Famous as the symbol of cycling’s 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, one of the sport’s first superstars.
Only look more closely. Since when did a rainbow have a black stripe in the middle?
Yes, it’s not actually 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 themselves supposed to represent the five continents and so cycling’s world champion is signalling their intercontinental dominance.
Why national teams at the worlds?
It stands out given the rest of the year all the pros ride for their trade teams. But remember the U of UCI means union and the governing body represents all the national federations from around the world. So the UCI world championships are those of the federations and this explains the legacy of riders competing once a year for their country.
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 so he could only do this under licence and could have to pay royalties to Aigle.
Remember he was fined 2,000 Swiss Francs for having world champion logos on his time trial bike during the Tour de France, again he can wear the rainbow jersey when it is appropriate but when sponsors like Specialized try to cash in with stripey decals then the UCI starts issuing fines.
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. Take Philippe Gilbert who has not had the year he wanted. But cursed? No, in 2012 he wore the ordinary BMC jersey and didn’t win anything until the Vuelta, the same as this year too.
Like many supernatural phenomena there is often a more plausible explanation. I gather Graham Healy’s book “The Curse of the Rainbow Jersey” looks at other races and discovers the winner of Paris-Roubaix often fails to win much in the following 12 months too. 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 and you can’t blame a rider for cashing in.
Plus bad luck is often the way of a cyclist. Nobody said Sky’s Geraint Thomas was “cursed” when he kept crashing in the spring classics; the same for Alejandro Valverde’s misfortune to break a wheel at the crucial moment of the “unlucky” Stage 13 of the Tour de France.
It’s not really a rainbow, it’s the property of the UCI and hundreds of cyclists gathered in Florence will dream about it tonight.