The yellow jersey, also known as the maillot jaune, is the most coveted jersey in the sport and is presented to the rider with the lowest accumulated time in the race. The yellow jersey is awarded after each stage and it changes shoulders throughout the race. A rider only ‘wins’ the jersey at the end of the race – until then, the jersey is only ‘worn’ by a rider.
There are definite tactics surrounding when to defend the jersey throughout the Tour. In a nutshell, if it is worn by someone who isn’t expected to challenge for the general classification, the team will try to keep it for as long as possible (e.g. Thomas Voeckler and Europcar last year). If a favourite GC contender is awarded the yellow jersey too early, such as in the first week, it often wouldn’t be defended vigorously as it would put their team under pressure to control the peloton too soon in the race.
Eddy Merckx has worn the maillot jaune a record 96 times. Fabian Cancellara is the active rider who has worn the yellow jersey the most number of times, with 21. And only three men have worn the jersey from start to finish (Ottovio Bottecchia in 1924 Nicolas Frantz in 1928 and Romain Maes in 1935).
The green jersey, also known as the maillot vert, is awarded to the most consistent rider. This is determined by the number of points they accumulate during the race. Each stage has one intermediate sprint point, although in the mountains these are often scooped up by the climbers. There are also a number of points given for the first 15 placements in the stage, with the most points given for flat stages. This is why the green jersey is commonly known as the sprinters’ jersey, as they are the main competitors on the flats.
A rider, however, can win the green jersey without winning the most sprints in a Tour, as Thor Hushovd demonstrated in 2009 over Mark Cavendish. Of the Tour jerseys, this is second in prestige to the maillot jaune and wearing the green jersey on the Champs-Élysées at the end of the Tour de France is every sprinter’s dream. Erik Zabel is king of the green, with six consecutive wins from 1999 to 2004. For more information on how the points classification works, click here.
The polka dot jersey, also known as the maillot à pois rouges, is awarded to the leader of the King of the Mountains classification. Climbs are ranked according to difficulty – from category four (easiest) to hors catégorie (HC), which are so difficult they are ‘beyond classification’. Points are given to the first riders over the summit. A Cat 4 climb earns the first rider over the summit one point and this goes up until HC, which awards the first rider over the summit 20 points (the next five riders receive between 16 and two). Summit finishes at Cat 2 and upwards earn double points. The most successful King of the Mountains is Richard Virenque, who has won the jersey seven times, starting in 1994 until his final jersey in 2004. For more information on how the mountains classification works, click here.
The white jersey, aka the maillot blanc, is awarded to the best young rider. All riders who will be under 26 at the end of the current calendar year are in the running for this jersey and, like its yellow equivalent, is presented to the rider with the lowest accumulated time. Although there has been a young rider competition of some description since 1975, the white jersey in its present incarnation has only been given since 2000. Three cyclists have won the Tour de France in the same year that they won the young rider competition: Laurent Fignon in 1983, Jan Ullrich in 1997 and Alberto Contador in 2007.
Rainbow jersey: The World Champions in both road racing and time trials wear their rainbow jerseys whenever they are racing in that particular discipline and training in public. These are currently held by Mark Cavendish (road race) and Tony Martin (time trial). If they are awarded the jersey in any of the above categories during the race, that jersey takes precedence over the rainbow jersey. All former world champions are allowed to wear the rainbow bands around the collar and cuffs of their team jersey, denoting their status as a former world champion.
National jerseys: National champions are allowed to wear their national jersey throughout the season, however, like the rainbow jersey, it can only be worn in the discipline for which it was won. All former national champions are allowed to wear the national colours on their collars and sleeves for the rest of their career to denote their status as national champion.