Every sports fan with even a passing interest in the Tour de France knows the iconic Yellow Jersey, worn by the race leader.
But what about the other three Tour de France jerseys awarded at the end of each stage? What do they signify, and what are the stories behind them?
To get you up to speed on the history and meaning of the Tour de France jersey colors, we’ll be covering:
- Le Maillot Jaune: The History of the Yellow Jersey
- Points Classification: The Green Jersey
- King of the Mountains: The Polka Dot Jersey
- Top Young Rider: The White Jersey
- Special Mention: The Rainbow Jersey
Ready for the lowdown on the Tour de France jersey colors and their history?
Let’s get started!
Le Maillot Jaune: The History of The Yellow Jersey
The Tour de France’s Maillot Jaune (“Yellow Jersey”) is awarded to the overall race leader at the end of each day, to be worn on the following stage.
Despite the global fame of the yellow jersey as the icon of cycling greatness, its origins are surprisingly murky.
In the early years of the Tour de France following its birth in 1903, the peloton was much smaller than it is today: only 60 riders took the start at Le Tour‘s inaugural edition, compared to the 184 entrants in 2021.
With this reduced field, it was much easier to spot the race leader, who was marked only with a green armband rather than a special jersey.
However, as the race grew in popularity and the peloton became more crowded, journalists and spectators began to pressure the Tour’s organizers to make the race leader more visible.
The date and wearer of the first Maillot Jaune has become one of cycling’s great mysteries.
“This morning I gave the valiant Christophe a superb yellow jersey… The battle to wear this jersey is going to be passionate.”Henri Desgrange
Because of Thys’ reputation for honesty and valour, coupled with the level of detail in his account, many Tour historians accept his version of the Yellow Jersey’s orgins as the truth.
However, with no witness accounts and so much conflicting evidence, the birth of the Maillot Jaune will forever remain a mystery.
The iconic color of the jersey was chosen for two reasons: mainly to match the yellow newsprint of L’Auto, but also because yellow was an unpopular color for cycling jerseys so was unlikely to clash with other riders, and could be produced quickly at late notice by manufacturers when the jersey changed hands.
Whichever of Thys or Christophe was the first to ride in the Yellow Jersey, both were surprisingly reluctant to wear it.
Thys feared singling himself out with a special jersey would make him more of a target for his rivals and encourage them to attack.
Christophe, meanwhile, complained that fans lining the roads mocked him incessantly with canary impressions and taunts. It was apparently a double-play on his nickname – “Cri-Cri” – which is French babytalk for a bird.
Reluctance to wear the Yellow Jersey among the peloton didn’t last. As the Tour’s popularity exploded through the 20th century, the Maillot Jaune took on legendary status. For most pros, a day riding in the Yellow Jersey would rank among the proudest honors of their career.
The record for most days spent in the Maillot Jaune is held by Belgian legend Eddy Merckx, who rode in yellow for a scarcely-believable 96 Tour de France stages.
Points Classification: The Green Jersey
The Green Jersey – or Maillot Vert – is worn by the leader of the Tour de France’s Points Classification, which is viewed as the sprinters’ competition.
The Points Classification was introduced at the 1953 Tour de France as part of Le Tour‘s 50th anniversary celebration.
The intention was to add interest in the Tour beyond the General Classification winner – partly because Italian legend Fausto Coppi won the 1952 edition by such a vast margin that there was a genuine risk of a mass exodus of riders who felt they had little to race for.
After the success of the Yellow Jersey, the new Points Classification would need a colored jersey of its own. The jersey’s sponsor would be the French lawn mower manufacturer La Belle Jardinière – so the Green Jersey was born.
The Green Jersey changed to red for the 1968 edition with the addition of a new sponsor, but swiftly switched back by the following year’s Tour.
Riders earn points by winning stages and intermediate sprints. The Green Jersey is seen as a sprinter’s contest because more points are awarded for flat stages, which tend to finish with the riders still grouped together in the peloton – allowing the sprinters to compete for the stage win.
