One-Day Wonders: The Best Riders to Wear the Yellow Jersey Just Once

By Joshua Donaldson

The origins of the yellow jersey – the iconic Tour de France leader’s jersey – are often disputed. One rider from the 1913 Tour, Phillipe Thys, told Champions et Vedettes that Henri Desgrange, the father of Le Tour, asked him to wear a yellow jersey so he could be identified. He initially refused but once his team and sponsors caught wind, that decision was reversed.

The official history, though, says that the first jersey was awarded on July 19th, 1919, to Eugene Christophe in Grenoble. That was also the date that was celebrated 100 years on when a plaque was unveiled in the same city to commemorate the moment. Since then, a huge number of riders have worn the jersey. Eddy Merckx, unsurprisingly, holds the record number of days in it with 96. Of the current crop, Chris Froome sits atop the pile with 59 days. But the prestige of the jersey is felt by all who wear it, whether it is for a day or 96.

And it is those one-day wonders that we will look at today. Here, we will chart some of the most notable riders to wear the fabled maillot jaune just once.

Mark Cavendish

One of the most successful riders ever to compete at the Tour de France with 33 stage wins, Mark Cavendish is the perfect person to kick off this list. Granted, the Manx Missile’s opportunities to don the yellow jersey are limited due to his relatively bad climbing and time-trial skills. But with his track record in the race, it was expected that he would own many more than one over the years.

Mark Cavendish
Cavendish in the ŠKODA Green Jersey at the 2021 Tour.

His best chances came in the first couple of days when the stages were usually flat and the sprinters would battle. His debut in the race was in 2007 but his first real chance to take yellow came in 2013, with a flat finish into Porto Vecchio. However, a crash ruined his chances and Marcel Kittel took the jersey.

Kittel won the opening stage a year later in Yorkshire after Cavendish, once again, crashed out in the final sprint. As a pattern emerged, it seemed that Cav would never wear the coveted jersey. But in 2016, the dream was realised. With a finish on Utah Beach, Cavendish outsprinted his rivals to win the opening stage and, therefore, the maillot jaune.

Since then he has won more stages but that remains his only yellow jersey – and one he is proud of. In the aftermath, he said to Cyclingnews: “It’s quite emotional. This is the only jersey in cycling I’ve not worn. I’ve had all three points jerseys, the world’s jerseys and the leader’s jerseys in the Giro and the Vuelta and now this. I just wanted to win the stage and to wear this jersey is an honour. I’ve built my whole career on this race.”

Sean Kelly

Like Cavendish, Sean Kelly was no stranger to victories at Le Tour. He also wore plenty of leader’s jerseys throughout his career. Known as ‘Mr Paris-Nice’, he won a record seven editions of the ‘Race to the Sun’ – an incredible feat made more powerful by the fact he won all of them one after the other. Not only that but he has also won a grand tour – the 1988 Vuelta a España.

With all of this in mind, it’s incredible to think Kelly has spent just one day in the yellow jersey. That came in 1983. After keeping himself in GC over the first eight days, Kelly finished third on stage nine into Pau. He started the day 25 seconds behind Kim Anderson, and finished the day just one second ahead to catapult himself into the race lead. As the article’s title suggests, though, he could only hold onto it for 24 hours, surrendering nearly nine minutes to Pascal Simon as the peloton took on the Pyrenean “circle of death” (Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresaude). Laurent Fignon would go on to win in ‘83 but there was some success for Kelly as he won the green jersey – the first of four in his career.

Jean-Francois Bernard

Jean-Francois Bernard
Bernard at the 1987 Tour. © Profimedia

Possibly the most heartbreaking story on this list comes in the form of Jean-Francois Bernard. In 1987, the Frenchman was billed as the heir to Bernard Hinault’s crown of France’s Tour king after Hinault had retired in 1986, having won five Tours.

Bernard even rode for the same team, La Vie Claire, and had been one of the central figures in keeping both Hinault and Greg LeMond in the picture for the win throughout the race in ‘86. Their inter-team rivalry took the headlines that year but Bernard seemed poised to take centre stage a year later when he won stage 18 of the 1987 Tour. It was an individual time trial up Mont Ventoux and Bernard was realising his potential, storming up the climb and winning the stage. His nearest rival was one minute 39 seconds behind (Luis Herrera) whilst on GC, he had a two-and-a-half-minute advantage over Irishman Stephen Roche.

With such an advantage, something drastic would have to happen for him to lose the lead in the final few stages of the race – and that’s exactly what happened. To start with, Bernard was forced to chase for a considerable number of kilometres on stage 19 after repairs to a flat tyre. Then, as the peloton came through a feed zone, Stephen Roche hatched a plan to ambush the leader. He’d packed extra food, so when the peloton went through the zone, he leapt off to the front. And with Bernard at the back having already been chasing for much of the stage, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and he lost four minutes on a dramatic day of racing as well as the jersey.

Bernard would win another stage in 1987 – a second time trial – but it would only be enough for him to finish on the podium, although he did win the combination classification. After that, he struggled to ever replicate the form he had shown in that race, never finishing in the top 10 of a grand tour again. He would retire in 1996 with 52 race wins but only one day in yellow. Late Richard Moore wrote an absorbing chapter in his book, Etape, about that stage and it is well worth a read.

Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson was a pioneer of his time, one of the first British riders to be successful in the Tour, inspiring many others to do exactly the same. His tie with the Tour is a tragic one, though, after his untimely death during the 1967 edition of the race. The spot of his demise from heart failure is enshrined on the slopes of Mont Ventoux.

