Mellow Yellow, the Story of Cycling’s Most Famous Jersey

From green armbands to Tadej Pogacar’s Tour de France winning yellow jersey, we unzip the century old story of the race leader’s jersey.

When UAE Team Emirates rider, Tadej Pogacar, pulled on the coveted yellow jersey at the 2020 Tour de France, he was fulfilling the lifelong dream of every boy bike racer out there. An elusive dream chased in blood sweat and crunched in gears by so many but realized by so few.

The 21-year old Slovenian became the first-ever winner from his country and second youngest Tour champion ever (the youngest being Henri Cornet at 19 years old in 1904). Pogacar took the race lead with an astounding uphill time trial victory on the race’s penultimate stage, overtaking his countryman and good friend Primoz Roglic at the eleventh hour of what was a truly amazing bike race.

When the Tour de France started back in 1903, things were very different, with marathon-length stages being raced on roadster style single speed bikes. Back then, there was no yellow jersey, and the race leader was identified by one solitary green armband.

Since then, the yellow jersey has become the most prized garment in cycling, and the color now identifies race leaders in stage races the world over.

Winner’s Jerseys

Over the Years

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1903

The First Tour de France
When the Tour de France started back in 1903, there was no yellow jersey, and the race leader was identified by one solitary green armband.
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1919

First Tour de France Yellow Jersey
The yellow jersey was formally introduced to the race by the race director and sports writer Henri Desgrange, and it’s been with us ever since.
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1931

Giro d’Italia introduces a winner’s jersey
Giro d’Italia organizers created their own pink leader’s jersey replicating their sponsor’s page colors, the Gazzetta dello Sport.
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1933

Vuelta a’ Espana introduces a  winner’s jersey
Vuelta a’ Espana came out with an orange jersey and then went through a series of color combinations before settling on red in 2010.
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1953

First Tour de France Green Jersey
The green points jersey for sprinters first came into play in 1953.
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1975

First Tour de France Polka Dot & White Jersey
Starting in the 70s, the Tour de France introoduced the polka dot KOM jersey along with the white young rider’s jersey.
It wasn’t until 1919 that the yellow jersey was formally introduced to the race by the race director and sports writer Henri Desgrange, and it’s been with us ever since. 

Halfway through the race, journalists were finding it tough to identify the race leader, and so Desgrange hurriedly came up with the idea of the leader’s jersey, a yellow jersey.

It’s widely believed the color was chosen as it was the same as the yellow pages of the race sponsoring L’Auto-Velo newspaper. However, some rumors hint that it was the only color of wool available on such short notice from the jersey manufacturer (as it was so unpopular).

The Giro d’Italia organizers followed suit in 1931 and created their own pink leader’s jersey replicating their sponsor’s page colors, the Gazzetta dello Sport. Hot on their heels, the Vuelta a’ Espana came out in orange (for unknown reasons) for the 1933 race leader and then went through a series of color combinations before settling on red in 2010. The color choice is believed to be down to the main sponsor being the French Carrefour supermarket chain (their logo is red, white, and blue – as are the Vuelta jersey colors).

The first official wearer of the jersey in 1919 was Frenchman Eugene Christophe, who complained it made him look like a canary, and it looked silly.

In the early days, riders were often reluctant to don the bold yellow jersey as they thought it marked them out as a target to their opponents. The first official wearer of the jersey in 1919 was Frenchman Eugene Christophe, who complained it made him look like a canary, and it looked silly.

These days, on taking the race lead, a rider is initially presented with a ceremonial podium jersey. The jersey is fastened at the rear and easy to pull on over their race kit, and they get to keep it. At the Tour de France, each classification leader given three regular leader’s jerseys each day, meaning Pogacar would have carried away three each of the yellow, white, and polka-dot jerseys plus the podium versions on the last stage. The green points jersey first came into play in 1953, the polka dot KOM jersey in 1975, along with the white young riders jersey.

Photos by Steve Thomas
Classification jerseys, often sponsored by non-cycling brands, and, as an example, when Champion System sponsored the UCI World Tour ranked Amgen Tour of California that involved an investment of cash and materials over $250,000 (including race staff and media). This fee varies greatly depending on the stature and ranking of a race.

For a major stage race, the leader’s jerseys are prepared well in advance, and there is a range of sizes available for each day, with smaller sizes being the most called upon. Bigger teams usually carry their own jersey artwork to races, which is generally supplied by their clothing sponsor (Champion System with UAE). This branding is then applied on site as and when needed.

Early race jerseys were mostly made from regular wool and had front pouch-like pockets, collars, button-up necks, and a far cry from today’s high tech race jerseys.

Although on occasion a leader’s jersey may be declined by a rider (usually through the misfortune of a fellow rider who was wearing the leader’s jersey), it is obligatory to wear the official garment, meaning a rider often slips into an unfamiliar outfit for the race.

Most leading pro racers now use ‘race suits,’ which are form-fitting and highly technical road race orientated skinsuits with an aero fit. During training, racers tend to revert to standard kits, which they re-adapt to when wearing a race leaders jersey.

Early race jerseys were mostly made from regular wool and had front pouch-like pockets, collars, button-up necks, and a far cry from today’s high tech race jerseys.

Modern race jerseys and suits are highly technical in comparison to those of even a decade ago. There is a great deal of attention paid to their aerodynamic performance, the sweat-wicking ability, and of course, to their comfort. With the rider’s body being the main factor in wind resistance, they must have the latest and greatest at their disposal.

(Above) Photo by PhotoFizza(Left) Photos by Steve Thomas
Pro riders usually have two rear pockets in their race suit tops, and these suits are wind tunnel tested to optimize the blend and seam lines of fabrics to save as many of those crucial watts as they can.

A World Tour team such UAE Team Emirates (with 29 riders) is typically issued with around 5,000 apparel pieces a year (including socks, gloves etc.), in three seasonal deliveries. Riders are measured up and fitted in advance, and they also chose what kit they prefer to use. It’s their extreme demands and feedback that pour directly back to the consumer garments that most of us use in our everyday rides, even if we don’t go quite as fast as they do.

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