By Martyn Herman
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Winning any Tour de France stage is a milestone in any cyclist’s career but to do so on the opening day of the annual three-week trek comes with a very special bonus — the yellow jersey.
Saturday’s Grand Depart in Brussels feels special enough anyway, coming 50 years after the city’s most favourite sporting son Eddie Merckx won the first of his five Tours and 61 years after the race last started in the Belgian capital.
But when the top sprinters power towards the city’s iconic Atomium at the end of the 194.5 km stage around Flanders they will do so knowing the overall maillot jaune is up for grabs.
While it is the 106th edition of the Tour de France, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the what has become arguably the most recognisable and fought-over garment in sport.
It has been worn by the overall race leader since Henri Desgrange, editor of L’Auto magazine, the publication that thought up the Tour, decided in July 1919 to act after complaints that the leader did not stand out in the peloton.
Inspired by a chat he had with sports director Alphonse Bauge he went for a yellow jersey, similar to the colour of his publication, and during a rest day in Grenoble Eugene Christophe, who had been in the lead since stage four, became the first rider to slip it on.
“But the time they were made and sent to me, I was in Grenoble,” Christophe later recalled. “It was there that I received a beautiful package of six jerseys.”
He was given half a dozen so that his support team could also wear them, helping him locate them, especially in the dark.
The introduction of the yellow jersey received just a short mention in L’Auto, but the message has endured.
“The battle for possession for the jersey is going to be passionate,” the story read.
Sadly for Christophe he never got to wear the jersey in Paris after being struck by cruel luck.
Still leading on the penultimate stage from Metz to Dunkirk, 30 minutes ahead of the second-placed rider, his forks broke on the cobblestones of Haisnes and, without being able to grab a spare bike as is the case today, he spent an hour fixing them.
He ended up third with Belgium’s Firmin Lambot proudly adorned in yellow in the Parc de Princes Paris.
It took a while for the jersey to weave its way into the legend of the race, however, and become the symbol of the world’s most-watched sporting event.
Brussels is decked out in yellow this week as the big day looms, but for Christophe his jersey was just something else to wear around the house. “I just wore them as vests and they all wore out,” he later said.
Other coloured jerseys are now fought for during the race — the polka dot (climbers), green (sprinters), white (young rider) — but yellow remains the most prized of all.
“The yellow jersey is the symbol of the leader in cycling. It’s not pink, it’s not red. Everyone knows that the rider in yellow is the leader,” one of this year’s favourites, Denmark’s Jacob Fuglsang, said this week.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Alison Williams)