The Worlds, Rainbows and Curses

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?

No rainbow
RainbowYes, 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 rules
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.

Phil puts a dip in his hip and a glide in his stride

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.

64 thoughts on “The Worlds, Rainbows and Curses”

  1. As an explanation of the curse, how about Gilbert’s remarks from a recent interview that the high visual profile of the World Champions jersey makes for a targeted wheel, no matter the circumstance. I know I’d follow last years strongest rider with much enthusiasm.

  2. I’ve got a question about the TT World Champs jersey. Are you only allowed to wear it in TTs?

    And is the opposite true – a road WC can’t wear their jersey in a TT event?

      • Thanks everyone.

        Does anyone know why so many of the time triallists were using their team-issue helmets? I saw a few Sky riders out there with their Sky-colour Kask lids on.

        I presume there are no rules on this but its a bit of a faux pas no?

          • The GB federation appears to (at least for Wiggins, I didn’t see what Dowsett was wearing), but that’s probably as much about promoting the Team GB brand as ensuring their riders have matching kit

          • I also noticed that Siutsou and Kiryenka (apologies if the spelling is incorrect) both had “sky” emblazoned down their legs – I can’t remember about Porte. It may have been pretty cheap to have a tie in with belarus just for the world championship however.

        • Probably just the helmets they feel most comfortable in, and don’t own a matching alternative.

          I can’t imagine the Belarusian cycling federation would see much point in shelling out for a new lid for Kiry when he has a perfectly nice Sky-issue Kask to wear. Similarly, he probably saw no point in getting a custom made helmet in Belarusian colours when he already has one that is just as aero.

        • Naturally it’s important for the trade teams to get exposure from the worlds so they want their riders to wear as much team-issue stuff as possible, besides, most National Federations can’t afford to issue special kit to their pro riders.
          BC and Sky have a special relationship as Team Sky is technically an extension of the British National team, so Wiggins has the choice of which kit he uses. In this case he & Team Sky obviously felt that the Team GB London Olympic-issue helmet was more suited for this course.
          You could argue that most of the time the riders don’t ride courses that are this dragstrip-like so the Kask team helmets are probably more use in the majority of time-trials.

      • Note also that past world champions are entitled to wear the rainbow bands around the ends of their jersey sleeves, collar (and sometimes shorts) however this may only be done when competing in the discipline that the rainbow jersey was originally won. Cadel Evans, for example, wears the rainbow stripes on the sleeves of his BMC jersey, but only in road races. His TT and TTT skinsuit does not (can not) have the rainbow stripes.

        This rule was tightened up at some point in the early 2000’s (does anyone know when?). Stuart O’Grady used to have rainbow bands on his jersey sleeves (he was a World Champion on the track) but that was subsequently banned. Another good example is Greg LeMond in 1990 who wore his rainbow jersey in time trials – not allowed now.

        The rules seem to be the same for past winners of national championships (although not sure if this is just honouring or a result of properly codified rules).

        Interesting that across his career, Lance Armstrong would only intermittently wear the rainbow stripes (some iterations of his US Postal kit were rainbow-free and his Discovery kit didn’t have the rainbows). I find that curious given (a) their prestige and (b) what a self promoter he was. Does anyone have any intel on this?

  3. Note though, that the curse existed before the worlds were at the end of September. Stephen Roche (and to a certain extent Greg Lemond) being victims of the curse when the worlds were in August.

  4. My favorite thing about the “rainbow” is thinking of the range of colors, from the “green grass to e blue sky”. Which matches so well with road cyclin; Yellow being the flowers, especially Tour time sunflowers, black is the road, red mountains etc.

  5. A quick image search seems to show that Tony Martin didn’t have the TTT champ logo on his rainbow skinsuit this year, but Sylvain Chavanel DID have it on his national TT champs skinsuit.

  6. Cure of the rainbow jersey or just regression to the mean? Being world champion is a peak and across their careers riders only reach a certain number. Success = talent + luck, so it all tends to average out over time.

  7. @Ian:
    There are currently no rules regulating the helmet, socks, shoes, gloves, sunglasses and other items of that kind, even not at a WC race. So the riders are basically free to ride whatever they choose as long as their national federation accept this.
    For a WC we as commissaires will only – but thouroughly – check the jersey and shorts for compliance.

    I believe also that one of the questions in a game of Trivial Pursuit goes like: “What can you make of the five Olympian Rings?” and the answers is: All the flags in the world – give or take a nuance. And that should apparently be the original cause for the chosen colours.

      • Yes, of course you will have to include the white as well. Forgot about that. (And on another level, the white actually includes all the other colours – if I recall my physics lectures correctly)
        And you are right on the time line: Flags were of another nature back then; not so many, not so diverse in colour.

      • when it comes to details…:

        I guess this is more correct (at least what the wiki says..):

        “The colors of the rings represent the flags of the countries that participate in the Olympics. Every flag of a country participating in the Olympics includes one of those colors.”

        which leads Me to the conclusion that the Trivial Pursuit answer might maybe not be right…: it’s always just ONE colour! right?

