Famous as the symbol of the world champion, cycling’s rainbow jersey was first introduced in 1927 when the inaugural world championships were organised in Germany. The winner was Italian Alfredo Binda.
For a start the colours aren’t those of a rainbow. In nature the spectrum of light does not include black in the middle. Instead the colours come from the Olympic rings which are supposed to represent the five continents.
Look closely at the rings and you’ll see the top three rings are blue red and black and the lower pair are yellow and green. That’s the same order as the jersey.
The “rainbow” design and associating this with world championship success is now the trademark of the UCI. If a manufacturer wants to stamp a cycling product with the colours then they have to pay a royalty to cycling’s governing body. Note that if, say Tony Martin, wants to capitalise on his success with a range of products featuring the iridescent bands then the colours are not his but the UCI.
The UCI have got quite picky about the jersey. Note some of their rules:
1.3.063 The world champion jersey must be worn at every opportunity with public exposure, in particular during competitions, awards ceremonies, press conferences, television interviews, autograph sessions, photo sessions and other occasions.
1.3.065 Wearing the world champion’s jersey or the rainbow piping is prohibited as soon as the anti-doping commission, after the review described in article 204 of the anti-doping rules, asserts that the rider committed an anti-doping violation and until his definitive acquittal.
1.3.0067 The wearer of the world champion’s jersey shall be entitled to match the colour of his shorts to that of the jersey.
Superstitious types have said that the jersey brings bad fortune and people have talked of the “curse of the rainbow jersey” as riders have won only to do badly the following year.
Like many supernatural phenomena there is often a more plausible explanation. For me, just winning a tough late season race does not guarantee a win the following year. Indeed it can be self-selecting as success in this race means a rider can spend winter preoccupied by marketing work instead of logging miles, you can’t blame a rider for cashing in.
Plus bad luck is often the way of a cyclist. Nobody said Tom Boonen was cursed as he stood immobile by the roadside in the Arenberg Forest as the favourites for Paris-Roubaix rode away and if Thor Hushovd’s Milan-Sanremo wasn’t to plan, there was nothing freakish about getting caught the wrong side of split on the descent of the Passo Turchino.
It’s not really a rainbow, it’s the property of the UCI and hundreds of cyclists in Copenhagen right now are dreaming of it.