Slovakian prodigy Peter Sagan holds the record for most Green Jersey wins with seven – including each of his first five entries at Le Tour.
King of the Mountains: The Polka Dot Jersey
The Polka Dot Jersey is worn by the leader of the Mountains Classification – better known as the “King of the Mountains”.
Though L’Auto has declared a rider the meilleur grimpeur (best climber) of the Tour since 1905, the official Mountains Classification wasn’t created until 1933 – and the Polka Dot Jersey wouldn’t be awarded for another four decades.
At the 1975 Tour de France, Dutch climber Joop Zoetemelk became the first man to wear the Polka Dot Jersey.
The garish design – known in French as the Maillot à Pois Rouges (“Red Pea Jersey”) – was chosen because it matched the chocolate bar wrappers of key Tour de France sponsor Chocolat Poulain.
King of the Mountains points are awarded to riders for being in the first few positions to summit one of the Tour’s categorized climbs. There are four categories of climb, indicating the level of difficulty and corresponding number of Polka Dot Jersey points available:
- Hors Catégorie (HC) (highest difficulty, most points available)
- Category 1
- Category 2
- Category 3
- Category 4 (lowest difficulty, least points available)
Urban legend dictates that the cycling climb categories were originally determined by which gear you could drive up the mountain in a Citroën 2CV (Category 2 in 2nd gear, Category 1 in 1st, and so on). Hors Catégorie designated a mountain pass so steep it was impassable for the old Deux Chevaux workhorse.
Historically accurate? Probably not – but we love it as part of Tour de France mythology all the same!
Top Young Rider: The White Jersey
The Tour de France White Jersey is worn by the best young rider (under-26) in the race – but that hasn’t always been the case.
Introduced at the 1968 Tour, the White Jersey was originally worn by the leader of the Combiné Classification – essentially an average performance across all the other classifications.
For the 1975 edition, the White Jersey’s meaning was changed to represent the best young rider, with a then-fledgling Francesco Moser winning two stages to claim the jersey on his on sole appearance at Le Tour.
After a few tweaks to the definition of a “young rider”, the White Jersey arrived at its current format of the best-placed rider under the age of 26 in the General Classification standings from the 1987 Tour.
In 1989, the White Jersey was ditched amid a culling of the secondary classifications as Tour organizers feared they were encouraging doping within the peloton.
The White Jersey returned for the 2000 race as new sponsor Nike wanted to increase the number of its officially-supplied Tour de France jerseys, and has remained ever since.
Only six riders have won both the White Jersey and the Yellow Jersey at the same time. Tadej Pogačar was the most recent to achieve the feat, becoming the first man since Eddy Merckx to win three jerseys at the same Tour by claiming the Yellow Jersey, White Jersey, and Polka Dot Jersey in both 2020 and 2021 in an astonishing show of dominance.
Special Mention: The Rainbow Jersey
Unlike the other Tour de France jerseys in this article, the eye-catching Rainbow Jersey – worn by the reigning World Champion – isn’t specific to Le Tour.
Consisting of a mainly white jersey with a rainbow band across the torso, the Rainbow Jersey has been awarded to cycling world champions across all disciplines since 1927.
The World Champion can only wear the jersey while racing in the discipline in which they won it. They can wear it throughout the cycling season in any eligible event, including as their Tour de France jerseys.
So, for most of the Tour, the Rainbow Jersey is worn by the reigning Road Race World Champion – but for a time-trial stage the jersey would pass to the Time Trial World Champion instead.
The Rainbow Jersey is not optional for its owner: failure to wear it when eligible results in a fine.
Once a rider is dethroned as World Champion, the Rainbow Jersey is no longer theirs to wear – but they’re still allowed to wear rainbow trim on the cuffs and neck of their jersey for the rest of their career.
National Champions are also allowed to wear special jerseys at the Tour – so keep an eye out for them! Many of these have their origins in the era of the 1930s to ’60s when the Tour was divided into national teams, and are a source of great pride for their wearers.