How the Tour de France's yellow jersey came to be yellow

Wearing the yellow jersey, which indicates the overall leader in the Tour de France, confers power in the peloton – the pack slows if he has to make a pit stop – and financial gain.

Bas Czerwinski/AP
Alberto Contador of Spain puts on the overall leader's yellow jersey on the podium after the 15th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 187.5 kilometers (116.5 miles) with start in Pamiers and finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon, Pyrenees region, France, Monday, July 19.

Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong was never known for his stellar French, but at least he was original in nicknaming the maillot jaune "Mellow Johnny."

Andy Schleck, who is battling Alberto Contador this year for the yellow jersey worn by the overall race leader, has miles to go in the creativity department.

“I’m pleased I have this jersey,” he said, after donning yellow for the first time in his career after Stage 9 a week ago. He wore the jersey for the next six stages until losing it to Contador today when the Spaniard attacked just as Schleck's chain popped off in Stage 15.

IN PICTURES: Scenes from the 2010 Tour de France

“This jersey” is not just professional cycling’s most prestigious prize, it’s also an icon that transcends the sport.

Sponsors like Nike and LCL, a French bank, spend millions of euros each year to put their logos on the kit.

Wearing it confers power in the peloton – if the race leader has to use the bathroom during the race, for example, the pack slows down to wait – and financial gain: €350 ($450) after each stage, a cool €450,000 for winning the race.

How the yellow jersey came to be yellow

Before there was yellow, there was green.

During the race’s first decade, at the dawn of the 20th century, leaders wore a green armband over their cycling outfits.

It didn’t exactly stand out.

“Spectators didn’t know who was in the lead; it wasn’t very interesting to follow,” says VeloNews’ John Wilcockson, a veteran reporter following his 42nd Tour de France.

So in 1913 – or 1919, depending on whom you ask – race founder Henri Desgrange developed a plan to more clearly identify the top rider.

At the time, Desgrange was editor of L’Auto, the newspaper that funded the race, and decided to fashion a jersey to mirror the yellow-colored broadsheet the paper was printed on.

After seeing that it increased the race’s popularity, organizers have added other colored jerseys over the years, including green for sprinters and polka dot for mountain climbers, to make the race more interesting to viewers.

But the yellow jersey continues to be the most coveted.

Tough ride for teammates

The maillot jaune also means added responsibility though – not just for the top rider, but for their teams as well.

During the race, they get him water, keep him out of crashes and, if rival riders break away, work like crazy to pull them back in to the peloton.

In Friday’s Stage 12, Schleck's Saxo Bank team spent about three and a half hours chasing down a potentially dangerous break.

It’s a stressful job.

“You think 100 times a day, ‘Oh, we should just let it go, it’s too hard,’” says Saxo Bank’s Jens Voigt, who’s worn yellow twice in previous Tours.

Some teams have done that to alleviate the pressure on their main rider.

In 2004, Lance Armstrong took the jersey during Stage 4’s team time trial, too early in the three-week race for his liking.

The next day, his US Postal team let the jersey go to Thomas Voeckler, who spent 10 stages wearing yellow before Armstrong took it back.

A yellow bike for Schleck

While the eventual winners become legends, even one day in yellow guarantees a permanent place in the sport’s history: During his 2004 stint, Thomas Voeckler rode into French cycling lore.

His performance also provided visibility for his team’s sponsor, Brioches la Boulangère, whose logo was displayed on the chest of the jersey while Voeckler had the lead.

“For a team that’s not going to get on the podium in Paris, that is huge publicity,” says Wilcockson.

To reward a leader, teams will fashion accoutrement to complement the jersey, like a helmet or sunglasses. Saxo Bank has even prepared a specially painted yellow bike for Schleck, hoping it will give him extra motivation to win this year’s race.

Outside of the team bus in Revel last Saturday, it stood out next to his teammates’ standard white models. Nearby, Jens Voigt was leaving for the start line.

“Yellow’s a beautiful color, no?” he said.

IN PICTURES: Scenes from the 2010 Tour de France

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