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Tour de France

How the Tour’s leader gets a yellow bike (or not)

The leader of the Tour de France often rides a commemorative yellow bike. Simple, right? Not exactly.

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AFTER SYLVAIN CHAVANEL WON stage 3 of the 2010 Tour de France and took over the race’s maillot jaune, his Quick-Step team placed a call to its bike sponsor, Eddy Merckx Cycles. Team officials asked whether the company had any special plans for Chavanel’s EMX 5 racing bike.

“We knew it was a unique moment for a small company like us,” says Peter Speltens, a marketing manager at Merckx Cycles. “We called the factory and people had already gone home for the day.”

[related title=”More Tour de France news” align=”right” tag=”Tour-de-France”]

Merckx Cycles asked its frame painter to return to work and create two yellow MX5 frames for Chavanel. As he painted the frames, Eddy Merckx himself stopped in to personally apply his signature to the bikes. A camera crew from a local Belgian television station documented the process, which finally ended around 11:30 p.m.

At nearly 2 a.m. Speltens packed the frames and set off from the factory to the Belgian town of Wanze, starting point for that day’s stage, where he arrived at 4 a.m. After a quick nap, he presented the bikes to Chavanel’s mechanic, who built the bikes. At 10 a.m., Chavanel boarded one and rode to the start.

“At the Quick-Step bus, I have never seen a bike that was so often photographed,” Speltens says. “At that point I knew it had been a good idea.”

Speltens’s saga represents just one way in which bicycle companies handle the joyous challenge brought on by the Tour de France’s yellow, green, and polka-dot jersey competitions. The colored jerseys present an opportunity to call fan attention to a rider’s bicycle. Bike brands, in turn, have various strategies for coordinating colors on the race rig. Some ship special frames to a team, in hopes that a specific rider seizes a jersey. Other companies adopt a wait-and-see strategy, applying colored bar tape and stickers until a rider’s spot in the jersey is secure.

All strategies require coordination and planning between a network of brand managers, team liaisons, and professional mechanics.

“We know before the grand tours if there is a chance to get a leader’s jersey,” says Nis Sienknecht, brand manager of road and triathlon for Canyon bicycles. “But since we don’t know who the exact rider will be, we’re always in a hurry to get it done in time.”

Greg Van Avermaet
Greg Van Avermaet’s BMC was adorned with yellow handlebar tape, but not much else. Photo: Tim De Waele |

MATCHING A TOUR RIDER’S bike to the jersey has been around for a few decades. Mario Cipollini rode a pink bike at the 1997 Giro d’Italia and a yellow bike later that same year at the Tour de France — not a shocking turn of events given the Italian’s flair. Lance Armstrong regularly rode a custom-painted Trek on the Champs-Élysées.

Matt Shriver, technical director for the Trek-Segafredo pro team, says Trek has adopted multiple strategies for color-coordinated bikes over the years. Often, the company produces special bikes for riders who have a good chance at winning a jersey, such as Fabian Cancellara or Alberto Contador.

“Sometimes we’re really prepared, almost too much,” Shriver says. “We have every bike in polka dot, green, in all these different sizes, because we don’t want to miss the opportunity for our company or the fans.”

The method works, but it also creates some tense moments. During the second stage of the 2016 Tour de France, Trek rider Jasper Stuyven broke away in the final kilometers, eventually being caught just before the line. Since Stuyven was not a favorite to win, Trek didn’t have a yellow bike in his size.

“I was so excited that he could win, but then I was like, ‘Shoot, I don’t have a yellow bike for him!’” Shriver says. “And it’ll be a huge disappointment for him, and a huge missed opportunity for us.”

[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Ron Jones, Specialized”]“It’s not until the rider gets to the last week and we feel confident they may win that we will have a fully yellow bike ready for them.”[/pullquote]

Even with the resources that a major player like Trek has at its fingertips, the logistics of delivering the custom bike are complicated. Though a rider may have a good shot at wearing yellow, the process of creating a custom bike may not start until just days before a particular stage. In some instances, a frame design is concocted well beforehand, but not delivered until the last minute. Rarely, if ever, does a team simply keep a yellow bike waiting in the wings.

“I keep the bike with me so the riders never see it and the mechanics don’t see it,” Shriver says. “When Fabian got yellow [in 2015], I showed up to the service course, and I had this yellow bike for Fabian’s mechanic, Roger. Roger had a huge grin on his face. I said, ‘It’s gonna be a long night, here’s the bike.’ We drank a few beers while Roger got the bike ready.”

The process is further complicated when a smaller bike company with fewer resources is tasked with celebrating its GC leader. When Thomas Voeckler took yellow in a surprise breakaway in 2011, bike sponsor Colnago didn’t have anything prepared for him. Luckily, the company had a paint shop in Italy. A special yellow Colnago was painted there that evening and driven through the night by Colnago staff to the following stage start.

The complications explain why some teams simply skip the process entirely. Specialized produces special yellow bicycles for those riders who have a decent shot at winning the Tour’s overall, or securing the jersey in an early stage. When a surprise rider takes the jersey, Specialized simply applies yellow handlebar tape, stickers, and design elements.

“It’s maybe our superstition,” says Ron Jones, lead performance road designer at Specialized. “It’s not until the rider gets to the last week and we feel confident they may win that we will have a fully yellow bike ready for them.”

Jones says the company formerly produced special bikes for riders in yellow. In 2015, for example, it built a yellow bicycle for Contador, who never took the lead. Jones says a Specialized employee now rides the yellow frame.

LIKE SPECIALIZED, ITALIAN BIKE company Pinarello adds yellow design elements to its bicycles for the Tour. It’s an odd strategy, considering the brand’s marquee rider, Chris Froome, has won three of the last four Tours.

As the Tour progresses, Pinarello’s bike for Froome (called “Road to Paris”) gets more yellow.

“The bike will be full yellow only in Paris during the last stage,” says Fausto Pinarello, the company’s CEO. “Normally, the first day in the yellow jersey, the bike will have a small touch of yellow, like bar tape.”

Pinarello says the company normally designs three different graphics with increased portions of yellow well in advance of the Tour. The frames are painted at the last minute. When a Pinarello rider secures the yellow jersey, the painting is done overnight; a company representative then drives the bike immediately from Pinarello’s headquarters in Treviso, Italy, to the Pinarello-sponsored team hotel, wherever the team might be staying in France or beyond.

It’s a massive undertaking. There’s no bigger spotlight than the Tour de France, so the struggle is worth it. “We are a small company and we are flexible,” Pinarello says, “and our workers are proud to work toward realizing a yellow bike that is the maximum aspiration for all passionate cyclists.”

In other words, it may just be a yellow bike, but it’s also a testament to loyalty and commitment, and all the things money can’t buy.