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The Curse Of The Yellow Jersey

A lot of people wither on endlessly about the so-called curse of the World Champion's rainbow jersey. But what of the curse of the Tour de France's yellow jersey? Most commentators will tell you it doesn't exist, that - quite the reverse - the maillot jaune is haberdashery's version of Red Bull: it gives you wings. But let's cock a snoot to those know-it-alls. What of all the times the yellow jersey has been donned only to see the wearer crash out of the race or suffer a major défaillance? Here's just two such stories.

July 10th 1983. Pau. The edge of the Pyrénées. A stage win for France, Philippe Chevalier, with a Dutchman, Gerard Veldscholten, second. Ireland's Sean Kelly wins the sprint for third. A year ago he won the stage into Pau, when Bernard Hinault had the journalists scratching their heads by appearing to set up the sprint for him. Denmark's Kim Andersen started the day in yellow, the first Dane ever to lead the Tour, and finishes safely with the bunch. But the bonifications fall in Kelly's favour and the extra ten seconds they give him push him ahead of Andersen on GC. The Dane's stint in yellow ends six days after it began.

Kelly's not the first Irishman to wear the Tour's maillot jaune. Jacques Anquetil's domestique Shay Elliott beat him to that twenty years earlier, when reigning World Champion Jean Stablinski repaid a debt from the previous year's Worlds. But today Kelly is certainly the most feted Irishman in the Tour's history. His yellow jersey goes well with his green one. Add the two to Stephen Roche's white jersey and you can make as close to the Irish tricolour out of the three jerseys as the Tour allows you.

Kelly's happiness is shared by all on his team, domestiques and support staff alike, not least Kelly's soigneur, Willy Voet. But happiest of all - perhaps even happier than Kelly himself - is his Sem directeur sportif, Jean de Gribaldy. This is vindication of De Gri's belief in Kelly. He's proven that the one-time sprint specialist is really a true all rounder. Two victories in Paris-Nice and now this, leading the Tour de France. And, in a year with no big star dominant in the Tour, Kelly is now among the favourites for overall victory.

The next day the heat is up. The peloton has four major climbs ahead of it as it enters the Pyrénées. The Aubisque. The Tourmalet. The Aspin. The Peyresourde. Kelly has a jour sans. From the start of the stage he's in trouble. At times he seems to need both feet to get one pedal to move. By the top of the Aubisque, the maillot jaune is six minutes off the pace. Kelly pulls back time on the descent and in the valley before the Tourmalet. By the summit of the Tourmalet that has been frittered away and, unable to hold a wheel, the maillot jaune is fifteen minutes down. Kelly again pulls back time on the descent. By the summit of the Aspin he is only thirteen minutes adrift. By the time the race rolls into Luchon his deficit is down to ten minutes.

This jour sans is the first of many in a Tour career in which, as the years ahead will unfold, the Irishman's Tour dreams will teeter and topple on one bad day in the mountains. Four top ten finishes - seventh in 1983, fifth a year later, fourth the year after that and ninth in 1989 - will be as close as Kelly ever comes to winning la grande boucle.

Scotland's Robert Millar has won the stage. His Peugeot team-mate Pascal Simon - himself having a marvellous year, with victory in the Dauphiné Libéré in the run up to the Tour (though that will soon be stripped from him for a doping infraction - at least he doesn't get caught doping at the Tour, where five others will return positive samples over the course of the race, including (yet again) Joop Zoetemelk) - usurps Kelly and dons the maillot jaune. Laurent Fignon lies second, waiting for his time to come, and now wears the white jersey (Roche has had an even bigger mare of a day than Kelly, losing three minutes more than his compatriot and surrendering the best young rider jersey to the rising French star. Another mare in the Pyrenees and a mare in the Alps will help teach Roche how tough the Tour can be).

Simon's own tenure in yellow is not to be blessed by good fortune. He cracks his shoulder blade in a chute the next day, early into the stage. But he perseveres in yellow. His team-mates Millar, Roche and Australia's Phil Anderson sacrifice their own Tour hopes to nurse him through each day. Until the Alpe d'Huez stage, six days after Simon's crash, when he is finally forced to abandon, before getting to the Alpe. Fignon's time has come. There will be no curse on his yellow jersey. Not this year at least.

Years later, for one of David Walsh's books about him, Kelly recalls that one day in yellow - his only day in yellow throughout a Tour career that saw him set a new record for green jersey victories (four, one fewer than his tally for stage wins) - and is still proud of the day he lead the Tour de France: "with the [yellow] jersey on my back I had a bad day. I couldn't get up the climbs, the heat was unbelievable and I did feel the weight of the jersey. But wearing it, if only for one day, was still worth it."

* * * * *

Now it's up to you to help me. Let's get the ball rolling on a new Tour myth, the myth of the curse of the yellow jersey. Let's compile a compendium of days the yellow jersey seemed to weigh the wearer down, not give him wings. I want your stories from Tours ancient and modern, stories in which the yellow jersey brought more sorrow than happiness. Cadel Evans. Floyd Landis. Chris Boardman. You know more of these names and their stories than I do. Share the knowledge and contribute to extending the Tour's rich mythology. Come the Tour next year, I look forward to hearing Phil 'n' Paul banging on about the curse of the yellow jersey when the maillot jaune looks like he's having a mare of a day.

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