The women who conquered the Tour de France
A documentary by Jill Yesko
They were pioneers
The first women to compete in the historic Tour de France
Uphill Climb tells the story about the courageous women who defied those who said women could never finish the Tour de France
They proved them wrong
The Story of the Women's Tour de France
(Le Tour de France Féminin)
“The Tour de France Féminin was the beginning of a new generation of women’s cycling”
July 22, 1984
When American Marianne Martin stood on the podium wearing the maillot jaune next to Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon, few paid attention to the historic importance of her victory in the inaugural Tour de France Féminin.
“They didn’t think we women would finish the race,” recalled Martin. “That’s what we were up against.”
Now relegated to a footnote in history, the Tour de France Féminin was one of the most important events in the history of women’s sports. This incredible race, held from 1984 to 1989, brought together the strongest women cyclists from around the world who competed along the same courses as cycling legend Eddy Merckx .
Though shorter in distance, the Tour de France Féminin course followed the men’s, including heart-stopping climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees Mountains. Each women’s stage ended at the same finish line as the men’s, ensuring that huge crowds would be there to cheer on the women before the men arrived.
Contested over 18 stages compared to the men’s 23, the women riders—six teams comprising 36 riders from the U.S., France, Holland, Canada and Great Britain—completed a grueling 1,080 kilometers of the 4,000 kilometers of the men race as part of the inaugural 1984 event.
“One of the biggest fears the organizers had was that people wouldn’t be interested,” said Kelly-Ann Way, a member of the 1984 Canadian team. “But they had a new type of spectator—and it was the women. The Tour de France Féminin was the beginning of a new generation of women’s cycling.
”What's remarkable about the Tour de France Féminin was not only that the riders rode the same courses as the men, but they did so with little technical support--often riding with the wrong gears and for little prize money. Marianne Martin even had to pay her own way to France.
While the men’s Tour winners were given luxury holiday apartments and sports cars in addition to many thousands of pounds, the prize purse for the women barely covered their travel expenses. The women rode for glory and for the opportunity to participate in the longest and most storied cycling race in the world.
Even though throngs of fans cheered for the women along the roadsides, few people knew about the race outside of Europe. Media coverage was sparse, even in cycling publications, which remained focused on the men’s events.
Throughout the short history of the Tour de France Féminin, the women continuously battled chauvinism from the press and race organizers. They also experienced the dismissal of their abilities by male riders. “I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else,” sniffed two-time Tour de France winner LaurThe stigma of being women athletes and the stereotype that women couldn’t handle the rigors of the Tour de France ultimately proved too difficult to surmount.
Sadly, the Tour de France Féminin could not survive the uphill climb and was discontinued after the 1989 event.
Today, only cycling aficionados know about the historic Tour de France Féminin and of the pioneering women who courageously rode the classic stages so familiar to Tour de France fans.
Yet the legacy of the Tour de France Féminin remains strong, not only the memories of the riders from from the more than a dozen countries who competed during its five year reign, but also in the hearts and legs of the next generation of women athletes who have overcome barriers to compete on equal footing with their male counterparts.
With the rise of the global #metoo movement and the push for parity and equality in women’s sports—alongside the promise of a new Tour de France for women in 2022—now is the ideal time for a documentary that recounts to story of the Tour de France Féminin and the amazing women who conquered this epic race.
I invite you to join me in in supporting this production which I am passionately and professionally committed to.
Director of Uphill Climb
The women of the Tour de France will never be forgotten
Filmmaker and journalist Jill Yesko is a former cyclist who represented the United States in the 1983 World University Games and competed in the Olympic Trials.
Jill’s films include Tainted Blood: The Untold Story of the 1984 Olympic Blood Doping Scandal (available on Amazon) and Broken Trust: Athlete Abuse Exposed (available on Kanopy).
Jill's writing has appeared in Women's Sports & Fitness, Shape, Fitness Swimmer, and numerous other magazines. She is the author of two acclaimed crime fiction novels and has been profiled in O, the Oprah magazine.
Jill is a Fellow at the Center for Sports Communication & Media, Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas.