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The Explainer: Days in yellow and the working class hero

Q. Dear Explainer,
Fabian Cancellara wins Tour de France prologues with regularity (2007, 2009 and 2010) placing him in the yellow jersey for quite some time before the mountains reshuffle the classification and he loses the jersey for good. Who holds the record for the most number of days in the maillot jaune without ever winning the Tour de France?
— Anthony Carroll

Rene Vietto, fixes a flat tire at summit of the Galibier in 1939. That's famed Tour director Henri Desgrange keeping an eye on things.

A. Dear Anthony,
First off, let’s look over the entire history of the Tour to get that answer. We’ll include even those years before the 1919 introduction of the famed maillot jaune, and attribute days in “yellow” to any rider who held the top spot on general classifications after the first stage. In this case, though, the years from 1903 to 1919 won’t affect the answer.

Well, quite appropriately, the guy who holds the overall record for most days in lead at the Tour de France is none other than Eddy Merckx (96 days in yellow), but he went on to win the race five times. He’s followed by the other big-time multiple winners, Lance Armstrong (83), Bernard Hinault (75), Miguel Indurain (60) and Jacques Anquetil (50).

It’s not until you go past the top-10 before you hit a rider who both makes the list of those who’ve held the race lead for a significant number of days, but did not actually win a Tour. Tied for 12th – with Sylvère Maes (winner in 1936 and `39) – is René Vietto whose 26 days in yellow came in just two Tours (1939 and `47). He finished second in that `39 Tour and fifth in the 1947 Tour. He was also the winner of the climber’s jersey in the 1934 Tour.

Vietto’s story is one you would not see in the Tour these days. On the 16th stage of that 1934 Tour, covering a mountainous 165km from Ax-les-Thermes to Luchon, Vietto was among the leaders who crested the Portet d’Aspet, along with his team leader (and that year’s eventual winner), Antonin Magne. Recall that mountain roads were rough back in those days. Mostly dirt and rock, these roads didn’t get the fresh paving jobs many stage routes in grand tours get these days. Anyway, on the way off of the Portet d’Aspet, Magne hit a pot hole and trashed his wheel. He was stuck on the side of the road as his young lieutenant Vietto (then just 20 years old) negotiated the descent without problems. He was getting enough of a gap that he was in the “virtual” leader’s jersey.

Vietto had no way of knowing that his team leader was in trouble until a race official came up on a motorcycle to tell him that Magne suffered a mishap and needed mechanical assistance. They didn’t have – or allow – team cars to provide riders with replacement wheels or bikes back then and so Vietto turned around and rode back up the Portet d’Aspet, reached Magne and gave him his bike. The now-classic photo of Vietto sitting on a stone wall watching his Tour chances head down the road earned him great respect among French fans, who soon began to refer to him as “King René.”

King René loses his shot at the Tour, but earned a place in the hearts of fans.

“King René never won the Tour, but the point here is that in three Tours de France he was at least a serious GC contender.

When you scour the list of those who have held the yellow jersey for greatest number of days and not only didn’t win, but were also not considered to be in serious contention for the top step in Paris, you drop down to the 18th spot on the list. With a full 21 days in yellow, you have none other than (drum roll please) Fabian Cancellara. Given Cancellara’s abilities, he may soon challenge Vietto for the distinction of being the rider with the greatest number of days in yellow, who also never won the Tour de France.
— Charles

Q. Hi Charles,
What is the difference between a rouleur and an all-around rider? I’ve asked several sources before, and have never gotten an answer.
Thank you,
— Anne W.

A. Dear Anne,
Ahhh, another symptom of our wonderfully international sport, where we regularly use French, Flemish and Italian words to describe elements of cycling.

Obviously, we’re all pretty comfortable using things like peloton and gruppetto in the course of normal conversation. Some words, like rouleur or palmarès don’t necessarily trip off Anglophonic tongues with as much ease and folks (at least this one) tend to use the English alternatives with greater frequency.

When it comes to the rouleur, it means the same thing as “all-arounder.” It’s that member of a team — whether a race favorite or “mere” domestique — who can pretty much ride in any condition, do his job no matter what the day’s profile might be and work like a dog any time he toes the line in a bike race.

There is also another very common and familiar two-word phrase that fits that description: “Jens Voigt.”
— Charles

“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question feel free to send your query to CPelkey@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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