      • The Orange Free State was an independent country at the time of the first modern Olympics in 1896. As you might expect, there was a lot of orange on their flag. There are probably other examples too. I think ” at least one colour” is still accurate today, as long as you’re fairly liberal about shades of blue.

        I would get out more, but I need to finish crocheting a triskelion by Sunday.

      • Nitpicking: They can also bee worn on the collar of the jersey.
        And I have noticed that nat-champs are starting to show also at the end of short’s legs. Rainbow colours here are not allowed though.

      • Perhaps its pedantry but it gets my goat when teams don’t respect riders who have won their national championships and let them have have the bands on their jersey. BMC and OPQS are really good at this. Greenedge and Lampre previously made jerseys with said bands but now have sponsors taking up sleeve space. It can’t really be a cost issue as its generally 3-4 riders on a team and Greenedge made custom knicks at the Tour and Vuelta to match the yellow and green jerseys respectively.
        Finally, Vaughters has said that at Garmin he doesn’t like the national bands look as he wants all his riders to look the same.But what Ryder’s white glasses which clearly distinguish him from his teammates?

        Inrng, I recently saw Armstrong wearing a mellow johnny’s top which had rainbow bands on the sleeves. Surely this is in violation of 1.3.065 who quote above?

        • Do you think the UCI will fine Armstrong? As he doesn’t have a licence, they can only launch legal action and I doubt they want to move.

          But check as one ruse to get around the rainbow trademark is to put the bands in a different order from the blue, red, black, yellow and then green.

  8. I do like the fact that Jersey manufactures must refrain from producing and selling WC kit for the public.

    Now if we can just get them to stop mass producing National, and state champion kits. It just cheapens the work, training, dedication necessary to win and ride in those jerseys.

    Not to mention the embarrassment one must feel being dropped on a club ride while wearing one…

  9. Anyone notice Cav racing the Revolution 34 scratch race in rainbow stripes a few years back? Why was he allowed to wear the WC jersey and not forced to wear a HTC standard kit as he was only WC on the road and not in the scratch race?

    • Not totally sure about this, but the Revolution races are not exactly the most rigorous in adherence to the rules. Kinda like the after-Tour crits.

      Also, remember Cav was a champion in the track – Madison; with Wiggins none the less!

    • He wore them “illegally”. It was essentially an exhibition event and not UCI I think.

      Speaking of Cav.
      “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.”

      Does this mean he was fined all last year wearing black shorts? If so, it was worth it. All white kit is bad news.

    • He could have forgotten a plain skinsuit but probably as it was a show event people paid to see “Cav” and the rainbow jersey is part of the story. I doubt anyone fined him and if they did, the cash cost would be less than the extra tickets sold for the show.

      • Do you know if colour-matching shorts were against the rules before Cipollini? Just about everyone seems to agree that Cipollini is the reason matching kits and bikes to any jersey became universally accepted. He used to be fined a lot I remember, but his sponsors paid for him since it offered good publicity. Now UCI pretty much endorses it in the rulebook.

        • It used to be the case that only black shorts were allowed and riders were fined if they worn any other colour. However, some riders (including Cipollini) were prepared to pay the fine because of the extra publicity they got for breaking the rule. In those days it had shock value because all the other riders would be in black.
          The rule was eventually withdrawn – I think in the late 90s.

          • True but it’s also linked to new fabric manufacturing as in the 1990s we started to see red, white, blue etc on shorts when they’d always been black. The Mapei kit was an example of the new printing, design and fashion.

  10. A fatal curse of the rainbow jersey: Jean-Pierre “Jempi” Monsere. During a bike race, he crashed into a car wearing his rainbow jersey.
    Six years later, his son dies while riding his bike, crashing into a car.

  11. Question: If the world champion becomes leader in a race and has to wear the race leaders jersey (e.g. yellow jersey in the Tour de France) does that mean that no one wears the rainbow jersey? Or does the rainbow take precedence?

  12. Talking of jerseys, presentations, etc, it’s nice to see the UCI letting the riders get dressed before they take to the podium (although Wiggins looked like he should’ve taken a bit more time doing so). Skinsuits are great on a bike, but they’re not the best on the podium.

  13. I don’t know why all the harping on about a curse!
    I certainly didn’t see any curse affecting Thor Hushovd during the TDF
    as he won two stages while he was world champion!
    By the way, where does the curse superstition originate from?

    • Everyone, just in case you missed it Oldan is saying that Tony Martin is doping using HGH because he has a pointy chin and his face creases when he smiles. But he or she is too frightened to actually type those words on an internet forum under an untraceable assumed name. Thanks, Oldan!

    • One of the side effects of being any good as an athlete is low body fat percentage, which is distinguished by prominent facial lines.

      The jaw in particular may look enlarged in comparison with your average double-chinned banker.

      • Judging by my facial sculpture someone is popping HGH into my food unbeknown to me and has been doing so for years! unfortunately it is having zero effect on my performance.

  14. “Every opportunity with public exposure.” Really? What if, say, a jacket and tie, or a dress for a woman champion, is more appropriate for the occasion?

  15. Is a WC allowed to wear a pair of WC (white with rainbow stripes) shorts if he is riding in any sort of leaders jersey?? (KOM, Young, Points og GC)

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