The legend of the maillot jaune

Could race founder Henri Desgrange have known when he decided to distinguish the Tour de France leader with a yellow-colored racing jersey that he was creating such an icon? The idea came to Desgrange during the 1919 Tour on the rest day in Luchon. It was the first Tour after the five-year hiatus caused by World War I, and on stage 7 of that race, July 10, Desgrange announced his decision in the sports paper that he owned and edited, L’Auto. It wasn’t until a week later, however, before the start of stage 11, in Grenoble, that the first maillot jaune was given at 2 a.m. to Frenchman Eugène

YELLOW JERSEY DOWN Luis Ocaña crashed out of the 1971 Tour while wearing the jersey

Photo: Presse Sports L’Equipe

Could race founder Henri Desgrange have known when he decided to distinguish the Tour de France leader with a yellow-colored racing jersey that he was creating such an icon? The idea came to Desgrange during the 1919 Tour on the rest day in Luchon. It was the first Tour after the five-year hiatus caused by World War I, and on stage 7 of that race, July 10, Desgrange announced his decision in the sports paper that he owned and edited, L’Auto.

It wasn’t until a week later, however, before the start of stage 11, in Grenoble, that the first maillot jaune was given at 2 a.m. to Frenchman Eugène Christophe. At that time, there were only 11 riders left in the race and Christophe held a 23-minute lead over Belgian Firmin Lambot, who would eventually win. Bad luck struck the “old gladiator clad in yellow,” who broke his forks on the penultimate stage. (Riders had to repair their own bikes in those days, so Christophe lost two-and-a-half hours.) At the finish of the Tour in the Parc des Princes velodrome in Paris, Christophe — third in the general classification — was cheered like a winner by the crowd, who welcomed the first man to ever wear the yellow jersey. Yellow like the pages of the L’Auto, the newspaper that sponsored the Tour.

A look back over the past 100 years shows that the yellow jersey has given its wearer equal parts joy and pain. To a certain extent, it has given the race leader the inspiration to defy the agony of the race. But the setbacks to the yellow jersey holder have always been crueler. Bolts of lightning cast misfortune on Luis Ocaña in 1971, who crashed while wearing the jersey on a mountain descent covered in mud from torrential rain. In a battle with the legendary Eddy Merckx, a one-on-one combat of pride and prestige, Ocaña held the golden advantage, but under a Pyrenean deluge, fate shattered his unfinished dream. The Castilian was left lying on the roadside after sliding out on a switchback near the foot of the Col de Menté, moaning in pain.

Merckx, in a chivalrous gesture, refused to don the tainted garment the morning after Ocaña was forced to quit the Tour. Similarly, Ferdi Kubler declined to wear the yellow jersey the day after race leader Fiorenzi Magni and the Italian team abandoned the Tour in 1950. You just don’t steal the maillot jaune.

At the 1983 Tour, the Frenchman Pascal Simon had been wearing the yellow jersey for six days. He was suffering terribly from a hairline fracture of the shoulder blade, but Simon fought with everything he had, urged on by a French public proud of his panache. In pain, he would eventually quit the race and put his arm in a sling midway through a stage that ended at L’Alpe d’Huez, on an obscure section of deserted road, far from view.

NEAR THE END Hinault abandoned while wearing yellow in 1980

NEAR THE END Hinault abandoned while wearing yellow in 1980

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In 1980, Bernard Hinault left the Tour — and his maillot jaune — in the middle of the night in Pau by discreetly taking refuge in a teammate’s room while everyone else went to eat. Tendinitis of the knee sidelined him, and Hinault did not want his misery to congeal in the blinding, shameless light of flashing cameras.

Andrea Carrea, Fausto Coppi’s loyal gregario (the Italian word for a domestique or team worker), inadvertently had acquired the yellow jersey in Lausanne in 1952. He didn’t feel worthy of it and wept, fearing reproaches by the campionissimo, who instead reassured him.

Raphaël Géminiani of the Centre-Midi regional team was age 33 and riding his 11th Tour before he finally took the jersey, in Pau, in 1958. Unfortunately, after losing it the next day then taking it back after the Mont Ventoux stage, he lost it definitively in the glacial alpine stage from Briançon to Aix-les-Bains, which was dominated by the eventual overall winner, Charly Gaul of Luxembourg. “They’re all Judases,” Géminiani said in anger at the riders of the French national team, including its leader Louison Bobet, whom he blamed for his fate.

This is the way legends are born: In Bordeaux in 1929, three riders with the same time all donned a maillot jaune: the Luxembourger Nicola Frantz, and Frenchmen Victor Fontan and André Leducq. Yet none of them would win the Tour that year; Belgian Maurice De Waele ran away with it. Conversely, the yellow jersey has eluded the final winner until the last day on two occasions: Frenchman Jean Robic in 1947, Dutchman Jan Janssen in 1968. American Greg LeMond came close, only taking the jersey on the penultimate day in 1990 after wresting it from the tenacious Italian, Claudio Chiappucci in that Tour’s final time trial.

Which is better, of course, than being condemned to never wear it at all. French hero Raymond Poulidor got close to it, reached out and touched it, but never was able to slip it on. In part, it was this quest — in vain — for the yellow jersey that made Poulidor so famous. That, of course, is why the Belgian, Norbert Callens, winner of the stage from Brussels to Boulogne in 1949 and new leader of the Tour, should never be forgiven. Having left his beautiful maillot jaune in the team van before the next day’s start, Callens rode the stage to Rouen wearing a simple yellow sweater that a journalist had loaned him. No doubt, Desgrange would never have forgiven Callens for his oversight.

(English translation by Mark Deterline)

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