The History of The Yellow Jersey

The Tour de France has drawn to a close. Hundreds of riders have desperately clung on through stage after stage, doing their best to shave seconds off their overall time or just trying to stay upright on the challenging descents that this year’s elected route had in store.

These riders all come to the race as individuals, but as members of tight-knit teams, many share a common goal – to support their general classification rider in a bid for the Maillot Jaune. But what if tradition had been established differently at the very first tour, all those years ago? And what if Chris Froome was now proudly wearing a green armband instead of that famed Yellow jersey?

The History of the Yellow Jersey - by Le


The tour today is steeped in history and tradition, but when it first started it was an ever changing experiment that was established as a result of a newspaper feud. There was no L’Arc de Triomphe ceremonial sprint stage, there were no kings of the mountains or best young riders and there was certainly no Maillot Jaune. To be honest, there wasn’t an awful lot to write home about, and it looked like the organiser, French newspaper L’Auto (a newspaper championing motor racing) was making it up as they went along. Thankfully, their laissez-faire approach gave the tour enough room to grow into what we know it to be today - the biggest and most anticipated bike race in the world.

The first tour was held in 1903 and fifteen riders entered. They had signed up to five stages which visited cities around the perimeter of France. The riders cycled through the night until early the following afternoon and earned an entire rest day, before setting off on the next stage. Once a leader was established, he would wear a green armband on the road - slightly less conspicuous than a yellow jersey!

The History of the Yellow Jersey - by Le


Before this year's Grand Depart, Chris Froome had been zipped into Le Maillot Jaune a total of 49 times - ranking him third to Eddie Merckx’s 96 days as the race leader. This proud moment has been shared between 283 riders who have worn the yellow jersey some 2,103 times since the inaugural edition of the stage race.

This number is more than the total number of stages that have taken place in the tour. Although my maths skills may be questionable, they have not let me down this time - the mismatch in the numbers is due to the fact that three editions of the race actually had multiple race leaders. Due to identical finish times (and possibly the lack of finish line technology in 1931) the yellow had to be shared yellow across the peloton.


As with all great stories, there is a touch of mist hanging over the beginnings of the Maillot Jaune, along with its fellow classification jersey siblings.

The Maillot Jaune could potentially be traced back to 1913 and to Philippe Thys, winner of the tour in 1913, 1914 and 1920. He told his story over 40 years later claiming that Henri Desgrange - the race director - told him to wear a bright colour so it would be easier to distinguish him from the other riders. He explained that he didn’t want to wear something that would make him more visible; but after several stages he gave in to pressure from his team manager, popped into the closest bike shop and donned what we now know as the yellow jersey. Unfortunately, the first world war the following year wiped out most of the competitors of the 1913 edition and so there was no one to corroborate his version of events. 

Instead, the first widely accepted (and not so heavily disputed) appearance of the yellow jersey was in 1919. The colour was chosen to match the paper that L’Auto was printed on, according to the official race history. However, other sources claim that Desgrange needed 15 jerseys of the same colour and he could only find that many jerseys in yellow due to it being the least popular choice with cyclists at that time! The first rider to wear the jersey during the 1919 tour was Eugène Christophe who bore the brunt of the name calling during the race, being called a canary and ending up with an unwanted nickname as a result. 

As the race has developed and evolved, the yellow jersey has turned into something that riders dream of, rather than make fun of. With one exception...

Until 1947 the jersey was made of wool and only had Henri Desgrange’s initials embroidered on it. The race leader would pin their team name onto the jersey which would be either written on embroidered on a piece of fabric. There was a new sponsor for this particular tour - Sofil, a synthetic materials company. They incorporated synthetic fibres into the jersey design, which went against stage victor Louis Bobet’s ideals about pure wool being the best material to wear cycling. The company then had to manufacture another jersey overnight without the synthetic fabrics.

The History of the Yellow Jersey - by Le


The last minute rush to make the yellow jersey isn’t too far removed from the production of it today, where often the jersey is printed overnight. There is the ceremonial jersey which the race leader is zipped into on the podium and then they are passed a handful to sign after the presentations. They are then given a range of the Tour de France Maillot Jaune stock which are taken away to be printed with the team logos and sponsors by a portable printer (aka - a man in a van). With Team Sky guarding the jersey since day one, his job couldn’t have been easier this year!

So there you have it. Are we any closer to nailing down where it all began? Perhaps not, but we're sure what it lacks in accuracy, the history of the yellow jersey makes up for in intrigue, mystery and a bit of drama.


Blog written by bike-racer-in-residence, @LaurenKirchel