Golf has its green jacket, the Olympic Games its gold medals, and the NFL its annual Super Bowl rings. But nothing quite measures up to the Tour de France's mythical maillot jaune.
Worn by the leader – and eventual winner – of the world's biggest bike race, the yellow jersey is a prize unlike any other. A single day in yellow can make a career, while losing the yellow jersey can, and has, ended them.
Tour de France
Eddy Merckx voted greatest GC cyclist of all time - The Eurosport Cup
It's a trophy which transcends the sport and connects its protagonists to its fans through its individual, subjective and romantic symbolism – as bright a guiding light through the month of July as the sun burning bright in the sky.
Tour de France 2015, yellow jersey
Image credit: Twitter
Everyone has their favourite yellow jersey anecdote – from Thomas Voeckler's two 10-day stints in the race lead, to Laurent Fignon losing the 1989 Tour in yellow on the Champs-Elysées by eight seconds, to the raft of riders crashing out in yellow, or even Raymond Poulidor's much publicised failure to spend even a single day in the hallowed jersey.
As the garment's biographer Peter Cossins, who lives near Foix in the south-west of France a stone's throw from next week's summit finish at Prat d'Albis, tells Eurosport:
The maillot jaune has taken on a significant symbolic status within French life, very much wrapped up in many French people's childhood memories, signalling the start of summer, of holidays, of what for many are memorable family moments.
And this year, Stage 13 of the 2019 Tour – the 27.2km individual time trial in Pau – marks the 100th anniversary of the maillot jaune; a century since Christophe the canary stood out in the peloton.
The origins of the yellow jersey
There's confusion as to when the first yellow jersey appeared, largely thanks to an interview which the Belgian triple Tour winner Philippe Thys gave to a Belgian magazine when he was 67 years old.
Nicknamed 'The Basset Hound', Thys – whose victories came in 1913, 1914 and 1920 – told Champions et Vedettes in 1956 that he was awarded a yellow jersey in 1913, but had declined, claiming he would be more visible in yellow and it would encourage rivals to gang up against him.
Thys said he caved in and wore it – and yet no newspaper before the war mentions a yellow jersey, or any specific garment donned by the race leader.
Indeed, the first official inference to a garment designating the race leader was published in the newspaper L'Auto, on 10 July 1919 – between the sixth and seventh stages of the first post-war edition of the Tour.
"To identify the leader," the headline ran, "A great idea from our editor-in-chief!"
In order to allow the sportsmen to recognise straight away the leader of our great race in the middle of the Tour de France peloton, our editor-in-chief, Henri Desgrange, has just decided that from now on, the leader of the general classification will wear a special jersey. This jersey has today been ordered. It is likely that from Marseille the leader of the Tour will be able to wear it.
Marseille was indeed the start town of the ninth stage on 15 July. But the initial orders of new jerseys were not ready for another four days, ahead of the 11th stage from Grenoble to Geneva.
As Cossins says, the introduction of the yellow jersey – cycling's first ever classification jersey – was very much an "afterthought" once the race was under way, "the suggestion being made after the fourth stage and the jersey only presented prior to Stage 11".
The logic behind having a special jersey was quite simple: to help the riders and roadside public alike to identify the race leader amid the identical apparel of the weary messieurs who had ridden through the elements.
It was a suggestion by the former Peugeot team boss Alphonse Baugé, who was manager of the La Sportive consortium which clustered together the top squads.
"Prior to the great war the riders did race for trade teams with different jerseys, but in 1919 almost all the leading racers competed under the banner of La Sportive," says Cossins. "Their riders wore light grey jerseys and with the mud and dust on the road quickly become indistinguishable from each other."
Christophe himself claimed such in an interview with Sporting Cyclist magazine:
So soon after the war, the cycle industry was not yet in action again, and the only brand supplying material was La Sportive and there was little difference between any of the jerseys they supplied. One day – it was on the 482km stage from Les Sables d'Olonne to Bayonne [Stage 5 on 7 July 1919] – Monsieur Baugé, an official, remarked to Henri Desgrange that it was difficult enough for him to pick out the various riders and the public must find it impossible. Couldn't the race leader wear a special jersey?
According to Cossins, in his book The Yellow Jersey, Desgrange, the Tour progenitor, replied: "Good heavens, perhaps it is a good idea, but what colour should this jersey be?"
"I don't know," said Baugé, "but off the top of my head, if I were in your position, I would ensure having a jersey that's the same colour as the paper in your newspaper."
And, so, the jersey now-famous yellow was born, reflecting the mustard-yellow colour of the pages of the main sponsor of the race at the time.