Five years earlier was Simpson’s day in the sun. In 1962, riding for Gitane-Leroux-Dunlop-R. Feminiani, Simpson went into the race as the leader of his team. Throughout the first week, he was within striking distance of yellow, well ensconced within the top 10 on GC. By stage 11, he was third and as the peloton reached the ‘circle of death’, he spotted his chance.

On the fearsome Col du Tourmalet, he went away from his rivals with a group of riders, finishing the stage in 18th place. But he was the highest placed from the leading pack and so took over the yellow jersey from Andre Darrigade. In the process, he made history, becoming the first Briton to wear the leader’s jersey. It was just for one day, losing it to the next day’s time trial, but he paved the way for other Brits to succeed like Philippa York, David Millar, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome to name just a few.

Luc Leblanc

The French public always falls in love with a domestic hero who can dazzle in the mountains. In the 2000s, it was swashbuckling Thomas Voeckler who defied the odds and his own riding style to challenge the big boys in 2011 and spend 10 days in yellow. In the 90s, it was Luc Leblanc who would pull off wondrous performances to stoke the imagination of his adoring public.

He had pedigree too. In 1994, he won the world title in Italy. But it was three years earlier that his name was up in lights at Le Grande Boucle. After getting himself in the break on stage 12 in the Pyrenees, he was surrounded by other outsiders and b-list contenders like Charly Mottet and Pascal Richard. Behind, LeMond – the victor in 1989 and 1990 – was struggling to organise the chase as favourite and it allowed the breakaway to slip away. Mottet would win the 192-km stage into Jaca but Leblanc was catapulted into yellow by more than two minutes.

It had been six years at this point since a Frenchman had won the Tour and this looked like a good opportunity to end the drought. But on stage 13, there was another massive time swing as Leblanc lost more than 12 minutes and the lead of the race to stage winner Claudio Chiappucci. He did finish fifth overall once the peloton reached Paris but the wait for a French winner went on and continues to this day. Leblanc would later admit to using EPO to prepare for his biggest race of the year but that one day in yellow will still live long in the memory.

Adrie van der Poel

This surname will be familiar to a lot of you but maybe not for Adrie. In the last year’s race, Mathieu – Adrie’s son – took yellow on stage two with an incredible ride in Brittany.

But 38 years earlier, it was Adrie who was in yellow, just for one day. Like his son, Adrie was also a multi-disciplinary rider. He won multiple monuments and a cyclocross world title. And in 1984, he wore the yellow jersey just this one time. On stage four, he was one second behind overnight leader Jacques Hanegraaf after the morning’s team time trial. In the afternoon, the peloton completed an 83-km route to Bethune in northern France and a lone breakaway rider went away. It was the Belgian, Ferdi Van Den Haute, who, rather comically, celebrated his win five kilometres too early from the line. Nevertheless, he would go on to win the stage and van der Poel finished third, taking the jersey after usurping Hanegraaf and leading the tour from Kim Anderson by eight seconds.

On stage five, the breakaway had its day again as they won by eye-popping 17 minutes. Unsurprisingly, van der Poel lost the jersey but that would have been no matter to him as he would have enjoyed his day in yellow.

In a twist of fate, he would marry Corrinne, the daughter of the eternal second Raymond Poulidor. Poulidor, from three generations of Tour de France riders, was the closest to winning the race with multiple podiums but remarkably is the only one to not to wear the leader’s jersey. When Mathieu crossed the line last year, the emotion was there for his late grandfather and he attributed the win to him as tears came to his eyes. That one was for you, Poupou.

Sean Yates

When it comes to grit and determination, there aren’t many tougher than Sean Yates. The Brit was a staple of the peloton in the 1990s and another from the UK who helped to bridge the gap for future generations. Not known for his climbing, he was a rouleur and worked hard for others in the role of a domestique. But in his 14-year career, there were moments of joy. He was a national champion in 1992 and won the Tour of Belgium in 1989. However, as he reached the last few years of his career, he had yet to wear a leader’s jersey in a grand tour.

That changed in 1994. After the race had visited UK shores, with stages into Brighton and Portsmouth to celebrate the opening of the Channel Tunnel, Yates got into the break on stage six. He was 38 seconds behind leader Flavio Vanzella as the day got underway in Cherbourg. After a mammoth day of 270.5 km in the saddle, the stage was won by Gianluca Bortolami. Yates finished two seconds behind and took the jersey by a single second. He would lose it the next day but it felt like a fitting present for a rider that had worked so hard for others.

Yates would go on to become a renowned Directeur Sportif, and made his mark with Team Sky, winning the Tour with Wiggins in 2012. Wiggins, who owns a few yellow jerseys himself, told Cyclist of his extensive cycling collection, the item he would keep would be Yates’.

“If I was forced into giving up my collection, the Yates yellow jersey would be the one thing I’d keep. I was 14 years old when Yates wore yellow. That same year, the Tour headed through Yates’ hometown in the Ashdown Forest and they let him off the front so he could stop and hug his family. I saw this Brit on telly with his hooped earring and he had this hard-man reputation. I just loved him to bits.”

Yates’ hard-man persona never dropped, though. He made Wiggins – after winning Le Tour in 2012 – pay for the privilege of having his one and only yellow jersey. The inspiration Wiggins sought from Yates’ one day in the lead of the race shows just how important and sacred the jersey is. Whether you wear it for one day or 96, a story of your achievement will always follow you. Whoever wears it in 2022 will become part of an exclusive club where you can be a hero, even if it is just for one day.