“I didn’t know it existed until I won it,” Matteo Trentin says of the Ruban Jaune. The UAE Team Emirates rider’s comment is unsurprising. The yellow ribbon may be one of the toughest awards to claim in all of cycling, but the competition is so defiantly obscure that its winners generally react by raising a quizzical eyebrow rather than punching the air with both fists.
Maybe things were different when Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange conceived the Ruban Jaune in 1936. Winning ribbons was something of a preoccupation in France at that point. In the thirties, the SS Normandie and SS Queen Mary were the Alfredo Binda and Gino Bartali of the oceans. The French and British luxury liners battled it out for possession of the prestigious Blue Riband, a prize awarded to the passenger ship that travelled fastest across the Atlantic. When the elegant Normandie left her home port of Le Havre for New York in the summer of 1935 determined to win for France, 50,000 people gathered on the dockside to wave her off.
Observing all this ballyhoo, Desgrange rubbed his chin. Never a man to miss a marketing opportunity for his newspaper L’Auto, he introduced cycling’s answer to the Blue Riband the following year. The new prize, the great man announced, would be awarded to the rider who set the fastest average speed in a one-day race or stage of over 200 kilometres. The distance had to be accurately measured and the time verified by not one, but two independent timekeepers, each using strictly calibrated equipment.
Since Belgian Gus Danneels took the yellow ribbon by winning the 1936 edition of Paris-Tours, the prize has changed hands only a dozen times. It has been held by some of the greatest names in cycling. None of them have claimed it more than once. It should be famous and celebrated. Yet while French newspapers routinely describe the Ruban Jaune as “mythical”, it’s safe to say that in terms of public recognition the prize is no Lord of the Rings. It’s barely even The Silmarillion.
Part of the problem is that while the Normandie and Queen Mary both set out to win the Blue Riband, victory in the Ruban Jaune comes pretty much by accident. As Trentin observes, “It’s not something you can plan for. It’s just you being the best guy on a crazy race day."
Then there’s the prize itself – or rather, the lack of one. Here for once Desgrange’s mastery of publicity failed. The holder of the Blue Riband flew a 30 metre-long azure pennant. While that would clearly be a severe hindrance to a racing cyclist, the man behind the yellow jersey evidently never worked out what a practical equivalent might be. When Jules Rossi became the second man to hold the Ruban Jaune after a dazzling victory in the 1938 Paris-Tours, an advertising poster for La Française-Diamant bicycles showed the Italian waving a wide yellow ribbon above his head as he went on his victory parade. It’s the only evidence that survives of any award being handed out and since it’s a painting, it may just be an artistic fantasy. After all, what would a racer do with a yellow ribbon – wear it as a cummerbund? Fly it as streamers from his handlebars?
Paris–Tours is the race most associated with the Ruban Jaune. The yellow ribbon has been won in the finishing straight of the Avenue de Grammont nine times. When Danneels and Rossi took it, the race was staged in the spring and conditions were sometimes treacherous. In 1952, it moved to October when the weather is benign and winds along the Chevreuse and Loire valleys come predominantly from the east, pushing the peloton along the largely flat course. It is, as the French say, a race for greyhounds.
Oscar Freire celebrating his win in 2010 (Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images)
The next man to hold the Ruban Jaune would win it in very different conditions: Paris-Roubaix. The 1948 edition of L’Enfer du Nord concluded with Rik Van Steenbergen outsprinting Emile Idée in the velodrome. The Flemish giant raced for cash, not glory, and since the Ruban Jaune comes with neither a purse nor a trophy you can take to a pawnbroker, it seems unlikely Van Steenbergen gave it a second thought.
Indifferent or not, the great Belgian held the record until 1955, when avuncular Frenchman Jacques Dupont took advantage of another lightning quick Paris-Tours to wrest it from him. He seemed to have lost it on stage five of Paris-Nice six years later. Driven onward by a wild mistral, a big bunch of riders rocketed into Avignon with Jean Anastasi taking victory in the sprint. He’d covered the 218 kilometres at an average of 44.917km/h. The man from Marseille was announced as the new holder of the Ruban Jaune in the French media, but doubts soon surfaced about how accurately the stage had been measured. If Anastasi had been handed a length of yellow ribbon, he was soon asked to give it back.
