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History of an icon: 100 years of the Tour de France's yellow jersey

5 Jul 2019

This year’s Tour de France marks 100 years of the yellow jersey. Here’s how it became a sporting icon.
This article was originally published in issue 88 of Cyclist magazine

Words Giles Belbin

The yellow jersey is just an item of clothing. It was introduced to help spectators identify the leader of a race, but over the course of 100 years its significance has transcended its purpose to the point where it is often referenced in semi-religious tones.

A good place to start when trying to understand the symbolic importance of the yellow jersey to the Tour de France is the story of a man who has never even worn it: Belgium’s André Poppe.

In 1968 Poppe was a third-year professional on the Dr Mann team. That year the Tour was organised in national teams and, like other strong cycling nations, Belgium had opted to send more than one outfit to France. Poppe, who had performed admirably at the Tour of Switzerland, climbing with some of the finest riders at the race, got the nod for the ‘A’ team, where he was to ride in support of Herman Vanspringel.

It would prove to be a dull race comprising three weeks of monotone stages that were so dreary the journalists covering the race complained and went on strike.

Nevertheless Poppe and his team did their job and on the penultimate day, with Paris almost in view, Vanspringel was wearing yellow, if only by 12 seconds. Poppe was 15 minutes or so back on the general classification.

Stage 21 was 242km from Besançon to Auxerre. The team’s instructions were simple – have a presence in any breaks in order to protect Vanspringel’s lead. That was how Poppe found himself in a six-man break that steadily began to take more and more time out of the peloton.

Poppe happened to be the best placed rider on GC in the break and as their lead ballooned he suddenly became the maillot jaune virtuel, the yellow jersey on the road.

Jan Janssen, Tour de France winner 1968 

The race organisers were worried. This had been a difficult enough Tour already, so no way could a barely-known Belgian support rider be permitted to don their valuable yellow jersey, the very emblem of the great cycling champions, synonymous with excellence and achievement, cycling’s greatest prize. It was unimaginable.

And so the Tour’s organisers, Jacques Goddet and Felix Lévitan, reportedly offered incentives to the riders in the break to slow down, and those in the peloton to speed up, driving up and down the race and promising lucrative post-Tour criterium contracts over their loudspeakers. All this to deny Poppe the yellow jersey.

‘Even my team members were fighting to ride after me,’ Poppe said when reflecting on the events last year, 50 years on. ‘All the arrangements were made between everyone behind my back.’

Goddet and Lévitan’s promises worked and the gap came down, which meant Vanspringel remained in yellow at the end of the day (although he would ultimately lose it to Jan Janssen on the final day’s time-trial in a precursor of the famous 1989 final-stage battle between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon).

One might imagine Poppe to be furious about having the chance to claim cycling’s most sought-after jersey taken from him in such a fashion, but when discussing it in later life he proved to be sanguine about the whole affair. The story became famous in Belgium and he benefitted financially at post-Tour criterium races.

Firmin Lambot, Tour de France winner 1919, 1922

‘Even with that bad fortune I was happy because I was a name,’ he said. ‘I was famous in Belgium because of what happened. I was newly married and my son had just been born. I saw him for the first time after the Tour. I needed the money.’

Poppe knew that the jersey was so important, so symbolic, that it was impossible in his era for him to wear it.

A pre or post-war innovation?

‘It came straight out of the trenches, born from the rubble of a wounded France.’ So said race director Christian Prudhomme, referencing the centenary of the introduction of the yellow jersey as he unveiled this year’s Tour route. ‘A light was needed, a colour that can be seen better than any other, in the dust, in the night. A beacon was needed to guide France toward resurgence.’

Officially it is recognised that the jersey was first presented in 1919, given without much fanfare to Eugène Christophe in Grenoble before Stage 11 to Geneva.

There is a picture of Christophe taken outside race control at the Café de l’Ascenseur, tubulars wrapped around his shoulders, goggles perched on his forehead, hands on hips, looking not exactly overjoyed to be wearing his new jersey.

Philippe Thys, Tour de France winner 1913, 1914, 1920

‘I handed this morning to valiant Christophe a superb yellow jersey,’ reported L’Auto’s correspondent in a small paragraph on the second page of the 19th July 1919 edition, under the heading ‘The jersey of L’Auto to Christophe’.

‘You already know that our director has decided that the lead man of the overall classification would wear a jersey in the colours of L’Auto. The fight will be passionate for possession of the jersey!’

The creation of the yellow jersey in 1919 has been credited as the idea of Alphonse Baugé, a team director who suggested to Henri Desgrange that his race needed an easier way of identifying its leader. But was Christophe truly the first to wear it?

In his book La Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France, the late cycling historian Pierre Chany writes that three-time Tour winner Philippe Thys claimed he had worn a yellow jersey as leader of the Tour in 1913 while riding for Baugé’s Peugeot team. In a 1953 interview with the Belgian review Champions et Vedettes Thys said, ‘I was the leader of the general classification.

‘One night Desgrange dreamed of a golden-coloured jersey and proposed I wear it. I refused. I already felt the focal point of everything. He insisted yet I remained steadfast. But he was stubborn, more than me, and kept coming back.’

Gino Bartali, Tour de France winner 1938, 1948

Thys said that a few stages later ‘the unforgettable Baugé’ persuaded him that it would be good publicity for the Peugeot brand. So they bought a yellow top in the first shop they found that had one.

‘It was just about the right size,’ Thys said, but ‘it was necessary to cut a larger hole for my head, and that was how I rode several stages in a top with a low and revealing neckline. It did not stop me winning my first Tour.’

