Jonas Vingegaard had been wearing the famous yellow jersey awarded to the Tour de France leader for almost a week when the question came up.
It wasn’t about race strategy or maintaining speed, or how best to keep your nerve and your lead, through more days of twisty roads, hairpin turns and tough climbs. It was not a matter of fitness or form.
Would you be more comfortable, Vingegaard was asked, if you were in second place?
“It would be easier, yes,” he replied. “Safely.”
For all the honor and respect it deserves, for all that it means in a sport obsessed with data and details, the time-honored yellow jersey comes fraught with a surprising number of drawbacks and drawbacks.
Teams can spend hours using a wind tunnel, for example, to perfect every detail of a rider’s positioning, bike, and clothing. The reward, if the rider does well enough to take the lead? A brand new jersey from Official Race Sponsor Santini that may not fit or perform the same.
“It’s a bit different,” said Tadej 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 is taken through a dizzying series of tasks. He is interviewed by the Tour. He is interviewed by the official broadcast partners of the race. He signs several facsimiles of jerseys. He steps on the podium, along with a few other riders (a group that includes the stage winner and the leaders of various other classifications) for a presentation and photos.
After that, you need to navigate a group of journalists and a video press conference. The final stop, and possibly the longest, is doping control. He is there until nature calls. “I would be at the hotel an hour earlier every day,” Vingegaard said, if he wasn’t in the yellow jersey.
Still, for every other rider out there, wearing it for even one day is the ultimate honor, a frontline moment from the obituary. “My mind is exploding,” Yves Lampaert said last year, his eyes brimming with tears, after taking a surprise victory in the race’s opening time trial. “I’m just the son of a farmer from Belgium.”
So universally understood is the mystique of the maillot jaune, as the jersey is known in French, that it is not even necessary to specify the color when referring to it. It is simply, The Jersey. And in an event where the color yellow is inescapable—waving on flags, clinging to sweat-drenched spectators, and chosen for lanyards around the necks of journalists, organizers, VIPs and even police officers—it’s actually less prevalent at the race itself. There, his signature shade, Pantone Yellow 1000, must be seen in only one place: on the race leader’s back. (Race leaders have been known to ride a yellow bike or wear other yellow gear as well.)
“French fries are ready!” a voice yells as an urgent whistle interrupts the hubbub around the trailers and trucks strewn outside the press center in Moulins after stage 11. Fabrice Pierrot laughs and blurts out to the press that he is on his feet. After inserting a small block of wood into the mechanism to hold it open, he cautiously removes a yellow T-shirt with the still-smoldering logo of Vingegaard’s team, Jumbo-Visma.
Pierrot is the Tour’s jersey printer, tasked with producing special jerseys each day for the podium, as well as for the following day’s race. Backstage at the podium, Pierrot takes notes on the riders, though after 20 years on the job, he can usually assess them with the naked eye. “This generation, like Pogacar, never a word. I like working with them.” On this day, when Vingegaard finishes, almost exactly one hour after crossing the line, his team bus and all the other teams’ buses have left. The barriers are being dismantled and the podium is being folded into a trailer. He is as he has been for days: dressed in yellow and proud of it.
“It doesn’t fit me that well, but it fits me well,” Vingegaard said, a faint smile on his normally stoic face. “I’d rather be in The Jersey than my normal jersey.”