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Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: The power of the yellow jersey

2011 Tour de France, stage 3: Hushovd podium
Hushovd is the latest to enjoy the power of the maillot jaune. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

The current leader of this Tour de France, world champion Thor Hushovd of Garmin-Cervélo, is one of 255 riders to have worn the fabled maillot jaune — the yellow jersey — since it was introduced to the Tour in 1919. That was 16 years after the race was first held. So what did they do before that?

The first leader of the first Tour in 1903, Maurice Garin, wore a green armband; and that custom apparently continued for the 12 Tours held before World War I. Then, midway through the first postwar Tour, race officials and journalists asked race director Henri Desgrange (who was also editor-in-chief of L’Auto, the daily sports newspaper that organized and sponsored the Tour) for a better way to distinguish the overall race leader.

After a meeting with his fellow organizers, Desgrange decided that a distinctive-colored racing jersey would do the trick. It’s said that the color yellow was chosen because that was the color of the newsprint on which L’Auto was published; but another story says that in postwar France, just seven months after the armistice was signed, it was hard to obtain a large quantity of knitted wool jerseys except in yellow, an unpopular color.

The yellow jerseys were delivered a week later in Grenoble, after 10 of the 15 stages were complete. The race leader was Frenchman Eugène Christophe who had led the race since the end of stage 4. There was no ceremony; he was just given the jersey at his hotel the night before stage 11.

When he arrived at the start at 2 a.m. on July 19, 1919, before a stage of 333km to Geneva, Christophe said, not without irony, “What have I got? Ah, le maillot jaune. What a lovely color, this canary yellow!”

But this first wearer of the yellow jersey didn’t have great luck. Three stages later, while holding a lead of 28:05 over runner-up Firmin Lambot of Belgium, Christophe’s fork broke on the cobblestone roads on northern France.

Back then, all repairs had to be performed by the rider himself; so, after being directed to a local forge, the race leader welded his forks back together. But he’d lost more than hour, and ended the Tour in third place.

Christophe was greeted as hero in Paris and a fund was created by L’Auto to help right “a misfortune that is unequalled in the history of the Tour.” The public donated more than 13,000 francs to the fund compared to the 5,000-franc first prize earned by Lambot. So, even though the popular Christophe never won the Tour, justice was seen to be done, reflecting the power of that first yellow jersey.

2004 Tour de France, Thomas Voeckler
Thomas Voeckler spent ten days in yellow in 2004

In the 85 Tours since Christophe first slipped on a canary-colored woolen sweater, the yellow jersey has acquired a mystical reputation. After donning it, many riders have performed well above their normal ability to keep to the jersey. That was certainly the case with three French riders, Pascal Simon in 1983, Vincent Barteau in 1984, and Thomas Voeckler in 2004.

Simon took the overall lead in the Pyrénées on stage 10 with a commanding lead of 4:22 over second-place Laurent Fignon. The next day Simon crashed and fractured his shoulder blade, but continued in the race. Bolstered by the yellow jersey, Simon kept his four-minute lead for the next four days; then, on a time trial up the fiercely steep Puy-de-Dôme mountain, he bravely fought through the pain to take 51st out of 103 riders on the stage, and still held the lead — before finally quitting the race on his seventh day in yellow on the stage to L’Alpe d’Huez.

The following year, Barteau took yellow on the fifth stage when he and two others gained 17 minutes on the field in a long breakaway. After the traverse down the Atlantic coast, through the Pyrénées and across the Massif Central, he still kept 10 minutes of his advantage and it was only on the second day in the Alps, on stage 17 to L’Alpe d’Huez, that he finally faded and lost the jersey to teammate Fignon.

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