First awarded in 1919, the leader's jersey is yellow because the race was then organised by the L'Auto newspaper which was printed on paper of the same colour.
Last year, Australian Cadel Evans left it until the penultimate stage of the race – a time trial in Grenoble – to seize the yellow jersey from Andy Schleck's shoulders, which he wore for just one day en route to Paris.
Frenchman Thomas Voeckler provided one of the stories of the race while dramatically holding on to the yellow jersey for 10 days – repeating the exact same feat he had achieved in 2004 eight years earlier.
Just one month ago, Schleck himself was awarded the 2010 yellow jersey following Alberto Contador's retrospective ban for failing a dope test during the race. The Luxembourg rider had finished the race 39 seconds behind his Spanish rival – but has since seen himself made the winner.
With Contador banned and Schleck injured, the battle for the maillot jaune (which is currently sponsored by the bank LCL) looks to be the most open in years. Two names, however, are seen as the big pre-race favourites: defending champion Evans and British hope Bradley Wiggins. Let's take a look at the duo and the other pretenders for the biggest prize in cycling...
It hasn't been an easy season for Cadel Evans, who has struggled with both form and fitness while having to watch his main rival win practically every stage race he has entered. But 35-year-old Evans will start the race as favourite primarily because of his experience and consistency: twice runner-up, the Australian has finished in the top eight on five of the previous seven Tours. He also, crucially, knows what it's like to win the thing after doing so in such a gutsy and calculated way last year.
Britain's Bradley Wiggins, by contrast, has yet to prove himself as a consistent force in the Tour, with 2009's fourth place his best result and the sole time he has reached the top 10. In his first year after joining Team Sky amid much fanfare, Wiggins finished 24th and then last year, when expectations were high after his win in the Critérium du Dauphiné, he crashed out with a broken collarbone.
Acting in Wiggins's favour, however, are three things: his flawless form throughout the season, a fearsome core of riders alongside him at Sky, and the growing belief in the cycling world that this is his time. Wins in Paris-Nice, the Tour of Lombardie and the Dauphiné have showcased a rider at the very top of his powers – and with the likes of Rogers, Porte, Froome and Siutsou in support, Wiggins can be very confident entering the Tour. Less summit finishes and more than 100km of time trials stack the cards further in the 32-year-old's favour.
But discount Evans at your peril. He enters the race with the same core of riders who delivered him to glory last July. What's more, with Thor Hushovd injured, BMC will be focusing entirely on retaining their man's yellow jersey – unlike Team Sky, who will be targeting sprint wins (and perhaps the green jersey) through world champion Mark Cavendish.
Of course, the very fact that the whole world is expecting a two-way battle between Evans and Wiggins could well act in the favour of a cluster of riders who all clearly have the ability to stand atop the podium come 22 July.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali missed his home Giro in May to focus on his preparations for the Tour and although his season has been rather quiet since a few early cameos in the spring classics, Nibali will fancy his chances. Already a Grand Tour winner following his 2010 win in the Vuelta, the Sicilian is an excellent climber with scarily fast descending skills – ideal for the 2012 route. The 27-year-old will also have a strong Liquigas team in support – including the experienced Ivan Basso as lieutenant.
Like Wiggins, Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck crashed out in last year's Tour and will be keen to make an impact in a race he finished fourth back in 2010. The Lotto Belisol climber will look to attack in the mountains and is crucially a very strong time trial rider. Eighth in last year's Vuelta (Wiggins was third) completed top 10s in all Grand Tours.
Alongside Evans, Russia's Denis Menchov is perhaps one of the most experienced of all the GC riders in this year's Tour. Now at Katusha, Menchov was unable to race the 2011 Tour because his Geox team were not invited. A year earlier, the Russian had finished on the podium. With two overall wins in the Vuelta and one in the Giro, the Tour represents the final notch needed in Menchov's bedpost. Form is an issue, however: the 34-year-old has had a quiet year even by the standards of someone called The Silent Assassin.
Rabobank's rangy Dutchman Robert Gesink broke his leg in four places last September but came back stronger than before with a prestigious win atop Mount Baldy in the Tour of California which set him up for the overall race win back in May. It remains to be seen if he can realistically target the GC in the Tour, but he should be one of the race's strongest climbers. He will hope to avoid an opening week crash similar to the one that did for his chances last year.