Confusion and controversy also attached themselves to the performances of Italian Walter Martin, who clocked 45.094kph at that year’s Milan-Torino, and Marino Vigna who won Tre Valli Varesine in 1964 at 47.169kph. The Ruban Jaune was awarded to neither man. The French had doubts about the Italian’s timing devices; the Italians were suspicious of French bias. Amidst the nationalistic hoo-ha, sparkly-eyed Dutchman Jo de Roo swept past Raymond Poulidor to take his second Paris-Tours and become official holder of the yellow ribbon.
Three years later, his compatriot Peter Post equalled Van Steenbergen’s achievement by winning the Ruban Jaune during the Hell of the North. Admittedly, the race was slightly less infernal that year with the cobbles amounting to just 22 kilometres of the route and a helpful wind blowing from the south-east. The Dutchman took victory in a four-way sprint.
Eventually, his record fell to Freddy Maertens in a race that seemed even less likely to produce high speeds. Paris-Brussels was a 285km waking nightmare over filthy roads that traditionally saw the peloton slapped around the chops by wind, rain, sleet and factory smoke. In 1962, Jos Wouters had ridden the race at an average speed of just 33km/h and still finished first.
Maertens was generally considered such a magnet for misfortune that it’s a surprise not to read of him being felled by a runaway kangaroo, but for once the gods smiled on him. A warm breeze blew him northwards and he arrived at the finish having achieved an average speed so remarkable, he would hold the Ruban Jaune for the next 22 years – an all-time record. Oddly, “The Ogre” barely mentions it in his controversial autobiography Fall From Grace, too preoccupied perhaps with settling old scores with his nemesis Eddy Merckx (surprisingly never a holder of the yellow ribbon).
After that, the city of Tours became to the Ruban Jaune what New York had been to its maritime inspiration. In 1997, Andrei Tchmil snatched the yellow ribbon from Maertens there. The Russian-Moldovan-Ukrainian-Belgian’s average speed was initially announced as 48.929kph. The next day it was reduced because the course was actually 7.5 kilometres shorter than the organisers had originally thought (Exactly how a course is measured — the inside line? Down the middle of the road? — is another relevant question the Ruban Jaune raises).
Trentin sprinting to victory in the 2015 Paris-Tours (Guillaume Souvant/AFP via Getty Images)
Erik Zabel, Oscar Freire and the unsung Marco Marcato all held the accolade. By the time compatriot Trentin overhauled him in 2015, it was hard to tell exactly who was handing out the non-prize. Asked how he learned he had won the Ruban Jaune, Trentin says: “I think it was from Twitter. ”
To mark his victory, Trentin applied a special sticker to his bike frame. “The idea came from myself and the Quick-Step press officer,” he explains. “I designed one of the stickers myself. The other was done with Brian Holm from the La Flamme Rouge cancer charity.”
Then came Gilbert on that extraordinary tailwind stage of the Vuelta in 2019. The Belgian is the first rider to claim the prize in a race held entirely outside France. Like Trentin, Big Phil now has a special sticker on his bike. Perhaps he designed it himself, too.
If all this seems a little underwhelming, then things could certainly be worse. The sleek and beautiful SS Normandie was destroyed by fire during World War Two. SS United States, holder of the Blue Riband since 1952 (average speed an impressive 65.91km/h — with a 240,000 horsepower engine she could push a big gear), currently stands in the docks at Philadelphia. Stripped of all her fittings, rusting and forlorn, she no longer flies her long azure pennant.
Though the Ruban Jaune may never have outclassed the event that inspired it, Desgrange’s competition has, like a battle-hardened old pro, outlasted it. Maybe the next winner should design a trophy to celebrate the fact.
Ruban Jaune record holders
1936 Gustave Danneels, Paris-Tours 41.46km/h
1938 Jules Rossi, Paris-Tours, 42.09km/h
1948 Rik van Steenbergen, Paris-Roubaix, 43.61km/h
1955 Jacques Dupont, Paris-Tours, 43.66km/h
1962 Jo de Roo, Paris-Tours, 44.90km/h
1964 Peter Post, Paris-Roubaix, 45.129km/h
1975 Freddy Maertens, Paris-Brussels, 46.11km/h
1997 Andrei Tchmil, Paris-Tours, 47.16km/h
2003 Erik Zabel, Paris-Tours, 47.55km/h
2010 Oscar Freire, Paris-Tours, 47.72km/h
2012 Marco Marcato, Paris-Tours, 48.62km/h
2015 Matteo Trentin, Paris-Tours, 49.64km/h
2019 Philippe Gilbert, stage 17, Vuelta a España, 50.62km/h