones efforts of their predecessors.
“It’s (in the 80s) not like every team was well outfitted or supported. Sometimes the riders only had two pairs of shorts and one bike. If they were lucky to have a team mechanic, maybe the mechanic spoke English. It was like the band was going on tour. We’re going to put you in this broken-down bus, and feed you ramen noodles, but expect you to play Madison Square Garden every night to capacity,” Yesko says.
That hard-scrabble, do-it-yourself environment created a strong community of women riders.
“I think it knitted the women together. A lot of people said, at least for the first couple of tours, there was a huge camaraderie among the women because they knew they were doing something historic. They were all in the same hotels. They were all swapping clothing because they didn’t have an extra pair of socks or something, eating the same crappy food and every day getting up and being on the line,” Yesko says.
The women’s teams participating in Tour de France Féminin operated on a shoestring. For instance, the women racers didn’t have a lot of pairs of shorts and the ones they wore were wool or thick lycra that held in heat.
One of the racers who Yesko interviewed told her, “We had to rinse them out every night, and those shorts don’t dry fast. We hung them over the lampshade in a room and went to dinner, and when we came back, the light bulb had burnt a hole in my shorts.”
1984 remains a historic milestone year for women’s cycling. Not only did the Tour de France Féminin enter the scene, but women’s road racing debuted at the Los Angeles Olympics that year.
When women cyclists return to the Tour de France this July, many veterans of the first women’s Tour de France plan on being in France to witness its return.
For Yesko, the clock is ticking to get the film finished and out into the world.
From left to right: The coveted medal awarded to all finishers of the Tour de France; The Women's route from the 1989 Tour; The winner's trophy from the 1984 Tour de France.
“In my heart, this film is about the ’84 to ’89 tours because those are like the ‘Hidden Figures’ in women’s cycling. And if we don’t recount this, it’s going to disappear,” Yesko says.
Some of those who raced have already passed away—The remaining participants range in age from their mid-50s to mid-70s.
“One thing that really drives me to make the film now is that when I first started researching, who should I talk to, I googled this person, and I’m like, they’re dead. And I’m like, holy cow. You have got to get on this,” Yesko says.
From left to right: Marilyn Wells Trout being interviewed at her home; The film's director, Jill Yesko with Mieke Havik; Marianne Martin with her bike.
To date, she’s interviewed 5 Tour De France Féminin riders including Marianne Martin, Marilyn Wells Trout, Maria Blower, Mieke Havik, and Nan Deardorff-McClain.
“These women are pioneers and the women today riding the Tour de France. I think these new kids have to know that it’s not out of nowhere, and they’re standing on the shoulders of the women who rode different bikes under different circumstances but were the same competitors who wanted to race and win just as much as they do.”
The love of the Olympics and sports started early for Yesko, who shared a memory of a photo of her reading the book “My Greatest Olympic Heroes” while she took a bath as a kid.
When she was 17 years old, Yesko convinced her mother to let her take a bus trip from New Jersey to Montreal, Canada, to see the 1976 Summer Olympics.
“It was a big deal. I kinda looked like I was ten. When you think about it, what parents would even let their kids be in the next room without texting them now,” said Yesko, who loved track and field.
“I saw Bruce Jenner. He was Bruce at the time (now Caitlin) at the decathlon. I watched all the heats of the races,” she said. “Just the spectacle of being at the Olympics. Maybe it was because I was there alone but seeing the Olympic Village—I just love the whole thing.”
Yesko, now 63, has been telling stories of women and sports her entire adult life—first as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun and later for Women’s Sports Foundation’s magazine, Sports and Fitness.
“They gave me tremendous latitude to write stories about lesser-known athletes and just really anything which struck my fancy. And I didn’t have the idea to write about the women’s Tour de France then. But when I became a filmmaker, I thought that’s going to make a great film,” says Yesko, who also has her own sports-themed podcast, The Bounce on NPR.
She eventually landed in higher education communications, and when she had to learn to use a camera and make videos, she found a new love—visual storytelling.
Director Jill Yesko and cameraman Justin Wood get the perfect shot on the UK's Surrey countryside.
“I think having a background as a journalist is excellent for being a documentary film director and producer,” says Yesko, a fellow at the Center for Sports Communication & Media at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas Austin.
Her new career in filmmaking has shown her there is a void in women’s sport documentary films and filmmakers. She praises the Emmy-nominated and award-winning film, Back on Board: Greg Louganis by Cheryl Furjanic.
