In sport, a number can carry a lot of weight. In rugby or American football, a number denotes a position on the field. In American football clubs, a number is often so closely associated with a player that when that player retires, the number is retired alongside them - never to be used again. In ice hockey, skaters choose their own numbers, usually picked for personal or historical significance. In the Tour de France, and cycling more broadly, the meaning is a little more arbitrary.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that at the Tour de France the numbers on a rider’s back mean little to nothing. And you’d be correct. Almost. But what they lack in meaning, they very much make up for in satisfying logic. With one or two interesting exceptions. Here’s a quick run-down of what is, admittedly, an inexact science.
Tour de France: Who is Number 1?
If you have any knowledge at all about numbers in cycling, you probably know that number 1 is worn by the previous year’s victor. Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) wore 1 in 2021 and he will wear it again at the Tour de France 2022, following his successful defence of the maillot jaune.
Statistically speaking, the number 1 bib, or dossard, to use the French term, is the most successful in terms of previous victories. A total of 23 Tour wins have come from riders sporting the single digit on their backs; the highest of any bib number.
In many ways it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy - the previous year’s best rider has an above-average chance of winning the race once again. In fact, it’s one of the few races within the sport of cycling where defending your title has any real meaning.
The team of the previous year’s winner fills out the rest of the single digits. Dossards 2-8 were worn by UAE Team Emirates last year, ordered alphabetically.
Why is Number 13 upside down?
The next predetermined number is 11. This number goes to the previous year’s runner-up. In 2021, this number went to Primoz Roglič of Jumbo-Visma. The rest of his team filled out numbers 12-18, although they broke slightly with the pattern, with Wout van Aert taking the number 12 – not in alphabetical order. This may have been due to the importance of his role in the team. It bumped Robert Gesink down to number 13, printed upside down.
Where cycling is pragmatic about its numbering system, many riders still retain a superstition over that number, and choose to wear it upside down. (Gesink abandoned the race on stage 3 in 2021 following a crash with Geraint Thomas).
The third set of numbers is 21-28, traditionally worn by the team of the rider who was third placed in the previous year’s Tour. In 2020, this was Richie Porte, so Ineos Grenadiers claimed the right to these dossards. Of course, a system which demands a team declare one leader can create issues. Porte rode in 2021 but he wasn’t the team leader; Ineos Grenadiers arrived with two options, Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz. They selected the more senior of the two riders, and previous Tour champion Thomas, to wear 21, with Carapaz wearing 22.
If any of the previous year’s top three are not present at the race, their teams will award the numbers 1, 11, or 21 to whichever rider is their designated leader.
Beyond the three previous podium spots is where things get a little sketchy. Theoretically, the numbers proceed 31-38 for the next team, 41-48 for the one after, and so on, but reasons behind the exact placement of teams is not entirely clear; blocks have been allocated alphabetically, or by team ranking. There are exceptional cases though.
In 2021, the next highest available number, 31, was awarded to Chris Froome, given his outstanding record at the race. The rest of the 30s went to his Israel Start-Up Nation teammates.
The Tour de France’s mythical number 51
The number 51 retains an almost mythical significance to the French. Named the dossard anise after a brand of aniseed aperitif launched by Pernod in 1951, the legend was born following a successful decade for the number: four riders won wearing 51 within 10 years, beginning with Eddy Merckx in 1969 and ending with Bernard Hinault in 1978.
Since, it’s been regarded as lucky, and is often awarded to a prominent French rider – Pierre Rolland wore 51 in 2013, Thibaut Pinot in 2019 and 2020 and Julian Alaphilippe in 2021 - In reality, it’s actually only the fourth-most successful dossard, after 11 and 2, sharing the ranking with 15 and 21.
Red and yellow
After the numbers have been allocated, that’s that. In terms of digits, at least. Once the race kicks in, there are colours that can be added to dossards to denote different things. Most notably, red. Each day, the rider wearing the red number is the rider who is deemed to have been most aggressive during the previous day’s stage. Combativity is decided by a jury following each stage.
The second colour visible within the peloton is yellow. Not to be confused with the yellow of the leader’s jersey, yellow numbers are awarded to the riders from the team who are recognised with the team classification at that point in the race. As a result, these may change hands just as the maillot jaune may shift from one set of slender shoulders to another, as the race progresses.
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Katy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has published interviews, features, and previews in Cycling News, Rouleur, Cyclist Magazine and the British Continental. She also writes opinion pieces on her own website writebikerepeat.com and is a frequent contributor to the Quicklink podcast.
She is obsessed with the narrative element of bike racing, from the bigger picture to the individual stories. She is a cyclocross nut who is 5% Belgian and wonders if this entitles her to citizenship. Her favourite races are Ronde van Vlaanderen and La Vuelta.
In her spare time Katy is a published short fiction and non-fiction author.
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