Most spectators recognize the yellow, green and polka-dot jerseys in the Tour de France but what about the white jersey? It’s easy to miss, especially if you don’t stick around to watch more than the podium for the stage winner and the yellow-jersey presentation.
In case you aren’t familiar with it, the white jersey goes to the best young rider in the general classification. What does that mean? It means the bearer has to be under 26 years of age and have the fastest time among other riders in that same age group.
A brief history
The first white jersey appeared in 1968 and was presented to the rider with the best combined classification. That meant the highest-placed rider in the overall standings based on sprint and climbing points (think Wout van Aert). It remained this way until 1975 when the organization decided it should go to the best young rider.
The first person to wear the white jersey as the official Best Young Rider was Francesco Moser the same year. Today’s wearers must be under 26 years old but between 1975 and 1983, the jersey went to riders who had been in the professional peloton for three years or fewer.
From 1983 to ‘86, a rider could only wear white if they were competing in their first Tour de France. The under-26 rule has only been in effect since 1987. And from 1989 to 1999, no physical white jersey was awarded, even though the category existed. So, young Tour winners Jan Ullrich (1997) and Marco Pantani (1998) never had it on their shoulders.
Previous white jersey winners
Even if you’ve never followed the white jersey classification, you’ll recognise some of the past wearers: Greg LeMond, Laurent Fignon, Alberto Contador, Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, Andy Schleck, Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot, Adam Yates, Wout van Aert, Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogačar, among others. Many of these riders went on to win the Tour de France.
And that’s the point of the jersey since 1987, to award the under-26 rider with the most potential. Andy Schleck was the first to win both the yellow and white one in 2010 but 9 years passed before Egan Bernal took his Tour victory in 2019, quickly followed by Tadej Pogačar in 2020 and 2021. As history now tells us, Pogačar came close to the trifecta in 2022, finishing just behind Jonas Vingegaard who is only 25 years old.
Bernal was 22, just like Felice Gimondi (1965), Philippe Thys (1913-14, 1920), Romain Maes (1935) and Laurent Fignon (1983-84) when he won La Grande Boucle. Pogačar was 20 years old when he won his first Tour in 2020. He was young but not the youngest in Tour history. That title goes to 19-year-old Henri Cornet in 1904.
So, what’s the problem?
I wouldn’t call it a problem, more of a potentially outdated use of the jersey’s current aim, to award the performance of younger riders who show the most promise as future winners; the key word being future. The rules have changed a few times since the jersey’s initial conception. And I don’t think the Tour organizers could have imagined a string of young riders winning yellow while wearing white.
Winning the Tour de France is a pinnacle in any professional rider’s career, no matter how old they are. Why muddle the win with the white jersey? While white is important for a young rider’s exposure, its value is totally eclipsed by yellow.
While I would like to take credit for all the suggestions below, I’m unable. I admit to some of them being other people’s ideas. So, if it’s you, in the singular and plural sense, and you’re reading this, kudos to you.
What if any rider eligible for the white jersey can only win it for one Tour? If the same rider wins it again the following year, it should go to the next eligible rider with the best time in the general classification. This would allow other up-and-coming riders to share the spotlight and get them the valuable exposure for their career that comes with it.
Or how about not allowing the yellow-jersey winner to finish the Tour with both? Yes, yes, the jersey defaults to the next youngest rider automatically already but I don’t think it holds the same significance under the current regulations. Do you? It’s like finishing second and then being treated like you won. I don’t know any athlete who wants to win that way.
A return to the rules between 1975-’83 or ‘83-’86 might be a suitable compromise (a pro for 3 years or fewer or in their first Tour). Or maybe the Tour organizers could lower the white jersey rider eligibility age? But in the current context, it would make no difference at all. Just how low would they have to go? Under-23 riders already have their own World Championship and other titles too. What if riders had to be 24 to compete in the Tour despite displaying precocious talent?
Tour winners used to be more mature, closer to 28 years of age. But what was once considered normal is now looking more like a mid to end-of-career age. Luckily, many mature riders still flourish in the pro ranks, scoring a few points for grandpa who is 29 or 30, for example. It’s still a very viable age in the average pro career but we aren’t talking about average people, are we?
We published an article about age in the pro peloton last year. Give it a read if you want to cheer on your favourite non-white-jersey-aged rider the next time you catch some pro road-cycling action. What are your thoughts on the current white jersey rules?