“That’s a great film. There’s a woman filmmaker doing a wonderful character-based sports documentary about someone who isn’t in a mainstream sport,” said Yesko. “I have no desire to do a film about the WNBA. I’m more of an Olympics person, an Olympics geek.”
Yesko grew up in northern New Jersey, which, at the time, was a “hotbed of cycling” with many cycling clubs. She went to college at Rutgers University, not far from Somerville, New Jersey, home to the oldest bike races in the US.
“It’s called the Tour of Somerville. I rode my Schwinn Varsity to watch and saw the women’s race. I saw them and was like, ‘Oh, that looks fun. I can do that. I can do that,’” Yesko says. “I joined the cycling club. I got a better bike, started training, and I was hooked the next year I was racing. It just seemed like cycling was a really good sport for my body and my attitude.”
During the 80s, Yesko competed as an amateur racer. She even remembers trying to follow that first women’s Tour de France.
“We could only follow it through Velo News, a newspaper that came in the mail, or if you had someone in France who might call you, but it was hard to get information,” Yesko says.
Getting To The Summit
In January 2020, Yesko was ready to make Uphill Climb, but the world had different plans. The Covid-19 pandemic struck, delaying interviews and filming.
In November 2020, Yesko was able to hire a film crew in Boulder, where Marianne Martin, winner of the first women’s Tour de France, lives. Unfortunately, Yesko couldn’t travel but could do the interview remotely while the crew shot and got B-roll on site.
“I directed it remotely, and it worked out really well. It is just how things get done during a pandemic,” Yesko says.
The crew at the end of their shooting day in the Surry countryside in the UK. Tour de France Féminin rider Maria Blower is center and Kathy Gilchrist, President of Scottish Cycling is on her left.
When it was safe enough to travel, Yesko interviewed Marilyn Wells Trout, who rode on the Canadian team in Colorado Springs. Then, with two interviews shot and archival footage, Yesko put together a trailer that got things going. This spring, she traveled to the UK and Holland to include some of the European racers.
In July, she and her team, including Fierce Hazel’s founder Frankie Holt, will travel to the 2022 Tour de France Femmes Avec Zwift to film the revival of the women’s race. Fierce Hazel is drawn to any project which supports the ability for all people to participate in their chosen sport. "A film that is dedicated to the fierce pioneers of women's racing is pivotal for pushing the sport forward. It's something we support 100%," Holt says.
This year, unlike in the 80s, the women won’t be doing the classic Tour de France climbs.
“I looked at the courses. I’m like, ‘oh, I don’t recognize any of these.’ But, that said, the amount of momentum and interest—the fact that all these women I know from back in the day are showing up in Paris to follow the tour, to drive VIP cars. It’s going to be an amazing thing,” she says. “It’s like the old generation sending off the new generation—a bittersweet, poignant moment.”
Yesko hopes to finish filming by the end of 2022 and go into post-production for a director’s cut in spring 2023.
Yesko says this story isn’t just for the cycling community or those interested in sports.
“This is the kind of film that even if you aren’t a bike racer, you’ll get it, especially if you’re a woman. It’s about every woman’s struggle in a different flavor, right?” Yesko says. “We’re competitive women. So just let us do our sport. Don’t get in our way.”
If you want to support the film or make a donation, check out the film’s website, uphillclimbfilm.com. You can check out the trailer, and read more about the film and filmmakers. In addition, there is a donation button where you can make a tax-deductible contribution to the film. If you do, Yesko says you will be acknowledged in the credits. The film also has sponsorship packages at many levels.
“I know this is my own personal uphill climb. I’ve got to get to the summit,” Yesko said. “I can’t stop. I can’t fall off my bike. I’ve got to keep going.”
Senta Scarborough is an award-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated producer. She is the founder of Sentamatic Media focusing primarily on screenwriting, journalism and non-fiction projects. Her clients include KCET-SoCal PBS, Emory University, Stanford University, Fenning Marketing Group and Fierce Hazel. Her work has appeared in Adweek, Into, USA Today, E! News, US Weekly Magazine and Asheville Poetry Review, among others. She is a lifetime member of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist’s Association where she served as a board director for two terms. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside/Palm Desert. Find her on social media @sentascar.
Stay connected with Fierce Hazel and sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know of new posts, news & promotions.