Although the yellow jersey signifying the overall leader of the Tour de France is awarded at the end of every day, the only one that really matters is the one at the end of the final stage on the Champs-Élysées. And while it is an honour to wear the maillot jaune at any time, it can also be an unwanted burden for the race favourites.
Only five times in the Tour’s history has the yellow jersey been worn by the same rider from start to finish, the last in 1935. Often this is because the opening stage is a short time trial or a flat stage won by a specialist in those disciplines rather than a general classification contender. But on many occasions, the eventual winner has donned the yellow jersey relatively early in the race, only to hand it over to another rider at the first possible opportunity.
Why is this? The simple fact of the matter is that the Tour de France is a hard race. The team of the rider wearing the yellow jersey generally bears the sole burden of defending it against any and all attacks. This means the team has primary responsibility for chasing down the daily breakaway, and such physical effort takes its toll. While the teams of other contenders can enjoy relatively relaxed days buried in the shelter of the peloton saving their energies for the brutality of the high mountains, the yellow jersey’s team must constantly force the pace at the front, taking the brunt of the wind and weather head on and draining reserves which they will need in the final week of the race when everyone is suffering.
As such, when one of the favourites gains the yellow jersey in the first or even second week of the race, it is common to see them relinquish it with almost unseemly haste. Sometimes this happens organically, perhaps as a result of a time trial shuffling the pack. But often what happens is an engineered hand-over of the jersey to a rider who is not considered a long-term threat. Usually this involves a breakaway being allowed to escape some considerable distance ahead of the peloton, with the race leader’s team sitting up to ensure they are not caught. By passing the mantle on to another rider and team, this allows the top teams to conserve their energies, ready to take back the initiative later in the race, usually some time early in the final week, when they have greater capability to defend it.
At least, that’s the theory. Sometimes the favourites miscalculate the time gap they allow, or a supposedly lesser rider suddenly rides like two men the moment they have the yellow jersey on their shoulders. Thomas Voeckler is a good example of this. In 2004 the young and largely unknown French rider was part of a breakaway on stage five which finished 12½ minutes ahead of the bunch, giving him a 9½-minute advantage over defending champion Lance Armstrong, from whom he claimed the maillot jaune.
It was assumed Voeckler would soon capitulate in the mountains, but he rode like a man possessed to defend the jersey through the Massif Central and the Pyrenees. Day after day he would drop off the back on the steep climbs, only to somehow claw his way back every time. Not until stage 15, the first day in the Alps, did he finally concede defeat, handing the jersey back to Armstrong, who would successfully defend it all the way to Paris.
By handing the lead to Voeckler, Armstrong saved his team ten days of not having to chase down every attack – the stress of this instead passed to Voeckler’s Brioches La Boulangere team – a contributing factor to the stranglehold they were then able to impose on the field in the crucial Alpine stages. It also made for ten days of thrilling drama, with Voeckler repeatedly hanging on by a thread on the big climbs.
There are times when it is right to defend the yellow jersey at all costs (especially in the final week). At others, though, surrender is the best form of defence.