In the same interview Thys also alluded to the race leaders wearing a yellow jersey the following year, a race he also won. While the claims have never been fully corroborated (or disproven), Chany suggests that perhaps after experimenting sporadically with the idea for a couple of years Desgrange finally resolved to formalise it during the next race, which after an interlude during the First World War was in 1919.

‘It’s one possible explanation,’ he writes. ‘Not a certainty.’ What is certain is that Christophe wore the jersey in 1919 and that it did him few favours. Six days after he first pulled on yellow, with a lead of 28 minutes and just two days from Paris, Christophe’s forks collapsed on the cobblestones of northern France.

It took him more than an hour to repair his machine and as a result he lost the Tour. Christophe was proclaimed the moral winner but it was the Belgian rider Firmin Lambot who entered history as the first man to take yellow into Paris.

Ottavio Bottecchia, Tour de France winner 1924, 1925

Grand exploits

The legend of the yellow jersey formed because of the sensational stories that the Tour produces, the tremendous tales that are written, and embellished, as each race develops and riders push themselves to the limits of their powers to either retain or assume the race lead.

Riders such as Italy’s Gino Bartali, who over two astonishing days in the Alps in 1948 claimed the jersey after going head to head with Louison Bobet and turning a 21-minute deficit into an eight-minute lead; or France’s Thomas Voeckler, who went from a regular pro tackling his second Tour to national hero in 2004 when he turned himself inside out defending an unlikely yellow jersey for 10 days.

‘When I saw all the emotion and excitement that surrounds this jersey, I understood what it meant to people… and for me too,’ he reflected. Voeckler repeated the feat seven years later, again taking yellow early, again defending it for 10 days before finally surrendering his lead.

Ottavio Bottecchia was the first rider to wear yellow from start to finish, winning both the opening and closing stages in 1924 as he completely dominated events.

Nicolas Frantz, Tour de France winner 1927, 1928

Bottecchia was ‘head and shoulders above the rest of us’, according to Henri Pélissier, his teammate at Automoto and the pre-race favourite. The Italian was imperious in the Pyrenees, attacking on the Aubisque and not resting until he powered into Luchon four major climbs later, completing a stunning mountain raid. His margin in Paris was 35 minutes as he became the first Italian to win the race.

He reportedly wore his yellow jersey all the way back to Italy, so proud was he of his win. He won the race again the following year, spending another 13 days in the jersey, but by June 1927 Bottecchia was dead, the victim of a curious incident while out training that remains unexplained to this day.

Similar displays of yellow jersey domination to that of Bottecchia’s include Luxembourg’s Nicolas Frantz, who in 1928 wore yellow from start to finish in a race that saw teams start separately on flat stages.

Such was the strength of Frantz’s Alcyon team that no one else got a look in as they secured all three spots on the podium.

‘Nicolas Frantz seized the glorious yellow jersey, object of all desires, from the first stage,’ reported Raymond Huttier in Le Miroir des Sports, ‘and I don’t think there was anyone who doubted he would never lose it.’

In 1961 Jacques Anquetil held the jersey from the end of the first day to the last (that year’s Tour started with two stages on the opening day. The first was won by Andre Darrigade, who therefore briefly wore the jersey until Anquetil claimed it in the afternoon).

Jacques Anquetil, Tour de France winner 1957, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964

Such was Anquetil’s complete control of the race that Jacques Goddet penned a scathing article, accusing other riders of being ‘fearful dwarfs… submissive and impotent… satisfied in their mediocrity’.

The following year Tom Simpson became the first British rider to don the jersey – cue photos of him in yellow and a bowler hat, sipping tea and carrying an umbrella, the archetypal Englishman abroad.

There have been occasions when multiple riders have worn yellow simultaneously. In 1929 time-keepers were unable to separate the three riders in the lead in Bordeaux: ‘Frantz, Leducq and Fontan together at the top of the general classification, all three will wear the yellow jersey today,’ ran the headline in L’Auto.

The situation reoccurred two years later when Charles Pélissier and Raffaele di Paco were tied both on time and on points accumulated, so were both awarded the yellow jersey.

There have also been times when no rider has worn it. This is usually out of respect after the previous incumbent has crashed out of the race. This is a jersey that has to be earned, not gifted through the ill-fortune of others.

One such time came in 1971 when Eddy Merckx was engaged in a titanic battle with Luis Ocaña. Merckx holds the record for most days spent in yellow – 96 (111 if you include half stages) – but on this day it was the Spaniard who wore the jersey.

Eddy Merckx, Tour de France winner 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974

A storm broke out in the Pyrenees as the two duelled and when Merckx skidded round a corner the following Ocaña couldn’t stop himself from careering off the road.

‘Ocaña was screaming in pain as he lay there amid the stones and mud like Christ taken down from the cross,’ L’Equipe reported. ‘One hand clutching his chest and his yellow jersey torn and spattered with a mixture of blood and earth.’

Ocaña abandoned and Merckx reclaimed the race lead but refused to wear the jersey the next day. ‘Whatever happens I have lost the Tour,’ he said. ‘The doubt will always remain.’

The jersey Ocaña wore that day, ripped apart from neck to waist, is included in an exhibition currently on show in Nice that commemorates 100 years of the yellow jersey. Displayed in a glass cabinet it is the perfect illustration of what this single piece of clothing has come to represent.

It is the symbol of professional cycling, an emblem of effort and endeavour, a totem of tragedy and toil, of blood, tears and, ultimately of triumph. As Eddy Merckx once said, ‘It’s the most important jersey you can wear.’