It was first presented in the first hour of 19 July at the L’Ascenseur cafe in Grenoble ahead of the 2am start of the 325km Stage 11 to Geneva.
The first man in yellow
The rider leading the race when the idea of a leader's jersey was first mooted, at the end of Stage 4, was the man who eventually donned the first maillot jaune two weeks later when the order arrived ahead of Stage 11.
Eugène Christophe, famed for his forks breaking on the Tourmalet and having to run down to the forge at Sainte-Marie-de-Campan in 1913, had taken over the lead from Henri Pélissier in Brest after the third stage and was still top of the pack come Grenoble (each gargantuan stage in those days was followed by a much-needed day of recovery).
In an editorial in L'Auto on 19 July 1919, Desgrange wrote:
This morning I handed over to the valiant Christophe a superb yellow jersey. You already know that our director decided that the man leading the general classification should wear a jersey in the colours of L'Auto. The battle is going to be passionate for the possession of this jersey! [Jean] Alavoine and above all [Firmin] Lambot will want to wear it.
Christophe disliked wearing the thick, woollen yellow jersey and, so the rumour goes, complained that spectators imitated canaries when he passed. It didn't help that his nickname was already Cri-Cri, French babytalk for a bird.
According to a 1999 article by Jean-Paul Ollivier, Christophe remembered riders and spectators teasing: "Ah, the yellow jersey! Isn't he beautiful, the canary? What are you doing, Madame Cri-Cri?", adding, "And that lasted the whole course."
This could well have been an exaggeration on Christophe's part, for the jersey back then was more the colour of Dijon mustard than the canary yellow that it is today.
Belgian racing cyclist Firmin Lambot winner of the 1919 Tour de France, 29th June 1919
Image credit: Getty Images
What happened next
Christophe spent three days being tormented in yellow before losing the jersey on the penultimate day after suffering, on the shoddy cobbled roads of Valenciennes in northern France, the same mechanical failure that thwarted him in the Pyrenees in 1913. He lost almost three hours repairing his forks during Stage 14 from Metz to Dunkerque, conceding the race lead to Belgium's Lambot.
In L'Auto the next day, Desgrange wrote:
Poor, poor Christophe! However, stay calm, my brave Christophe! All real sportsmen will shed a tear today after your incredible misfortunes, and for us, the historians of the Tour de France, we will know, every year, when the moment comes to vaunt the exploits of past rides, that the thirteenth Tour de France must have been yours without the cobblestones of the North.
In the final stage, Christophe fell from second to third behind Alavoine after an unfortunate run of punctures. They may have taunted him for resembling a canary, but Christophe's plight captured the public imagination and he was awarded the same prize money as the first Tour winner in yellow, Lambot.
The prize money was raised through subscription fees paid to L'Auto, with the financier Henri de Rothschild allegedly the largest donator with 500 francs. As reported by Les Woodland in his Yellow Jersey Guide to the Tour de France, it took 20 lists in the newspaper to name every doner.
Besides this cash injection, something good did come of Christophe's second failure through forks. "He did, though, get a job offer from the owner of the workshop where he carried out the repair because his work was so precise," says Cossins.
Christophe was a precursor to Poulidor, never winning the Tour but finishing second in 1912 and third in 1919. Unlike Poulidor, who famously never donned the yellow jersey, Christophe, however, wore yellow again in 1922 for three days before slipping to eighth place in Paris.
After Lambot inherited Christophe's yellow in 1919, the next Tour initially scrapped the maillot jaune before reintroducing it after Stage 9.
Following Desgrange's death in 1940, his stylized initials were added to the yellow jersey. Originally on the chest, they moved to the sleeve in 1969 and now appear at the bottom on the right-hand side above the waistline.
Christophe was not only the first Tour rider to wear the yellow jersey, but started the fine tradition of riders who lost yellow through misfortune or bad luck.
The great Gino Bartali crashed into a river and out of the Tour in 1937 while in yellow; a decade later, Pierre Brambilla lost the yellow jersey on the very last stage to Jean Robic, who won the Tour without once wearing the yellow jersey (a feat emulated in 1968 by Jan Janssen, who denied Herman van Springel on the last day).
Perhaps more famously for today's cycling fans, Frenchman Laurent Fignon suffered the same fate of losing the yellow jersey on the last day after the concluding time trial in 1989 resulted in Greg LeMond winning the race by eight slender seconds.
The bespectacled Fignon, however, was a beneficiary of another yellow jersey's misfortune six years earlier when he won his first Tour: compatriot Pascal Simon had battled on with a fractured shoulder blade for days in yellow before succumbing to his injuries on Alpe d'Huez just days before Paris as Fignon swooped.
