Name me a race that can boast a publicity caravan to rival the Tour de France's eclectic & frankly alarming assortment of the weird and wonderful, and I'll give you a Cornetto - from the Tour de France Cornetto promotional vehicle. The Tour is immense and confounding, and that's before the race hurtles by in a blaze of colour and sound. But once the race starts, just who is who, what is what, and why the flip are there 4 leader's jerseys? Isn't that a bit, well, egalitarian?
So plant your side-of-the-road stool, unwrap a minty double choc, and enjoy the Always Riding guide to the Tour de France leader's jerseys, as we demystify the enigma that is, the Tour de France.
Maillot Jaune - Yellow Jersey: Overall Race Leader on General Classification
During the inaugural 1903 Tour de France the race leader wore a green armband, not a yellow jersey as is the case today. Also, the race leader was initially decided on a points system - but that was shelved after various controversies in the early editions of the race in favour of the lowest cumulative time based race we have today. It wasn't until 1919 that the records show the Tour de France organisers deciding to use a yellow jersey to signify the overall race leader and eventual winner. Or perhaps 1913, depending on who you listen to: Belgian and three-time winner Philippe Thys claimed that he was presented with the first Maillot Jaune in the 1913 edition. He promptly declined it as he declared he did not wish to be a more visible target for his rivals. Sponsor considerations soon held sway as far as the merits of not being able to skulk around un-noticed and he was cajoled by Peugeot team manager Alphonse Baugé into donning the thing. It remains a contested point as no newspapers mention a yellow-clad race leader in 1913 and we have no witnesses from the day to consult.
According to the official history, however, the first Yellow Jersey was worn by the Frenchman Eugène Christophe on the 11th stage on July 18, 1919. He didn't like it either - and not merely because it let his adversaries easily see what he was up to. The canary yellow hue made him the butt of the roadside crowd's jokes based upon a play on words involving his name, Christophe, and a juvenile French term for canary - "Cri-cri!" The name calling was accompanied by a dawn chorus (stages usually started at around 2am such was their ridiculous length) of mocking bird-noises, often lasting far beyond morning much to Eugène's day-long chagrin...
Why yellow? One school of thought has it that it was a pretty unpopular colour all round and was therefore easy to pick up a job-lot of jerseys. The more compelling theory relates to the colour of the race's backer, newspaper L’Auto-Vélo (which subsequently evolved into L'Equippe), as it was printed on yellow paper. Whatever the case, the fabled Yellow Jersey has become the most iconic piece of clothing in all of cycling, if not sport itself.
Maillot Vert - Green Jersey: Points Competition (More popularly known as The Sprinters' Jersey)
To celebrate the Tour's 50th anniversary in 1953 (and in an attempt to lure riders back after Coppi doled out a comprehensive kicking to everyone in the 1952 edition, running away with the title by the very thick-end of half an hour) a second classification jersey was introduced. Not that there was any guarantee that Coppi wouldn't simply waltz off with that one also but at least it gave the competition something else to aim at. The jersey would be awarded to the rider with the lowest points tally at the end of each stage with placings across the line earning a higher amount of points the further back you were. This presumably hard to fathom system was ditched in 1959 in favour of a more right way around sounding 'best placed finisher gets the most points' method of determining the jersey holder that we have today. The colour of this new jersey was green, 'the colour of hope' as the organisers whimsically put it. Coincidence, then, that the sponsor of this new jersey was a prominent lawn-mower manufacturer whose corporate identity was - yup, you've guessed it. Anyway, Switzerland's Fritz Schär wrapped the competition for the first Maillot Vert up with a paltry 271 points. I’m not actually sure whether that represents a good or bad showing to be honest. The jersey has remained green ever since apart from the 1968 edition of the race when it was red (sponsor obligations) - surely a Holy Grail if ever there was one for all of you fanatical collector types out there! These days points are also on offer at various mid-way sprint-spots on most stages in order to nudge you awake during those sunflower-shot filled, five hour 'transition stages'.
Maillot à Pois Rouge - Polka Dot Jersey: King of the Mountains
It's not that Le Tour ignored the feats of the waif-like climbers until the 1975 edition when the first natty red & white polka dotted jersey (Chocolat Poulain, chocolate bars) was awarded, it's just that 1975 was the first year the competition was given its own classification jersey: Le maillot à pois rouge. Indeed, the Kings of the Mountains had been battling it out in the clouds since 1933 for the official, but jersey bereft, title and even before that in the 'un-official' climbers cup, the meilleur grimpeur, as voted for by the movers & shakers of the race's sponsors, L'Auto. When a jersey was finally bestowed upon the classification in 1975 Belgian Lucien Van Impe took the honours. Again, like the green jersey with its mid-stage sprints and sprint finishes on the flatter terrain, the polka dots are won via amassing points for getting over the many classified climbs that litter the race. Points are available to the first ten riders on the most extreme of the alpine challenges to just the first three on things like railway bridges on pan-flat coastal stages. The harder the climb, the more points you get for crossing it first. Le Tour's organisers did try experimenting with a time bonus system early on in a carrot-on-a-stick attempt to invigorate the mountain goats in their GC aspirations. The thinking was that, being as none of them could descend for toffee, a bag full of time lopped off their race total might serve to make them more competitive overall. I can't help but think that maybe reverting to that time-bonus system in today's era may really throw le chat among the - oh, how disappointing, it's exactly the same according to Google translate - racing pigeons. If Chris Froome decides not to enter, that is.
Maillot Blanc - The White Jersey: Young Rider Competition
The White Jersey was introduced in 1968 but not in the guise we are familiar with today. The Maillot Blanc was originally awarded to the leader of the Combined Classification which took into account a rider's joint position across the all classifications. The White Jersey morphed into a competition for young riders in 1975 with Francesco Moser of Italy claiming the ‘king in waiting’ title. Rather than points, the White Jersey follows the lowest cumulative time format of the Yellow Jersey, the best overall placed rider under the age of 26 (based on age at 1st Jan the following year) being awarded the title. Previous editions of the race have seen alternate formats tried out as a way of settling the competition, namely best placed neo-pro or best placed Tour debutant. The White Jersey competition was re-named in 1997, becoming the Souvenir Fabio Casartelli in memory of the young Italian racer who lost his life whilst descending the Col de Portet d'Aspet on stage 15 of the 1995 edition of the race.
There are many great tales and anecdotes surrounding the history of the Tour de France, its legendary jerseys and the many jersey wearers & also rans. Volumes worth, in fact. Among the many volumes that have been written, those by Barry Boyce, Les Woodland, Jacques Augendre all informed this piece and are well worth hunting out.