Jonas Vingaard had been wearing the famous yellow jersey awarded to the Tour de France leader for about a week when the question came up.
It wasn’t a question of racing strategy, maintaining speed, or the best way to keep his nerve, and lead, through more days of winding roads, sharp curves, and punishing climbs. The question was not about fitness or shape.
Would Vingegaard be more comfortable, asked, if he was in second place?
“It would be easier, yes,” he replied. “certainly.”
For all the honors and respect it commands, and for all it signifies in a sport obsessed with data and detail, the blessed yellow jersey comes strung with a surprising number of inconveniences and flaws.
Teams might spend hours using a wind tunnel, for example, perfecting every detail of rider position, bike, and clothing. Bonus, if the rider does well enough to move into the lead? A new jersey from Official Race Sponsor, Santini, may not fit or perform the same.
“It’s a little bit different,” said Tadezh Pogacar, a two-time Tour winner and regular wearer of the yellow jersey. “You’re not used to it.”
Then there are the obligations. After crossing the finish line of each day’s stage, the race leader moves through an amazing series of missions. He was interviewed by The Tour. He was interviewed by the official broadcast partners of the race. He signs several faxes for the jersey. He took to the podium with a few other riders (a group that includes the stage winner and the leaders of several other classifications) for a presentation and photographs.
Next, he must cycle through a group of journalists and a videoconference. The last stop, and perhaps the longest, is doping control. It’s there until nature calls. “I would have been one hour earlier in the hotel every day,” said Vingaard, had he not been wearing the yellow jersey.
However, for every other contestant, wearing it even for a day is the highest honor, the first moment of obituary. “My mind is exploded,” Yves Lambert said last year with tears in his eyes, after taking a surprising victory at the opening time of the race. “I am just a farmer’s son from Belgium.”
It is universally understood that the magic of the maillot jaune, as the shirt is known in French, is that there is no need even to specify the color when referring to it. Simply put, Jersey. And at an event where yellow is inescapable—fluttering from flags, clinging to sweat-soaked spectators and chosen for the lanyards strung around the necks of journalists, organisers, dignitaries and even police officers—it is actually less prevalent in the race itself. There, her signature color, Pantone Yellow 1000, is only supposed to appear in one place: on the back of the race leader. (Race leaders have been known to ride a yellow bike or wear other yellow gear, too.)
“French fries are ready!” A voice cries out as an urgent beep interrupts the clamor around the trailers and trucks dotted outside the press center in Molines after Stage 11. Fabrice Piero laughs and releases the press he’s standing on. After inserting a small block of wood into the mechanism to hold it open, he carefully removed a yellow jersey bearing the logo of Vingegaard’s team, Jumbo-Visma.
Pierrot is a jersey printer for the Tour, and is tasked with producing special jerseys each day for the podium, as well as for the next day’s race. Behind the scenes on the podium, Pierrot takes notes from riders, although after 20 years on the job he can usually change their size by sight. He said, “This generation, like Bogakar, has never spoken.” “I love working with them.” On this day, by the time Vingegaard finished, about exactly an hour after he crossed the line, his team bus and that of every other team’s bus were long gone. The barriers are dismantled, and the platform is folded back into a trailer. He’s been the same since days: he’s wearing yellow and he’s proud of it.
“It doesn’t fit as well, but it does,” said Vingegaard, the usual smile creeping across his face. “I’d rather be in my jersey than my regular shirt.”