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It’s the most decorated jersey in professional cycling. Win on the right day, and you wear the rainbow stripes for a year, the sport’s symbol of greatness. Yet there’s also an axiom in professional cycling that the rainbow jersey brings with it a curse — whether it be in the form of injury, illness, bad luck, or personal tragedy, world champions often struggle after taking the sport’s biggest one-day prize.
In 2016, world champions Peter Sagan, Nino Schurter, Wout Van Aert, and Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) collectively flipped the curse on its head, turning the rainbow jersey into a blessing. Call it “the curse, in reverse.”
The superstition behind the curse of the rainbow jersey is well established; articles on the topic can be found all over the web. A 2013 book, written by Graham Healy, was dedicated to the topic. In 2015, the British Medical Journal published a lighthearted research paper, written by epidemiologist Thomas Perneger, which measured wins from the year the world champion won the title against results from the following two years, testing hypotheses such as the spotlight effect (people notice when a champion loses), the marked-man hypothesis (the rainbow jersey is a target, and the world champion is marked closely by competitors), and regression to the mean (a successful season will be generally followed by a less successful season.) The conclusion? The world champion is significantly less successful during the year when he wears the rainbow jersey than in the previous year, “but this is best explained by regression to the mean, not by a curse.”
The legend of the rainbow jersey’s curse goes back over half a century, with some examples more dire than others. In October 1956, Belgian Stan Ockers — who in 1955 won Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour de France green jersey, and the world road championship — died during a track race in Antwerp, just a few months after relinquishing his world title.
A decade later, British rider Tom Simpson, the 1965 world champion, broke his leg while skiing and spent the 1966 season battling back from injury in the rainbow stripes. The following year, he would die at the Tour de France while climbing Mont Ventoux.
In 1971, world champion Jean-Pierre Monseré died while wearing the rainbow jersey, hit by a car while racing Grote Jaarmarktprijs, near Antwerp.
More recently, 2006 road champion Paolo Bettini lost his brother Sauro to a car crash a week after his world title; a week later, he won the Tour of Lombardy in dramatic fashion, in tears at the finish line. Two months later, while wearing the rainbow jersey of world Madison champion, Spaniard Isaac Gálvez died during the Six Days of Ghent after a crash into the upper barrier surrounding the indoor track.
Most instances of world champions struggling in the rainbow jersey aren’t so morbid. Recent examples include 2012 world champion Philippe Gilbert, who won only one race in the rainbow stripes, just weeks before the 2013 worlds, and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, who broke her leg in November 2015 while simultaneously holding the mountain bike and cyclocross world titles, having given up her world road title only eight weeks earlier.
Of course, there are exceptions to every superstition. Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Greg LeMond each won the Tour de France wearing the rainbow jersey.
And then there was 2016 — Sagan, Deignan, Schurter, and Van Aert all had fantastic seasons as world champion, with both Sagan and Schurter extending their stay in rainbow stripes another year.
What it meant to race in the rainbow jersey in 2016
In addition to a second world title, Sagan (Tinkoff) finished the season ranked number one in the world, winning the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, the European championships, and three stages (and the green jersey) at the Tour de France, along with a dozen other races.
“My favorite win from the year is the world championships,” Sagan said. “That was the best of the year, then Flanders. There was a lot of luck in Doha [Qatar], it was a bit of a lottery. Flanders was also a big win, a big race for me. Already it was a good season, because I won Flanders. At the Tour, I won the green jersey, and there, my season could have been complete. But I kept going, doing my job, and then I won the European championships, and the world championships. It might have looked easy, but it was not easy.”
Schurter (Scott-Odlo) took a fifth world title in June in a season that included an Olympic gold medal and three World Cup victories; he finished second in the UCI rankings, primarily because he skipped the fifth round of the World Cup, at Mont-Sainte-Anne, to prepare for the Rio Olympics. It was a dream season for a rider who is on his way to becoming the best cross-country rider in history, with the majority of his career spent in rainbow stripes.
“In 2016, everything was focused around the Rio Olympics,” Schurter told CyclingTips. “While peaking for this major event I was lucky enough to get the very best out of myself. The world championship was a step towards the Olympics, and not really my main objective, but I was riding at the very best of my career so far, and I was able to defend my rainbow jersey even though I was not in my peak shape yet. I have respect of the time to come, as everybody sees me as the man to beat. Getting to be number one in the world is not easy — staying number one is a lot harder.”
Van Aert (Crelan-Vastgoedservice) wrapped up the 2015-16 cyclocross season as world champion, Belgian champion, winner of all three major series titles, and atop the UCI world ranking. He again leads the 2016-17 World Cup series, and again sits atop the UCI rankings. In all, Van Aert won 19 races during the 2015-16 season; so far in this 2016-17 season he’s won eight by the end of November, resplendent in the rainbow stripes.
“I’m just an easy guy, and I think I’ve stayed the same [since becoming world champion],” Van Aert told CyclingTips in September. “But when I’m at the races, or in public places in Belgium, sure, there’s a lot more attention. There are a lot more people that recognize me. That’s changed a lot. There’s a lot more TV interviews, newspaper interviews.”
Van Aert’s 2016-17 season started off with a bang, but he’s recently struggled to keep pace with 2015 world champion Mathieu van der Poel, whose maiden season in the rainbow jersey began with knee surgery, and ended with a disappointing fifth at worlds. Van der Poel beat Van Aert in the third and fourth rounds of the World Cup, riding away from Van Aert both days of the November 25-27 weekend; Van Aert finished second both days.
