Of all the special jerseys awarded during the gruelling three-week Tour de France bike race, the yellow is the most coveted of all. Each day the rider who has the lowest accumulated time to date stands on the podium and receives a yellow jersey, zipped up from behind for some years by the great cyclist and five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault. Flanked by two local beauties who hand him a bouquet of flowers and a stuffed lion supplied by jersey sponsor Credit Lyonnais, the proud but exhausted rider raises his arms and smiles to the cheering crowd. Also celebrated on this same podium are the stage winner (no special jersey for him, but he gets flowers and a plaque); the points winner, who gets a green jersey; the King of the Mountains, who dons a polka-dot jersey; and the best young rider, who wears a white one.

The jersey is known in French as the maillot jaune, which the Americans have anglicized to mellow johnny, but the man who wears yellow is anything but mellow. He who puts on the yellow jersey in Paris at the race's finish is the most celebrated, for he wins the overall Tour, but donning it on any stage is a rare and extremely prestigious honour that most riders can only dream of.

The first Tour was held in 1903, but the yellow jersey was not introduced until midway through the 1919 race; France's Eugene Christophe was the first person to wear it, but he lost it before Paris due to mechanical troubles, and the Belgian rider Firmin Lambot was the first to don it as race winner. The introduction of a special jersey allowed the press and the public to more easily spot the race leader; the reason it's yellow is that its initial sponsor, the newspaper L'Auto, was printed on yellow paper.

It seems likely that defending champion Lance Armstrong will wear the yellow jersey in the French capital this year, bringing his total number to over 60 (surpassing five-time Tour winner Miguel Induráin), but he still has a long way to go to rival Hinault, who wore the jersey 79 times over his career, or the great Eddy Merckx, who held it an incredible 96 days. Merckx also won the Tour five times, and is the only rider to have held the yellow and green jerseys in the same years (1969, 1971, and 1972); in 1969 he also held the polka-dot jersey. Though Merckx is thus a record-holder who Armstrong cannot match, the American cancer survivor is poised to become the only rider ever to have won the Tour six times, assuring him a solid place in the Tour history books.


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