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History of the Tour de France jerseys

Eddy Merckx holds all three jerseys at the 1969 Tour de France
Josh Cunningham
4 Jul 2016

Yellow, polka dot, green, white. Cyclist follows the long journey of the jerseys that have come to define the Tour de France.

The year is 1919, and the Tour de France is making its comeback after a four-year, war-induced hiatus. Two-thirds of the way into the 5,560km epic and prior to the 325km 11th stage from Grenoble to Geneva, race director Henri Desgrange decides the man in first place needs to be more clearly distinguished from his competitors. And so, before the 2am stage departure on 18th July 1919, race leader Eugène Christophe of France pulls on the first yellow jersey of the Tour de France.

At the time it was merely a way of visibly marking the race leader from his rivals, but it would prove to be the decisive moment for what has become one of cycling’s most fabled icons. 

You say you want a revolution…

The inauguration of the yellow jersey was a gradual and partly contentious process (this is cycling, after all) that Tour historian Barry Boyce has spent a lot of time researching. 

Tour de France yellow jersey

‘In the early days of the Tour, there were much smaller pelotons than those you get today, so the leader just wore a green armband,’ he says. ‘But as the popularity of the Tour increased, journalists and riders complained of not being able to indentify the race leader on the road. Belgian Philippe Thys was said to have laid claim to wearing a yellow jersey when he was leading the race in 1913, six years before it was officially introduced, but this is disputed.

‘Desgrange came up with the idea of the jersey to distinguish the race leader,’ Boyce adds, ‘and its colour was chosen because it was the colour of the paper that L’Auto-Vélo, the race’s newspaper sponsor and predecessor to the modern L’Équipe, was printed on.’

The aerodynamic, glossy apparel that typifies the contemporary peloton would seem rather alien to Christophe and his contemporaries, whose jerseys were baggy and made of wool.

Changing clothes during a stage was a punishable offence back then, and long-sleeved jerseys with both chest and back pockets prevailed. The first known manufacturer of the official jerseys, Rhovyl, had a background in underwear, so at least the garments would have been fairly comfortable. 

Christophe wasn’t altogether impressed with his new jersey, though, claiming that spectators laughed and called him ‘the canary’, which led to him being given his nickname Cri-cri, a French colloquialism for bird. But despite his complaints, the yellow jersey remained unchanged until Desgrange’s death in 1940, when it was decided that his initials, HD, would appear on the jersey – a detail that can still be found today on the rear right-hand waistline. 

After gaining Le Coq Sportif as official manufacturer in 1951, the Tour’s second jersey was devised: green. 

Tour de France green jersey

‘Fausto Coppi beat everyone by such a large margin in 1952 that everyone quit,’ Boyce says. ‘So the organisers decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary in 1953 by initiating the green jersey – the colour inspired by its lawn mower-producing sponsor, La Belle Jardinière. They needed something to keep riders from quitting, so stage placings were awarded with points, and thus the jersey.’

The first maillot vert was won by Fritz Schär of Switzerland, but rather than today’s reward-based system, the riders received penalty points for not finishing with a high place, so in fact the fewest points decided the eventual victor. In 1959 the reverse system was adopted and, barring the introduction of intermediate sprints, and an anomalous occasion in 1968 when the jersey was red, the competition has changed little. 

Showing your colours

The significance of jerseys is not just limited to those of the particular race classifications either. ‘From 1930-61 and 67-68, the race was run in a national team format, so the teams became symbols of chauvinism, especially at times of heightened nationalism like before World War Two,’ says Christopher Thompson, professor of history at Ball State University in Indiana and author of The Tour de France: A Cultural History. ‘Even more than the classification jerseys, the jerseys of participating teams became symbols of national identity.

‘The national champions’ jerseys are strongly associated with national pride too,’ he adds. ‘National championships are traditionally run just before the Tour starts – that’s no coincidence. Riders want to show off their new jerseys and make the people proud.’

In the years after the War, the Tour de France gradually transformed from a vehicle of national identity, and a symbol of overcoming hardship for the war-torn French public, into a commercial sporting event. 

‘The motivation behind the other jerseys was to guarantee that teams raced, despite not having an overall contender,’ Thompson says. ‘They were a great way of sustaining interest for the public, but also a means to boost sponsorship. You gradually began to get commercial backing from non-cycling sectors. They wanted to see their sponsored riders doing well, and they also wanted to sponsor classifications outright. When you sponsor a jersey you’re supposedly supporting excellence; people pay a lot for that.’

Joining the dots

Despite the inexorable rise of the Tour’s jerseys, the path of the maillot à pois rouges – the polka dot jersey – has been more convoluted. 

Tour de France polka dot jersey

‘Ever since 1905 L’Auto-Vélo chose a meilleur grimpeur – the best climber,’ Boyce says. It started with René Pottier, who was the first to summit the Tour’s first major climb, Ballon d’Alsace. An official classification was introduced in 1933, which was first won by Vicente Trueba. But on account of the Spaniard’s pitiful descending, time bonuses were subsequently allocated rather than points, to further encourage the mountain goats. 

‘It wasn’t until 1975 that the first polka dot jersey was awarded – to the Belgian rider Lucien Van Impe,’ says Boyce. ‘Why the polka dots? The original sponsor of the jersey was Chocolat Poulain, and the wrapper of the chocolate bar was polka dotted.’ 

The final jersey in the contemporary Tour’s quartet is white – and its journey onto the shoulders of Nairo Quintana last year [2013] has been equally complex. 

‘The white jersey hasn’t always signified the best young rider,’ reveals Thompson. ‘It was introduced in 1968, but was worn by the leader of the combiné classification – the rider who was ranked highest across the board in the other classifications.’

In 1975 the meaning of the white jersey was changed to represent the best young rider and, after two stage wins that year, it was Italian rider Francesco Moser who took home the honours. Some minor alterations to the selection criteria followed, so that only neo-pros or first time Tour riders could win it, but in 1987 the competition attained its current format of being awarded to the best-placed rider under 26 years of age.

Tour de France white jersey

But all these changes weren’t entirely fatal for the combiné classification. Thompson says, ‘They reintroduced it in 1980 [after a five-year absence], and switched the jersey to a patchwork that represented the other competitions,’ he says of the garish design that included patches of yellow, white, green, polka dot and red.

The red patch on the right shoulder of the combiné jersey represented a jersey that no longer exists, but was once awarded for the intermediate sprints classification. Recognised from 1971, won by Barry Hoban in 1974, and awarded with a red points chauds jersey from 1984, the competition was ultimately rendered superfluous by an evolving points classification, and met a similar end to the combiné.

The modern era

‘In 1989 the organiser at the time, Jean-Marie Leblanc, decided to cut back on the number of classifications because he thought it was encouraging riders to dope,’ Thompson says. ‘The number of jerseys meant there were many ways for riders to earn money, and so there was pressure on them to be racing hard all the time.’ 

The jerseys for intermediate sprints, the combiné and the young rider were all lost, although the latter remained an undecorated classification until 2000, when it was reintroduced as one of the Nike-supplied official Tour jerseys. 

And so we arrive at the four mainstays of today: yellow, polka dot, green and white. In 2012 the production of the jerseys returned to pioneering sponsor Le Coq Sportif, neatly linking the current jerseys to those of the past.

‘The colours, their consistency and their stories act as a reference point for the public and for the riders,’ concludes Thompson. ‘They tie the current greats back to previous generations and allow us to connect moments, achievements and riders through history… and it’s all because they’ve worn the same jersey.’

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