The Tour de France is the most famous bike race in the world. If anybody, anywhere, has heard of the concept of cycle racing, they will have heard about the Tour de France.

It bestrides the sport of cycling, and, for most people, everything else sits in its shadow. And the one thing that everybody knows about the Tour de France is that the overall leader wears a yellow jersey, or maillot jaune, as it’s called in French.

yellow jersey tour de france

The yellow jersey

A yellow jersey from the 1950s. First used to denote race leadership in the Tour de France, yellow jerseys have become a symbol for stage race leadership throughout the world.

There was no yellow jersey in the first Tour de France; in fact, its debut had to wait until the 1919 event, the first Tour after the First World War. Stage races can be confusing. The leading rider at any given point, even the stage winner, might not be leading the race overall. Henri Desgrange’s solution was to award a distinctive jersey to the leader after each stage so he could wear it the following day. It was a yellow jersey.

There are a number of stories concerning why yellow was the chosen color. The pages of L’Auto (the newspaper that started the Tour, and of which Desgrange was the editor) were yellow, so for a long time people thought that the Tour de France leader’s jersey was yellow because of that. However, cycling historians have established that is not true. The yellow jersey is yellow simply because Desgrange took a long time to decide whether his idea was a good one, and by the time he made up his mind, the 1919 Tour was about to start. He needed 36 jerseys to cover all sizes for the race, and the only color any supplier had in that number was yellow, so he had no choice but to buy them. The initials HD on today’s yellow jersey commemorate Henri Desgrange.

The man with the most yellow jerseys to his name is Eddy Merckx, who wore it 96 times between 1969 and 1975, on the way to winning five Tours de France. Another five-time winner, Bernard Hinault of France, is second, with 73 days in yellow. Not surprisingly, the next two places are filled by five-time winners as well: Miguel Indurain of Spain and another Frenchman, Jacques Anquetil, with 60 and 50 days respectively. Only four men have held the Tour de France yellow jersey every day from start to finish of a single Tour: Ottavio Bottecchia of Italy in 1924, the Luxembourg rider Nicolas Frantz in 1928, Romain Maes of Belgium in 1935, and Jacques Anquetil in 1961.

The green jersey tour de france

The green jersey

One of the Tour de France green jerseys won by three-times winner of the competition (1964, 1965, and 1967), Jan Janssen of the Netherlands. 

In the Tour de France, the green jersey (le maillot vert in French) is awarded to the cyclist who accrues the most points. Points are awarded to the first 15 cyclists across the finish line, and also to the winners of mid-stage sprints. The number of points awarded depends on the terrain of each stage, with more points awarded on flat stages than on mountain or time trial stages. That’s why the green jersey is a competition for riders who sprint well, because they tend to place higher on flat stages than riders who are better climbers.

In the first six Tour de France points competitions, the overall winner was the rider with the fewest points at the end of the race. Points were awarded accordingly, with the first rider across the line given one point, down to the fifteenth-placed rider, who was awarded fifteen points. The present system, introduced in 1959, is the reverse of this, with the most points awarded to the winner of each stage.

The competition’s first sponsor was the lawn mower company La Belle Jardinière. Its company logo was predominantly green, thus prompting the Tour to award each year’s points winner a green jersey. The one exception to this was in 1968, when the competition’s sponsor, Sodas Sic, insisted on the jersey being red. Nowadays the green jersey rider can wear matching green shorts if he wishes, but years ago this was strictly against the rules. The man who changed that was Mario Cipollini, who by coincidence is the greatest sprinter never to have won the green jersey.

Triple champion jersey

Triple champion jersey

The combined jersey was given to the rider with the highest aggregate placings in the yellow, the polka-dot, and the green jersey competitions in the Tour de France. 

Only one man has won all three main competitions in the Tour de France—the overall, the points, and the King of the Mountains—and that was Eddy Merckx in 1969. You will see photos from that year of Merckx posing with three jerseys, a yellow, a green, and a white jersey. The white jersey was for the combined prize, which was given to the highest aggregate placing in the overall, points, and King of the Mountains competitions.

There wasn’t a King of the Mountains jersey in 1969. When the polka-dot jersey was introduced for the mountains leader in 1975, the white jersey was awarded to the leading young rider, and the combined jersey changed to a patchwork design made up of all the elements of the yellow, green, and polka-dot jerseys.

The polka-dot jersey tour de france

The polka-dot jersey

Each jersey competition in the Tour de France is sponsored, and the sponsor’s name (in this case Champion) is displayed on it.

The leader of the King of the Mountains competition in the Tour de France wears a red and white polka-dot jersey, known in France as le maillot à pois rouges. However, although the first King of the Mountains award was made in 1933, a leadership jersey wasn’t designated for it until 1975, and there is some debate still about its origins.

The polka-dot jersey’s design has hardly changed since 1975. The only addition is that some riders opt to wear red, or even polka-dot-patterned, shorts to match it. The current jersey sponsor, as of 2015, is the supermarket chain Carrefour. The winner in 2015 was also the yellow jersey winner, Britain’s Chris Froome. The only other British winner was Robert Millar in 1984.