If things don't go to plan for Wiggins then Team Sky have a clear back up in Kenyan-born fellow Brit Chris Froome. Runner-up in last year's Vuelta, Froome underlined his major race potential – but the 27-year-old may have to bide his time before a serious siege on the Tour GC. Although illness has stuttered his season, Froome remains a nice Plan B to have for Sky.
Last year's polka dot jersey Samuel Sanchez has finished inside the top 10 in his previous seven Grand Tours and should excel in the mountains. The 34-year-old Euskaltel rider was fifth last year.
Deserved winner of the Giro, Canada's Ryder Hesjedal will find himself a marked man in the Tour. It remains to be seen if the Garmin-Sharp rider can replicate his superb May form in a second three-week race so soon after his recent triumph – remember Alberto Contador's travails last summer?
RadioShack Nissan will look to put their recent turmoil on the sidelines as they go for the GC with veterans Andreas Kloden and Frank Schleck. Germany's Kloden was so strong in last year's race until a heavy crash did for his chances, while Schleck may find himself liberated in the absence of younger brother Andy. Schleck senior's form looked to have taken a turn for the better following a decent showing in the Tour de Suisse – although the Luxembourg rider still insists he is not targeting the GC this year.
With last year's surprise yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler struggling for form and fitness, Europcar's hopes may be left to 25-year-old Pierre Rolland. The youngster won the queen stage to Alpe d'Huez last year on his way to 10th place in the GC and the white jersey. Were the team to focus around him – and not veteran Voeckler – Rolland's ambitions could be even higher.
Another rider whose Tour chances were brought to a premature end last year following a crash was the Slovenian Janez Brajkovic. The Astana leader performed well in winning the recent Tour of Slovenia but is still yet to deliver on the main stage – despite a promising win in the 2010 Dauphiné.
Should Hesjedal struggle to replicate his Giro form in the Tour, Garmin-Sharp's man for the GC may well emerge to be Tom Danielson. Eighth in his debut Tour last year, the 34-year-old is steadily going about his business and may be a surprise package.
Another dark horse is Spaniard Rui Costa, winner of stage eight last year. The 25-year-old has not finished higher than 73rd in his three Tours, but won the recent Tour de Suisse in style and is riding into some form.
Belgian Jelle Vanendert won at Plateau de Beille last year and finished 19th in his debut Tour. An excellent climber, the Lotto Belisol rider will target at top ten this July.
Thomas Voeckler made France dream last year with a gutsy 10 days in yellow. But even without the Frenchman's injuries and poor form this season, it would be hard to imagine Voeckler doing something similar this year. A weak time triallist, the Europcar talisman's only hope is for a breakaway win this July.
American Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) has bundles of Grand Tour experience but has not made the podium since 2007. Sidelined for much of the season with injury, the 38-year-old is as big an outsider as they come.
Another elderly American, Chris Horner, was given an 11th hour reprieve by his RadioShack team following Andy Schleck's injury and the 40-year-old has enough climbing ability to target a top 20 finish despite his age.
Current Vuelta champion Juan Jose Cobo's main focus of the season is defending his Spanish crown later in the summer but he could well still make an impact over the roads of France.
Cobo's Movistar team-mate Alejandro Valverde makes his return to the Tour de France after four years on the sidelines (two of which owing to a doping ban). While the Spaniard will look to animate the race with a stage win, it's unlikely that he'll have much of an impact on the GC.
Lampre's assault on the GC will come down to their veteran rider Michele Scarponi, but after a testing Giro campaign, a high finish on the Tour looks beyond a 32-year-old whose only previous appearance on the race came in 2004. Another Italian veteran who may struggle following the Giro is Ivan Basso (Liquigas) whose principal role will be to support Nibali in the mountains.
Youngsters Rein Taaeamae (Cofidis), Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema (both Rabobank) will look to break into the top 10 but their priorities may well be with winning the white jersey or taking a stage win.
Despite the huge amount of time trial kilometres on the table, Germany's Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) has discounted his chances in the GC despite his ever-improving climbing.
Finally, Astana's Alexandre Vinokourov bids one final farewell to the Tour after coming out of retirement – but it's hard seeing this sentimental swansong yielding anything more than a few foiled attempts at winning a stage.
- Related links