The Original Tour de France Yellow Jersey Was Made of Wool

100 years ago, in the middle of the race, a rider wore the famed jersey for the first time

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Belgian cyclist Firmin Lambot, the ultimate winner of the race, pictured in a wooly yellow jersey. (Albert Harlingue / Roger Viollet / Getty Images)
SMITHSONIAN.COM | July 17, 2019, 12:24 p.m.

The iconic Tour de France yellow jersey began on a whim. At the inception of the 5,560-kilometer cycling competition in 1903, no clear indicator existed that showed who was winning the competition: the leader received only a green armband that journalists covering the race complained they could not properly see.

In 1919, the Tour de France returned following a four-year hiatus because of World War I. Two-thirds of the way through the race, the director of the Tour de France—Henri Desgrange—decided he needed a clearer identifier of the leader. He came up with the idea that whoever had the fastest overall time at a given stage of the race would don a yellow jersey—yellow in honor of the sports newspaper that sponsored the race, L’Auto-Vélo, which was printed on yellow paper.

As the story goes, around 2 a.m. on July 18, 1919, Desgrange gave the current leader, Eugène Christophe, the first incarnation of the jersey to take with him. But unlike its modern counterparts, this yellow jersey was made of wool, and Christophe complained that the yellow looked silly—according to historian Paul F. State, he insisted he resembled a canary.

The jersey is still used to demarcate the race leader today, with one addition: after Desgrange died in 1940, his initials—HD—were added to the waistline.

French cyclist Charles Pelissier in yellow jersey, 1930. (STAFF / AFP / Getty Images)
Jean Majerus of Luxembourg puts on the yellow jersey after winning the first stage of the competition, June 30, 1937. (AFP / Getty Images)
Swiss cyclist Fritz Schaer wearing the yellow jersey, 1953. (KEYSTONE-FRANCE / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images)
Frenchman Andre Darrigade puts on the yellow jersey, 1958. (STAFF / AFP / Getty Images)
Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx put on his yellow jersey in 1971 before going on to win the full competition. (STAFF / AFP / Getty Images)
Legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx wearing the yellow jersey in July 1974. (STAFF / AFP / Getty Images)
1978 winner Bernard Hinault of France shows off his yellow jersey at the end of the race. (STAFF / AFP / Getty Images)
Spanish cyclist Pedro Delgado is helped into his jersey in 1988. (STAFF / AFP / Getty Images)
Lance Armstrong in yellow jersey, 2004. (Tim De Waele / Getty Images)
About the Author: Michael Waters is an editorial intern at Smithsonian.com and a history major at Pomona College. Read more of his work at michaelwatersauthor.com. Read more articles from Michael Waters

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