Tour de France 2020

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

Thor Hushovd is the latest rider to be inspired by the leading the Tour

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

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.

More recently, current racer Voeckler — who made a fine breakaway Wednesday on this Tour’s fifth stage to Cap Fréhel — held the yellow jersey for 10 days in 2005. Voeckler, like Barteau in 1984, took the lead after a long breakaway on stage 5, gaining 12:33 on the peloton. Although he’s not a great climber, Voeckler rode with inspiration in the Pyrénées, notably on the Plateau de Beille (which is also included on this year’s Tour), gritting his teeth on the mountaintop finish, to cling onto the yellow jersey by 22 seconds over stage winner (and eventual winner) Lance Armstrong.

Virtual GC after stage 5

GC positions of the top 20 favorites
1. Cadel Evans 749.5km in 17:36:57
2. Fränk Schleck at 0:03
3. Andreas Klöden at 0:09
4. Brad Wiggins s.t.
5. Andy Schleck at 0:11
6. Tony Martin at 0:12
7. Chris Horner at 0:17
8. Levi Leipheimer s.t.
9. Robert Gesink at 0:19
10. Alexander Vinokourov at 0:31
11. Jorgen Van den Broeck at 0:38
12. Ivan Basso at 1:02
13. Nicolas Roche at 1:11
14. Damiano Cunego s.t.
15. Ryder Hesjedal at 1:21
16. Alberto Contador at 1:41
17. Christian Vande Velde at 1:56
18. Roman Kreuziger at 2:28
19. Samuel Sanchez at 2:35
20. Tejay Van Garderen at 2:58

Four riders have actually worn the yellow jersey from first day to last: Ottavio Botecchia of Italy in 1924, Nicolas Frantz of Luxembourg in 1928, Romain Maes of Belgium in 1935 and Frenchman Jacques Anquetil in 1961. And in two Tours, 1958 and 1987, eight different riders wore yellow.

As for current leader Hushovd, this is actually the fourth time he has had a spell in the maillot jaune. In 2004, he wrestled the lead from Liège prologue winner Fabian Cancellara on stage 2 by scoring time bonuses; wore yellow for a day on the stage across the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix to Wasquehal — where he lost it to Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen. Then in 2006 Hushovd won the Strasbourg prologue, lost the yellow jersey the next day on time bonuses to American George Hincapie, and then won it back the same way for just another day.

After that total of three days in yellow, Hushovd was ready for a more determined defense of the jersey this year. He is now in his fourth day as race leader after taking the lead when his Garmin squad won Sunday’s team time trial. No one expected the big Norwegian to maintain his one-second lead over Cadel Evans atop the Mûr-de-Bretagne climb on Tuesday, but it took a huge effort and the magic of yellow for him to stay with the likes of Evans, Alberto Contador and Alexander Vinokourov — even if the hill was only 2km long.

“To successfully follow the best climbers at such a pace is something that I’m very proud of,” Hushovd said. “For two or three years now I’ve seen it’s difficult for me to win flat sprints against (Mark) Cavendish and the others, and so I changed … and worked harder in training on the hills.”

Contador’s Saxo Bank-SunGard team manager Bjarne Riis commented, “Thor Hushovd was the biggest surprise today — what a performance!” And the Norwegian’s team boss Jonathan Vaughters said, “He finished ahead of Andy Schleck (by eight seconds). I knew he was strong, but he again surprised me.”

What’s even more surprising is that Hushovd has defended the yellow jersey while still carrying out his usual duties: He led out teammate Tyler Farrar to win Monday’s stage at Redon, and, Wednesday, he wanted to do something similar at Cap Fréhel.

“For the sprint,” Hushovd said, “we planned that it would be Tyler who’d try his luck but he wasn’t feeling good and he told me to go for it. I came a little too fast into the final (uphill) and I didn’t really have the legs. I think I paid a little for the efforts I made yesterday (at Mûr-de-Bretagne).”

There’s another climb in the last 2km on Thursday’s stage 6 at Lisieux, but it’s followed by a flat, plateau finish. Perhaps this will give Hushovd an real opportunity to add to the eight stage wins he has earned since 2002. And to win a stage in yellow, that would be truly special!