September 2011

By Barry Boyce
CyclingRevealed Historian


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The Rainbow Jersey: Blessing or Curse?

The chasing of the Rainbow Jersey has been an annual event since 1927 (except during WW2). The first edition of the UCI's World Road Race Championships was held on the Nürburgring in Adenau, Germany on July 21, 1927 and covered 182.5 km.

The great Alfredo Binda led an Italian sweep of the podium that year and started a history of incredible exploits. CyclingRevealed has written about some of the legendary annual stories of this race, but we have never examined cycling’s folklore: Is the Rainbow Jersey a blessing or a curse?

It is common knowledge that professional riders dismiss the Curse as coincidental bad luck. Thus everyone wants to win the World Championship and wear the prestigious Rainbow Jersey. But when you examine the “coincidental bad luck” of a large number of World Champions during their subsequent season, you have to wonder.

To help us make an informed decision on the matter let’s take a look back at a few of the cycling’s great World Champions.

The Blessed

From the first World Road Race Championships in 1927 the victorious riders gained eminent status wearing a Rainbow Jersey. Monetary gains were more prevalent and a rider’s bad luck was not pinned to the Jersey.

Alfredo Binda, the 1927 WCRR, the following year he scored 11 victories including 5 stage wins and the GC victory in the 1928 Giro d’Italia, and the 1928 Italian National RR Championship.

Freddy Maertens, the 1976 WCRR, Maertens is one of the very few riders who can make a case both “for and against” the curse.  In 1977 Maertens won 58 races including 13 stage wins and the GC victory in the 1977 Vuelta a Espana. His 1981 WCRR victory (below) would be a different story.

Bernard Hinault,
the 1980 WCRR, Hinault had an outstanding 1981. He had 29 wins including the 1981 Tour de France, 1981 Paris-Roubaix, and the 1981 Amstel Gold. Being the reigning World Champion AND the TdF Champion he used both Jerseys to score lucrative post-Tour criterium wins. 

Greg LeMond,
the 1989 WCRR, LeMond’s incredible comeback from a life threatening gun shot wound to win the 1989 World Championship is testimony enough to the beating of another type of curse. But in 1990 the American was not done beating curses. With lead pellets still lodged in his body LeMond won the 1990 Tour de France. 

Gianni Bugno, the 1991 and 1992 WCRR, With the Rainbow Jersey on his back in 1992 Bugno rode well but victories were few. But the curse was beaten when he joined George Ronsse, Rik Van Steenbergen, and Rik Van Looy as “Back to Back” winners of the World Championship Road Race. 

Paolo Bettini,
the 2006 WCRR, another “Back to Back” World Champion Bettini also struggled for victories in 2007, but he beat the curse winning the World Championship Road Race in Stuttgart, Germany. 

Cadel Evans,
the 2009 WCRR, Evans wore the Rainbow Jersey with great distinction. He had wins at the Fleche Wallone, a stage win in the Giro d’Italia, won the Points Jersey in the Giro, and had numerous podium finishes throughout 2010.

The Cursed

The superstitions of the Sporting World coupled with the growing pressure of wearing the Rainbow Jersey led to the development of the curse.  Entering the mid to late 1960’s bad luck became more evident for the reigning World Champion.

Tom Simpson, the 1965 WCRR, perhaps the first bad luck champion. Several months after winning the Rainbow Jersey Simpson on a winter ski trip and broke his leg. He missed valuable training time and missed out on lucrative offers for wearing the Jersey.

Harm Ottenbros, the 1969 WCRR, Ottenbros was a powerful kermesse rider from the Netherlands and won his championship on an over easy race course in Zolder, Belgium. The following year he disappeared from the major race scene and never capitalized on the Rainbow Jersey.

Jean-Pierre Monsere,
the 1970 WCRR, Monsere truly defined the curse.  He was a talented young rider, who lost his father to a heart attack during a victory celebration of the Rainbow Jersey.  Later in March, 1971 on the road from Lille to Gierle during the Grote Jaarmarktprijs (Grand Prix de Retie), Monsere collided with a car driving on the course and died on the spot. 

Freddy Maertens, the 1981 WCRR, it is hard to understand how Maertens went from the top of the cycling World in 1977 to the depths in 1982.  With the exception of several local kermesse races he never won another (major) race. 

Stephen Roche,
the 1987 WCRR, Roche was stung by the curse in 1988. He had a huge year in 1987 with the difficult triple winning of the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the World Championship. Knee problems early in 1988 kept the Rainbow Jersey from racing. He had no results in 1988.

Laurent Brochard,
the 1997 WCRR, a talented Frenchman, Brochard started 1998 with solid results but at the Tour de France became involved with the infamous “Festina Doping Affair”.  He did not race for the remainder of the year.

Oscar Freire,
the 2004 WCRR, Freire, World Champion in 1999 and 2001, didn’t feel the sting of the curse until 2005.  After a spring campaign in 2005 (8 victories) Freire developed season ending saddle sores and didn’t race again in 2005.

Paolo Bettini,
the 2007 WCRR, Bettini was another World Champion who can make a case both “for and against” the curse. After his “Back to Back” in 2006 and 2007 Bettini struggled to gain major wins in 2008. He retired at the age of 32 before the 2009 season. 

Alessandro Ballan, the 2008 WCRR, Ballan’s nose dive began early in 2009. Diagnosed with a Cytomegalovirus he was forced to miss the Giro d’Italia AND the important spring classics. He continued to race mid-summer in 2009 but his poor form was a handicap and he failed to gain any success.

The argument rages on whether some riders generate their own bad luck or whether the Jersey thrusts it upon them. Is the Rainbow Jersey a blessing or a curse?  Somewhere over the Rainbow there is an answer to the question. But the truth of the matter remains that the Rainbow Jersey is still one of the most coveted prizes in the cycling World.


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