July 12, 2019
Old Yellow: new book celebrates 100 years of the Tour de France’s maillot jaune
by Tom Clayton
Cycling around France all summer sounds just wonderful, right? The wind in your hair. The breathtaking landscapes. The picture-perfect villages, with the tantalising aroma of freshly-baked baguettes wafting over from the boulangerie (which is only open for like, an hour a day, you really had better get in there quick). By nightfall, you roll up to little pavement cafes and sample the produce of the local vineyard, before retiring to your charming pension for a deep, country-air-infused sleep. Bliss.
Yeah, not the way these guys do it.
The annual festival of suffering known as Le Tour de France—long regarded as the most grueling bike race in the world—has had an extraordinary history, celebrating its centenary back in 2003. In case you didn’t know, it involves around 200 seasoned pro riders, a.k.a the peloton, slugging it around three week’s worth of mountains, cobbles and cornfields before, traditionally, ending up on the Champs Élysées in Paris. It is relentlessly, almost sadistically brutal; riders are regularly in the saddle for six hours a day or more, and race-ending crashes, injuries and other mishaps are common. And it has not been without it share of controversy over the years, with the spectre of doping hanging over many past éditions.
Nevertheless, it remains one of the world’s most astonishing sporting spectacles, and is absolutely addictive to even the most casual fan: a heady mix of superhuman strength, spectacular scenery and ludicrously-dressed spectators, all available to view for several hours a day? Yes please.
This year rings up a particularly interesting anniversary: it is the 100th iteration of the race to feature the iconic maillot jaune, or yellow jersey (or, ‘yellow jumper’, as now-veteran cycling commentator Ned Boulting haplessly referred to it on his first Tour). Pro cycling has many curious quirks, not least the wearing of multi-coloured sportswear to indicate your standing. There are three main jerseys: green, for overall best sprinter; the eye-catching pois rouges (polka-dots), worn by the best climber; and the one everyone wants, yellow, worn by the current overall leader. This year’s has only changed hands twice (at time of writing): between day-one leader and Dutch domestique Mike Teunissens—and current holder, the much-fancied French prospect Julian Alaphilippe.*
The yellow jersey was originally introduced to the race in 1919 by the French newspaper l’Auto (which had yellow pages), partly as a marketing ploy, but also to solve an early problem with the race: no-one could tell who was in the lead. The colour proved an instant hit—and now commands such reverence from cyclists that few ever wear it.
Each Tour usually brings with it a slew of books aimed at enticing the two-wheeled book-buyer—but this year, one stands above the rest. Earlier in the year, the appropriately named Yellow Jersey Press, a sports-focused imprint of Vintage, announced The Yellow Jersey, their handsome-looking coffee-table retrospective of the fabled garment. It features images of the jersey as it changed look, sponsor and shade over the past century, and is contextualised by the excellent cycling writer Peter Cossins.
So, perhaps while a particularly flat stage is being traversed by the peloton this year (one of the things no-one wants to admit about the TdF is that there are whole days where not a lot happens), I’ll dip into one of the many tomes that tell the rich and strange story of this race. And if you’re new to it, what better place to start than with a glass of Bordeaux, a big slice of brie, and a good book? Leave the suffering to the pros.
*Cycling Weekly ran this helpful explainer if you’re still (understandably) baffled by all the jersey-swapping.
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.