Britain waited 32 years following the heroics of Tom Simpson to celebrate claiming the yellow jersey, but only three days after it slipped from Chris Boardman's shoulders Yates, the only other Briton in the Tour, took it back after going with a bold breakaway group in the latter stages of the ride from Cherbourg to Rennes.
Ironically, the brief intervening spell when Italy's Flavio Vanzella held the lead coincided with the Tour's first visit to Britain for 20 years.
'It's a beautiful day,' Yates said after slipping into a jersey that Britons will have worn for four days in the first week of the Tour.
'Defend it? The team will discuss that later. Winning a stage is difficult. Winning the jersey well that is something else,' Yates said. He has a 1sec lead over yesterday's stage winner, Gianluca Bortolami, of Italy, as the Tour heads into today's 260-kilometre run on the flat to Futuroscope, near Poitiers.
The massed ranks that formed an honour guard through Kent, Sussex and Hampshire far outnumbered the thin crowds on the longest day through Normandy as the 270km leg, the longest of the Tour, took the race past the D-day beaches.
Yates suggested that it was pressure created by the British support that prevented a Briton from wearing the cherished leader's jersey on home soil. 'Wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France is a question of luck,' the unassuming Yates said. 'I hadn't really thought about it beforehand. In England, I just couldn't concentrate because of all the crowds who were encouraging me.
'Today, it was easier for me. In fact, I'm glad to be back in France because there's much less pressure on me here. In 1988, I missed the yellow jersey by a few seconds, but I've never had any regrets in my career.'
Nor should he, and his Motorola team was jubilant. 'Hats off to Sean Yates. He did a lot in England, but he still found the resources to win at Rennes. It's a wonderful day for him and the team. Sean's a super rider and he's not frightened of riding for the others,' the team's spokesman, Alain Bondue, said.
Yates has always been willing to work for others throughout his 12-year career, but yesterday the man who was allowed to greet his family as the Tour passed by his Sussex home was permitted to slip his halter.
'I usually work for Lance Armstrong (the world road race champion) but as we were both in contention for the jersey I could work for myself,' he said.
Yates was in a group that moved away from the pack with about 30km left in the stage and he had with him his Motorola team-mate, the American Frankie Andreu. Aided by Andreu, he drove a chase to stop Bortolami gaining too much time.
Bortolami, who rode a tactically superb race, timed his escape from the breakaway group to perfection a mile from the finish to cross the line two seconds ahead of the powerful sprinter, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, of Uzbekistan, with Yates sixth. He needed only a second more than he gained, and the yellow jersey would still have been on Italian shoulders.
'When I saw our advantage on the main field (containing the overnight leader Vanzella) was more than 30 seconds, I knew it was on, and I just rode harder,' Yates said. 'Vanzella's team had been working hard for days. Today they ran out of gas.'
Yates had to wait for the arrival of Vanzella and the main pack 46 seconds behind him at the finish before he could celebrate writing his name into Tour history.
A past history-maker, American Greg LeMond, the owner of three outright yellow jerseys, slid out of the Tour yesterday, frustrated, disillusioned and worn out.
In the two English stages he lost 7min 52sec, and slipped to 145th out of 182 riders. Yesterday he accepted that he could not go on.
TOUR DE FRANCE (Rennes) Sixth stage, 270.5km from Cherbourg: 1 G Bortolami (It) Mapei Clas 6hr 58min 47sec; 2 D Abdoujaparov (Uzbek) Polti at 2sec; 3 B Zberg (Swit) Carrera; 4 G Bontempi (It) Gewiss Ballan; 5 J Heppner (Ger) Telekom; 6 S Yates (GB) Motorola; 7 F Andreu (US) Motorola, all same time; 8 J Svorada (Slovak) Lampre at 46; 9 J Kirsipuu (Estonia) Chazal; 10 A Edo (Sp) Kelme; 11 O Ludwig (Ger) Telekom; 12 S Colage (It) ZG Mobili; 13 F Simon (Fr) Castorama; 14 C Capelle (Fr) GAN; 15 C Chiappucci (It) Carrera; 16 P Anderson (Aus) Motorola; 17 B Thibout (Fr) Castorama; 18 J Capiot (Bel) TVM; 19 S Martinello (It) Mercatone Uno; 20 J Museeuw (Bel) GB MG, s/t. Selected: 38 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto; 42 T Rominger (Swit) Mapei Clas; 49 C Boardman (GB) GAN; 79 G Bugno (It) Polti, all s/t. Abandoned: G LeMond (US) GAN.
Leading overall standings: 1 Yates 28hr 44min 22sec; 2 Bortolami at 1sec; 3 Museeuw at 4; 4 Andreu 5; 5 F Vanzella (It) GB MG 6; 6 Indurain 20; 7 Abdoujaparov 31; 8 L Armstrong (US) Motorola 32; 9 T Marie (Fr) Castorama 37; 10 A de las Cuevas (Fr) Castorama 38; 11 Rominger 48; 12 T Davy (Fr) Castorama 49; 13 M Mauri (Sp) Banesto 51; 14 Anderson 54; 15 F Vona (It) GB MG 57; 16 M Alonso (Sp) Banesto 59; 17 C Boardman (GB) GAN, s/t; 18 A Olano (Sp) Mapei Clas 1min 6sec; 19 G Rue (Fr) Banesto 1:10; 20 J-R Uriarte (Sp) Banesto 1:14. Selected: 39 Bugno 2:04; 43 Chiappucci 2:16.
Sad end for LeMond, page 21
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