“I have got used to wearing the rainbow jersey and don’t want to switch back to the normal one,” Van Aert said in a UCI interview. “So I am looking forward to [the 2017 world championships, in Bieles, Luxembourg] but also to every weekend. I will be trying my best in every race.”
Deignan (Boels-Dolmans) had a 2016 season that can be evenly split into two — before and after her July 11 whereabouts suspension, and subsequent appeal. Between February 27 and April 3 she won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and the big one, the Tour of Flanders, on the same day the men’s world champion also won. In June she won the overall and three stages at the Aviva Womens Tour.
And though she wasn’t able to defend her world title or medal at the Olympic Games, Deignan placed in the top five in both events, and finished third on the UCI Women’s WorldTour rankings.
“World champions aren’t any more lucky or unlucky than the rest of the peloton,” Deignan told CyclingTips. “I don’t believe in any rainbow jersey curse, but I do understand where it comes from. There are all sorts of extra demands that come with being world champion, and they’re difficult to manage. When I won silver in the 2012 London Olympics, I had an incredibly busy winter, and my next season was terrible. I learned from that. I had a quieter winter. I said no more. I think that allowed me to come into the season fit, fresh and ready to get down to the work of winning races.”
Though Deignan’s year in the rainbow jersey can hardly be viewed as a “dream season” — her suspension was controversially overturned just prior to the Olympic Games, and her emotional state and results suffered from it — the circumstances cannot be attributed to bad luck, injury, or illness, the usual culprits behind the alleged rainbow curse.
“I was incredibly proud to wear the rainbow jersey last season, and my sense of pride in the jersey didn’t diminish throughout the season,” Deignan said. “The media was always asking if there was extra pressure, and I can honestly say there wasn’t. Perhaps there was extra motivation and extra confidence, but no extra pressure. Any pressure I felt was internal, and any sense of responsibility I felt was to my teammates. Beyond that, I wasn’t too fussed by the attention or expectations.”
Should pro cycling (once again) have two rainbow jerseys?
Professional cycling is an unusual sport, in that there are several metrics that can be used to define who is truly “the best cyclist in the world.” Is it the winner of the Tour de France? The best rider over an entire season? Is a one-day event such as a world championship, or an Olympic race, truly the best way to crown the king or queen?
The last reigning world champion to win the Tour de France was LeMond, in 1990. In the age of specialization, days of the world champion being the winner of the sport’s hardest race, it seems, are long gone.
The rainbow jersey perhaps carries the most prestige — the Tour winner does not race in the maillot jaune all season long — but as one-day race, it also brings limitations. For every Merckx, Hinault, and LeMond, there are also forgotten names like Romans Vainsteins, the 2000 world champ, or Igor Astarloa, the 2003 winner. These were not riders who suffered from the rainbow curse; these were riders who put it all together on the most important day of the year, netting the biggest wins of their careers.
Sagan takes a pragmatic view over being world champion versus being the number-one ranked rider in the world, recognizing that while one brings more prestige, the other is actually much more difficult to accomplish.
“It’s much harder to win the UCI ranking,” he told CyclingTips. “It’s an effort for the whole year. You have to beat all the climbers, the general classification riders, and also ride for the classics, to win as many points as possible. The world championship is about one day — you can have good luck, you can have bad luck. I’m very happy to win the world championship. It’s amazing, and it’s unbelievable. I had a lot of luck, but it’s just about one day. It’s not like you can lose one day and then go for another victory.”
Citing varying worlds courses that suit different riders on different years, Sagan suggested that it might make more sense for the UCI to award the world champion’s jersey to the number-one ranked rider in the world, not unlike the UCI’s former World Cup series, which ran from 1989 to 2004 but was made up entirely of one-day races — an imperfect system that excluded stage racers.
Former World Cup series winners include Sean Kelly, Johan Museeuw, Michele Bartoli, and Paolo Bettini — all one-day specialists.
“One year [on a world championships course] there are a lot of climbs, and the sprinters will be dropped, and another time it’s just flat, and there is no chance for the climbers. The UCI ranking could make sense [to determine the world champion.] It’s much harder, it’s an effort for the whole year, it’s the best cyclist of the year,” Sagan said. “The cyclist who wins the UCI ranking would maybe make more sense.”
Winners of the women’s World Cup, which ran from 1998-2015 but was replaced by the Women’s WorldTour in 2016, include Petra Rossner, Nicole Cooke, Judith Arndt, Marianne Vos, and Deignan. American Megan Guarnier, Deignan’s teammate at Boels-Dolmans, was the 2016 Women’s WorldTour champion.
Racing in the colorful UCI series leader’s jersey still exists in women’s road racing — worn by the leader of the Women’s WorldTour — as well as in men’s and women’s mountain-bike and cyclocross World Cup events. There is no men’s WorldTour leader’s jersey.
“For [a one-day world championship], it’s about luck, and also if you are a sprinter or a climber of something in the middle,” Sagan said. “Before there were two jerseys, the world champion, and the World Cup leader; Bettini was often the World Cup leader, and there were two jerseys in the group. But it’s not my job to figure this out.”
In 2016, Sagan didn’t need to figure it out — like Van Aert, he locked up both the rainbow jersey and the UCI rankings, just for good measure.
When you’re riding like that, you don’t need to worry about which system proves who is the best rider in the world, and you certainly don’t need to worry about a rainbow curse.