Join cycling author & journalist William Fotheringham who looks at a number of race leader jerseys through the ages - with some of our own favourite long-lost jerseys making the cut.
As the Coldplay song has it, “it was all yellow.” In cycling, that’s how it seems sometimes, with so many races in the calendar owned by the Tour de France owners Amaury Sport Organisation, and sponsored by their pet bank Credit Lyonnais. We’re constantly talking about the yellow jersey, occasionally about the green jersey or the polka-dots.
It’s all a bit homogenous and uniform until the Giro D'Italia comes along and breaks the trend in a very welcome way with the Maglia Rosa.
The Giro D'Italia makes the point though: leaders’ jersey don’t have to be yellow. Classification jerseys don’t have to be green and red-and-white polka dots. Once upon a time of course, when cycling was a bit less corporate and much less monolithic, jerseys were multifarious.
Best remembered among those non-yellow classification jerseys was the multicoloured, multi-faceted Combine jersey from the Tour de France, made up of a combination of all the classification jerseys - yellow, green, red, polka-dot and white.
The most memorable images of that jersey probably date from the 1987 Tour, when Jean-François Bernard won the Mont Ventoux time trial wearing it, combined, to tasteless effect, with a fluorescent headband and a rictus that spoke of suffering most of us could never imagine.
Like all great designs, the Tour’s Combination jersey divided opinions. Some days in the 80s, you woke up and watched Bernard or LeMond or Hinault in it and thought, “what on earth are you wearing?” Other days, you watched the Tour on telly and figured it was so bad it had to be good.
For something that iconic, the Combine jersey wasn’t around that long. If you were in a punning mood you could say it had a checkered career. The classification it denoted, across the three main Tour standings, was decided on a formula that only the French bureaucratic mind could have devised. It was brought in in 1969, at the point where the Tour’s financial mastermind Félix Lévitan was desperately trying to devise ways to monetize the race.
If nothing else, the combine jersey should serve as a reminder that once upon a time, in a long gone era, the Tour didn’t make squillions off television rights and it was economically challenged as an institution. Another classification meant another jersey meant another lead sponsor meant more francs in the (not over full) kitty.
Initially it was denoted with a white jersey, but in 1975 it was abandoned when the Tour moneymen decided that the white jersey should be used to denote the best young rider. In 1980, the classification was brought back, sponsored by the TF1 television station, but - if my memory serves me right - there was no jersey for it. The actual multicoloured combined jersey which we all know and (some of us) love actually only appeared in 1985 thanks to advances in sublimation allowing it's design to be easily applied to polyester, and its life was brief.
In 1989, Jean-Marie Leblanc took over as head honcho at the Tour, and initially he declared that his mission was to slim down the race. As part of that process, he wanted to cut back the interminable podium presentations after the race, and focus the public’s attention on the Tour’s main - and most lucrative - “brands”: yellow, green, polka dot. So out went the team classification on points, the combine jersey, and the excellent red Catch jersey for intermediate sprints; the Catch jersey had been around since 1984, but the intermediate sprints standings had been there since 1966. The argument was that because the intermediate sprints counted for the points prize, it was essentially redundant.
Steven Rooks (PDM) wearing the Combination jersey at the end of stage 10 Besançon to Morzine in the 1987 Tour de France. Photo: Fotoreporter Sirotti.
The Giro d’Italia, of course, had never gone down the yellow jersey road, and it maintains its individuality to this day. The Giro’s identity is all about pink, but the other classification jerseys have never had the same identity that the main rankings at the Tour enjoy (which actually makes Leblanc’s point: if you want a clear identity for something you are trying to sell, keep it simple).
So the points jersey (Maglia Ciclamino) at the Giro d’Italia is kind of purple, but has sometimes been red. The mountains jersey (Maglia Azzurra) is now blue after being green for some time with the young riders jersey (Maglia Bianca) white.
Once upon a time, they had a black jersey (Maglia Nera) for the last rider in the overall; this was brought in in 1946, in the spirit of post-war democracy, but was abolished in 1952, because the riders felt the contest to come last wasn’t really what sport was about. Someone had to come last, but there shouldn’t be a fight for it. It was reintroduced for one year only in 1967.
The Vuelta a España used to be similarly non-conformist - most famously, it had a blue jersey with a fish on it for the points standings - but now it’s part of the ASO monolith. It has a red leader’s jersey, but most fondly remembered is the golden leader’s jersey.
At which point let us hail some other great non-yellow leaders’ jerseys: pink at the Four Days of Dunkirk, yellow with a blue band at the Dauphiné Libéré, red and white at Paris-Luxembourg, green at the OVO Tours of Britain (women and men’s), and possibly most missed of all, the white jersey that Jean Leulliot brought in to distinguish his race, Paris-Nice, from the country’s national Tour.
Magnus Bäckstedt (Team Fakta) who won the InterGiro jersey at the 2003 Giro D'Italia. Photo: Fotoreporter Sirotti.
The ultimate symbol of the Giro’s non conformity, for me, was the InterGiro jersey, which was incredibly lucrative and which had an immense influence on the racing in the years it ran, beginning in 1989.
It was the brainchild of cycling’s most inventive organiser, Vincenzo Torriani, was a kind of super-combativity prize, whereby the riders would contest a sprint at some point in the stage; they were timed to that point and an overall standings produced on cumulative time. It was essentially a Giro within the Giro, hence its name. Mostly, it was denoted by a sky-blue, azzurro, jersey.
Winning it was enough to get Phil Anderson and his TVM team a ride in the 1990 Tour de France, and every day it dictated the racing: the break would either go with the InterGiro leader in it, or it would be contained because the InterGiro contenders didn’t want it to gain time. It was, however, way too complex for the television age - cycling’s equivalent of the Duckworth-Lewis system - and it died a death in 2005.
It was all smiles before stage 11 (Marostica - Bibione) of the 1994 Giro D'Italia. If you have to ride all-day, everyday in the Polti jersey, it's little wonder why Gianni Bugno and Djamolidine Abduzhaparov look so happy to swap their standard team jersey for the maglia azzurro e maglia ciclamino! Photo: Fotoreporter Sirotti.
If you have enjoyed reading William Fotheringham's latest blog for us, we have a selection of previously published stories for you to enjoy.
Fotheringham is also one of many talented and experienced sports writers who have teamed up to create lacourseentete.com which will publish a range of articles written by those that have covered 200+ Grand Tours.