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(AFP) – The oldest surviving wearer of the Tour de France leader’s yellow jersey, 93-year-old Jacques Marinelli, says he is still dining out on the achievement 70 years later.
Marinelli led cycling’s biggest race for six days in 1949, as France was still rebuilding after World War II. The exploit would change his life forever, giving him not only sporting recognition but success in business and politics.
Dressed in yellow, the diminutive Frenchman was given the nickname ‘The Budgie’ during his fierce struggle with Tour de France legend Fausto Coppi. Coppi was depicted in newspaper cartoons as a heron or eagle because of the distinctive shape of his nose.
Marinelli’s nickname stuck — the French public had found a hero in the combative Frenchman.
Capturing the public’s imagination with his valiant stint in yellow after a gritty stage-four win, the then 23-year-old could never have imagined he would become a major retailer in the Paris region and later mayor of the wealthy town of Melun.
“I was on form,” he told AFP. “I was a talented rider, but I wasn’t one of the greats and I never dreamed of taking the yellow jersey.”
In post-war France Marinelli’s story was well received and he was cast as a plucky David to Coppi’s seemingly unbeatable Goliath. The sports press, which enjoyed a huge readership at that time, did the rest.
Cheered on by the French public, Marinelli clung to the lead for six days before losing it after an epic struggle in the Pyrenees. Coppi won the Tour that year, but Marinelli took third place and received a rapturous reception when he arrived in Paris.
“It was like something from a dream, I was completely overwhelmed,” says Marinelli, holding the now moth-eaten woollen yellow jersey the organisers allowed him to keep. “This jersey brought running water into my family home.”
Marinelli was a product of harder post-war times in an Italian immigrant family. His time in the national spotlight did far more than bring running water into his house — he also found himself with commercial deals pouring in.
Marinelli continued to ride professionally for a decade before embarking, with great success, on a career in retail. Above the doors of his shops he proudly had painted that they were owned by Jacques Marinelli, “former Tour de France yellow jersey winner”.
He sold furniture, toys, bikes and eventually the electrical appliances and televisions that swept into Europe as post-war austerity lifted. His success in business led to a 13-year stint as mayor.
“It helped a lot,” he says. “People would come in to buy a television but would end up
talking about cycling and the yellow jersey.”
The talk of the yellow jersey endures, even seven decades later. Perhaps even more so this year on the 100th anniversary of the maillot jaune.
“I still can’t go out without someone saying ‘oh look there’s the yellow jersey winner’,” he said. “Even when I was mayor, they called me the yellow jersey.”