Today it is taken for granted that the leaders of the various classifications of a multistage bicycle race wear coloured jerseys to distinguish them from the other riders. But, of course, that wasn’t always the case. For the first dozen or so years of the Tour de France, when there were few competitors and only the general classification to win, the rider leading the race wore only a strip of green cloth around his arm.

The idea for the first Tour de France jersey came to race director Henri Desgrange towards the end of the 1919 running of the race. Two-thirds through the race’s 5,560 km, and just before the 325 km of stage 11, Desgrange decided that the leading rider needed to be more clearly distinguished from the other racers.

Henri Desgrange
Henri Desgrange (C) was the first to come with the idea of a Tour de France jersey. © Profimedia

And so, on July 18, race leader Eugène Christophe of France pulled on the first maillot jaune (yellow jersey) of the Tour de France. However, Christophe’s bike would break a fork later in the race and he finished second to Belgian Firmin Lambot. It’s probably for the best since Christophe said he hated the yellow jersey because spectators mocked him by saying he looked like a canary.

The colour yellow was chosen for the maillot jaune because it was the colour of the paper that L’Auto-Vélo, the race’s newspaper sponsor (and predecessor to the modern French sports weekly L’Équipe), was printed on.

In 1933, a second classification was added to the Tour – the king of the mountains.  L’Auto-Vélo had been naming one cyclist le meilleur grimpeur, the best climber of the Tour, since 1905. After the 1933 Tour, Desgrange decided that the year’s king of the mountains, Vicente Trueba of Spain, would be officially recognized by the Tour and that, beginning in 1934, riders reaching summits first would receive a time bonus. This was later turned into a points system based on the summit order of finish and the difficulty of the climb.

Vicente Trueba
Vicente Trueba climbs the mountain pass of the Tourmalet in the 1933 Tour. © Profimedia

However, the leader’s distinctive red-and-white polka dot jersey (maillot à pois rouges) was not introduced until 1975. The design and colour of the jersey were again determined by its sponsor, the chocolate manufacturer Chocolat Poulain, which had a red-and-white logo.

Sponsorship was also the reason for the colour of the green jersey (maillot vert) when Tour organizers decided to add another competition, the points classification, to the race. The colour was inspired by the jersey’s sponsor, the lawnmower producer La Belle Jardinière. The year was 1953, the fiftieth edition of the Tour de France, which seemed a fitting occasion for a new kind of competition. However, the jersey has not always been green. In 1968 it was red, to accommodate a new sponsor. A year after, the jersey turned green again and has stayed that way ever since.

1978 Tour
All the colours of the 1978 Tour. Bernard Hinault wearing the yellow jersey, Gerrie Knetermann, the winner of the last stage, French politician Maurice Couve de Murville (C), Freddy Maertens, wearing the green jersey and Mariano Martinez of France, wearing the red and white polka dot jersey of the best climber. © Profimedia

Over the years, the Tour de France saw different sponsors until 2004 when ŠKODA became the Tour de France’s official partner and official vehicle partner. ŠKODA’s commitment to cycling has been deepened by sponsoring the “sprinter’s” ŠKODA Green Jersey every year since 2015.

In the first years of the green jersey, cyclists only received penalty points for not finishing in a high place, so the cyclist with the fewest points was awarded the green jersey. From 1959 on, the system was changed to what it is today: the cyclists are awarded points for high place finishes, with the first place getting the most points and lower placings getting successively fewer points so that the cyclist with the most points wears the green jersey during the race and on the podium in Paris after the final stage. Points are also awarded for placings in intermediate sprints.

Peter Sagan
The legendary Peter Sagan wearing the ŠKODA Green Jersey. © Profimedia, AFP

The first rider to win the green jersey was Fritz Schär of Switzerland. Not surprisingly, his speciality was sprinting but he was also a decent all-round cyclist. A rider who wants to win the green jersey needs a reasonable level of versatile skills since he will need to finish within the time limit on mountain stages to remain in the contest and, ideally, should be able to challenge intermediate sprints during mountain stages as well.

For example, the Italian Mario Cipollini was one of the best pure sprinters of his day but he never won the Tour de France green jersey because he was unwilling to make it through the mountain stages and finish the race (though he did finish the Giro d’Italia and won its points classification several times).

Because there are fewer mountain stages in the Tour than flat or hilly stages, the green jersey has usually been won by a sprinter, such as the German Erik Zabel, a six-time green jersey winner, or Slovakia’s Peter Sagan who has won seven green jerseys.

Point scoring had been tried at the Tour before 1953. From 1905 to 1912, the general classification winner had not been decided according to time but with a point system in which daily stage placements were translated into points. But judging the race by points discouraged competitors from riding hard because it made no difference whether they finished seconds or hours behind, so they tended to ride together at a relaxed pace until close to the line where they sprinted for the finish – as flat Tour stages tend to be run today.