David and Goliath Tour de France battle changed oldest survivor’s life forever

Published June 29, 2019, 3:33 PM

by Dr. Eduardo Gonzales

By Agence France-Press

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.

Jacques Marinelli poses with the Tour de France yellow jersey he won in 1949. (AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/MANILA BULLETIN)
Jacques Marinelli poses with the Tour de France yellow jersey he won in 1949. (AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/MANILA BULLETIN)

Marinelli led cycling’s top 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.

The Frenchman was given the nickname of ‘the budgie’ for his fierce struggle with Tour de France legend Fausto Coppi, depicted in newspaper cartoons as a heron or eagle because of the distinctive shape of his nose.

Because Marinelli was so small and donning the yellow jersey given to leaders of the multi-stage race, the name stuck and the French public had found their hero of the hour in the combative Frenchman.

Capturing the public 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.”

But in post-war France, the story went down like a dream with Marinelli cast as a plucky David to Coppi’s seemingly unbeatable Goliath and the sports press, which enjoyed a huge readership at that time, did the rest.

The budgie

Cheered on by the French public he clung on 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 woolen yellow jersey the organizers allowed him to keep.

“This jersey brought running water into my family home,” Marinelli says, harking back to harder post-war times in an Italian immigrant family.

The notoriety that thrust him into the national spotlight, however, did far more than bring running water into the house, as he astutely managed his affairs with commercial deals pouring in too.

Enduring popularity 

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, people would come in to buy a television but would end up talking about cycling and the yellow jersey,” says Marinelli.

And the talk of the yellow jersey endures, even seven decades later, perhaps more so this year than others as the invention of the yellow jersey marks its 100th year.

“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.”