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In celebration of the yellow jersey

13 Jul 2021

As this year's race rumbles on, we pay tribute to the Tour de France's iconic leader's jersey

Words: Giles Belbin

‘You will have the yellow jersey / Among the cheers, the flowers / If you can, like a cyclone / Overtake the riders / Then you will have the yellow jersey / It’s the jersey of the winner.’

That’s a translated extract from the final chorus of the 1936 French song ‘Le Maillot Jaune’. The song is heavy on the accordion and is a celebration of what by the mid-1930s was growing into the significant symbol of French sport: the yellow jersey of the Tour de France. 

Fast forward 83 years. On Stage 19 of the 2019 Tour, Colombia’s Egan Bernal is climbing the southern flank of the Col de l’Iseran with the group of favourites. With a little more than 5km to go to the summit Bernal makes his move, blasting past his contemporaries like the song’s ‘cyclone’.

He catches the remnants of the day’s early break and crests the summit alone, where he becomes the maillot jaune virtuel. Later, when the stage is curtailed due to hailstorms and landslides, race organisers announce times will be taken at the top of the Iseran. 

Bernal’s performance wrested yellow from the shoulders of Julian Alaphilippe, laying waste to France’s dreams of watching a home rider take the country’s most important sporting prize into its capital city for the first time in 34 years.

Two days later it was Bernal who took yellow to Paris, becoming the youngest rider to do so 100 years after the jersey was introduced (younger riders have won the Tour but their victories predate the jersey).

Rising from the rubble

In 1919 the French publication La Vie au Grand Air ran colour illustrations of sporting exploits on its front covers. Rugby, tennis and athletics had all featured over the first eight months of the year, but it was their 15th August cover, the edition that reviewed the 1919 Tour, that went down in history.

For that edition the journal opted to run an illustration of a racing cyclist: white cap and goggles on his head, tubulars draped around his shoulders. He’s followed by a car carrying three officials and bearing the tricolour flag.

A few locals watch on, with chickens scattering from the road as the rider passes, but what makes this illustration noteworthy is the mustard-coloured jersey the cyclist is wearing. This is believed to be the first colour image of the Tour’s yellow jersey. 

When Christian Prudhomme announced the route of the 2019 Tour and the race’s centenary celebration of the jersey, he did so with no little hyperbole: ‘It came straight out of the trenches, born from the rubble of a wounded France,’ Prudhomme told his audience.

‘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.’

In reality, the launch of Henri Desgrange’s innovation was far more understated. On 10th July 1919, when the first post-war Tour was already six stages old, a small paragraph ran on the second page of L’Auto under the banner ‘Around the Tour’.

‘A nice idea from our editor-in-chief,’ ran the story. ‘In order to enable sportsmen to recognise at first glance the leader of our grand trek within the peloton of the Tour de France, our editor-in-chief, Henri Desgrange, has decided that in the future the rider in first place on the general classification will wear a special jersey. This jersey has been ordered today. It is likely that from Marseille the leader of the Tour will be wearing it.’

The idea of introducing the yellow jersey is credited to Alphonse Baugé, a team director, who suggested to Desgrange that his race needed an easier way of identifying its leader on the road. As it turned out, the jerseys Desgrange ordered wouldn’t arrive from Paris until the race reached Grenoble.

It was there, at the Café de l’Ascenseur, that race leader Eugène Christophe was presented with the race’s first official yellow jersey. Desgrange is quoted as telling Christophe, ‘You’re the first one to wear it. I hope you’ll wear it until the end of the race.’

Ill fortune and grand exploits

Unfortunately for Christophe, no stranger to misfortune, that would not be the case. On the penultimate stage and nearly 30 minutes up on GC, Christophe’s forks buckled on the cobbles of northern France. Repairs cost him more than hour and Firmin Lambot inherited the jersey, and held it until Paris.

Initially, Christophe hadn’t much enjoyed wearing the jersey. Other riders poked fun at him, calling him a ‘beautiful canary’, but its loss was almost too much for him to bear.

Reflecting on his career in Le Miroir des Sports in 1923, Christophe recalled the incident with great sadness: ‘I thought, for a moment, to lose my reason, so much the blow struck me morally,’ he recalled. ‘It was my yellow jersey and first place that was escaping me.’

Later in the piece Christophe calls the incident ‘one of the most painful episodes of my sports career’.

According to the procyclingstats website, 298 riders have led the Tour at some point since its inception in 1903. Remove those prior to Christophe in 1919, and you’re left with 277 riders who have worn the golden fleece.

On occasion multiple yellow jerseys have been worn during the same stage, the organisers unable to separate riders’ times. On others, no rider has worn yellow, out of respect for a previous incumbent’s ill fortune – Luis Ocaña’s dramatic mountain crash in 1971, for example.

The jersey’s legend has been forged by exploits undertaken in pursuit, or defence, of yellow: Gino Bartali turning a 21-minute deficit into an eight-minute lead over two astonishing Alpine days in 1948; Bernard Hinault’s 1985 ride through the Pyrenees complete with broken nose; Thomas Voeckler twice defending the jersey for 10 straight days against all odds, seven years apart, are a few, selected, samples. 

The yellow jersey is the symbol of cycling excellence above everything else. To borrow the words of Eddy Merckx, who holds the record for most days spent in yellow (96, or 111 if you include half stages), it is simply ‘the most important jersey you can wear’.

This jersey was supplied by Prendas Ciclismo. See for its full range of replica retro jerseys