In more recent years, both Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin have crashed out of the Tour while in yellow.
The yellow legend grows
More than anyone else, the name of Eddy Merckx is perhaps most synonymous with the yellow jersey, the so-called Cannibal having made the jersey his own after winning his debut Tour by almost 18 minutes.
Merckx holds the record for the most amount of days in yellow: the Belgian wore yellow on 111 occasions which, taking account of split stages, amounted to 96 days in the maillot jaune.
In Merckx’s estimation, the iconic jersey, he told Cossins, “takes me back to summer holidays when I was a kid. Yellow is the colour of the fields blasted by the sun around the village where our grandparents farmed."
After Merckx, Lance Armstrong spent 83 days in yellow, Bernard Hinault 79 days, Miguel Indurain 60 days and Jacques Anquetil 52 days. Chris Froome, out of this year’s Tour but with high hopes of still winning that elusive fifth title, has 59 days in yellow to date.
Meanwhile, the rider with the most amount of days in yellow for a non-winner (29) is Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara – largely thanks to his tendency to win prologue time trials in his pomp.
The history of the yellow jersey is not without controversy, mind, even before the days of a certain American. According to Cossins, the most controversial figure associated with the jersey is the Belgian Michel Pollentier.
After his victory at Alpe d'Huez in 1978, Pollentier never got to wear the yellow jersey in the race as he was kicked out when he was found attempting to cheat the dope control with the contents of a rubber bag filled with 'clean' urine.
And then there's the rum case of triple Tour winner, Louison Bobet, who initially refused to wear the jersey in the 1950s on the grounds that it was – owing to a sponsorship agreement in his day – made from a synthetic material and not from the traditional wool.
100 years on: the 2019 Tour de France
Before the start of the 106th edition of the race, a total of 2,145 yellow jerseys had been awarded to 286 different riders. Mike Teunissen, Julian Alaphilippe and Giulio Ciccone have this July taken that tally up to 289 riders who have worn the maillot jaune ahead of the landmark 100th anniversary.
With eight days and counting in yellow, Alaphilippe has already overtaken the number of days his distant predecessor Christophe reluctantly spent in the canary jersey. But LouLou will need a titanic performance in the Pau time trial is he wishes to push on and emulate the 10-day run that another Frenchman, Thomas Voeckler, achieved on two separate occasions.
With French fans still waiting for a post-Hinault Tour winner, Voeckler gave the home nation something to dream about when he defied Armstrong for 10 days in yellow in 2004 – and then repeated this feat in 2011, losing the jersey in Stage 18 on Alpe d’Huez to Andy Schleck (who himself then conceded the lead to Cadel Evans before Paris).
If Voeckler’s two runs in yellow encapsulated the French romance with the maillot jaune, then Alaphilippe’s current exploits – becoming the first Frenchman since Voeckler to wear yellow on Bastille Day after his attack into Saint-Etienne in Stage 8 – are helping to write a new chapter in the race’s rich history and the unparalleled relationship between both riders and public with a unique item of clothing.
The hundredth anniversary of the maillot jaune is celebrated on 19 July 2019 and coincides with Stage 13 of the Tour, the all-important 27.2km time trial in Pau.
And aptly it is Alaphilippe who will be last down the ramp while wearing an all-yellow skin-suit. Should Alaphilippe hold time trial specialist Geraint Thomas at bay and keep the race lead on Friday, he will be presented with a special limited-edition jersey bearing the image of Eugène Christophe.
In celebration of its century, the leader of the general classification at the end of each stage is receiving a unique version of the maillot jaune – the 20 designs involving a variety of iconic Tour imagery from the famous Atomium building in Brussels to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, via all four of the five-time winners and some of the race’s most fabled climbs.
While Alaphilippe and fellow Frenchman Thibaut Pinot have been capturing the imagination of the host nation, Cossins feels that the ultimate winner of this year's yellow jersey will probably be riding for the British Ineos team.
Although, it's not defending champion Thomas – whose victory last year at Alpe d'Huez stands out to Cossins as the most memorable victory for a rider in yellow because of the iconic nature of the climb – who the author feels will stand atop the podium in Paris with the maillot jaune covering his shoulders.
"My heart says Pinot but my head says Egan Bernal," says Cossins.
The Re-Cycle Series
- Re-Cycle: When Britain's first Tour stage winner blew the field away in 1959
- Re-Cycle: When the entire Belgian team walked out on the Tour
Tour de France
Re-Cycle podcast: When Eddy Merckx almost won two Tour de France stages in one day
Tour de France
Re-Cycle: When Eddy Merckx descended the Galibier for victory in Valloire in 1972
Share this article