Even people who have no interest in professional cycle racing know the leader of the Tour de France wears the yellow jersey. Yet even some of the most ardent cycle sport fans don’t know how this iconic garment came about. Here Matt Lamy looks at the story of not only the yellow jersey but also the other classification leaders’ tops — polka-dot, green and white — as well as some other unique pieces from the Tour de France wardrobe.
The Yellow Jersey
So let’s start with the most famous piece of clothing in sport: the yellow jersey, or ‘maillot jaune’ to give it its French title. The yellow jersey is worn by the rider leading the overall or general classification at the start of that day’s stage — essentially, the rider with the lowest aggregate total time for all the days raced so far. The rider with the lowest aggregate time when the race reaches its finale in Paris after three weeks is the ultimate race winner and yellow jersey holder. However, anybody who has worn a yellow jersey at any time during the Tour gets to keep the garment as a very special souvenir of their achievement. For example, Eddy Merckx was awarded 96 yellow jerseys during his career because he spent 96 days leading the Tour.
But it hasn’t always been like this. When the Tour de France first started way back in 1903, the leader of the race only wore a yellow armband to signify his position. The yellow jersey itself didn’t come into Tour de France life until 1919, and the first wearer was French rider Eugène Christophe So why yellow? Well here’s a little bit of interesting Tour trivia. The Tour de France was created by L’Auto newspaper as a way to promote the journal, and L’Auto was famously painted on yellow paper. So the yellow jersey was originally nothing more noble than a blatant marketing exercise.
The Polka-Dot Jersey
Probably the next most identifiable piece of Tour de France clothing is the polka-dot jersey or ‘King of the Mountains’ jersey. This is worn by the rider leading the mountains classification at the start of the day’s stage. All significant climbs on the Tour de France route are graded from category four for the least taxing, right up to ‘hors category’ for the true mountains. The riders who cross the summit line first are awarded points — the tougher the climb, the more riders who will win more points. The rider with the most accumulated points at the start of the day wins the right to wear the legendary polka-dot jersey for that day’s stage.
The polka-dot jersey might be the second most recognisable jersey in the Tour but it’s actually the jersey with only the third oldest provenance; both the yellow and green jerseys were around before it. Although the mountain competition came into being at the 1933 Tour, there was no jersey awarded to denote the classification leader until 1975. Since then, though, the white and red-spotted jersey has been ever present. Why red polka-dots on a white background? Need you ask? It’s all down to the sponsor at the time — Chocolat Poulain — who covered its chocolate bars in polka-dot wrappers.
The Green Jersey
Compared to the yellow and polka-dot jerseys, the green jersey — or ‘maillot vert’ — is quite a subtle little number. But it holds particular interest for British cycle fans because our man Mark Cavendish won it in 2011 and has come second three times. The green jersey is awarded to the rider leading the points classification at the start of the day’s stage. Rather like the King of the Mountains classification which is based on points awarded at climb summits, the points classification is based on points awarded at intermediate sprints ‘primes’ or points set along Tour route and — much more importantly, because there are most points available — at the finish line of each day’s stage. Effectively, then, the green jersey is the sprinter’s jersey.
The points classification and the green jersey were both introduced in the 1953 Tour de France, partly as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the race, and it was first won by Fritz Schär. Why did Schär have to wear green? Can you guess? The sponsor of the points competition was La Belle Jadinière, who maid lawnmowers. And here’s another tidbit of Tour interest: in 1968 the green jersey became the red jersey, again due to sponsorship reasons, but it reverted back to green the following year.
The White Jersey
The last of the current classification leaders’ jerseys is the white jersey for the highest placed rider on general classification aged under 26. So it’s essentially the yellow jersey competition for under-26s, although when it first started in 1975 the classification was actually for riders in their first three years of pro racing. Then in 1983 it was changed to only first time riders who were eligible. And then finally in 1987 it was changed to under 26s. From 1989 to 1999 there was no white jersey awarded, but it came back in 2000 and has been around ever since.
Other Tour garments
Funnily enough, the white jersey wasn’t originally awarded to young or new Tour competitors. From 1968 to 1974 the white jersey was worn by the combination classification leader, who was the highest placed rider across all three competitions: the general classification, the points classification and the mountain classification. Although the white jersey moved onto young riders’ shoulders, the combined classification did make a reappearance in 1980 to 1982 — when it was called Grand Prix TF1 — and then from 1985 to 1989 when the Tour gave the combined leader a special and very funky mixed jersey with elements of all the other classification leaders’ jerseys.
Another jersey lost to history is the red jersey for the rider with most points accrued from intermediate sprints, which was presented at the 1984 to 1989 Tours de France. Although the jersey itself has been abolished, intermediate sprints have not and the points awarded from them now go towards the green points jersey.
There are other bits of unique Tour de France apparel, too. For example, the rider who is seen as being the most combative in a stage gets to have his race number printed red on white, rather than black on white, the following day. Similarly, the squad leading the teams classification have their race numbers printed black on yellow and since 2012 have been allowed to all wear yellow helmets.
Finally, it’s worth noting that not all wearers of the classification jerseys are necessarily the leaders of those competitions. It may well be that the overall race leaders is also the leader in the points or mountain or even young rider classifications, too. In which case, he will wear the yellow jersey and the rider next in the relevant classification rankings will get to wear the special jersey.