The rainbow jersey. The highest goal for many professional bike riders. But the winners reputedly have a lot more on their shoulders than just the jersey itself. No matter how lightweight the material is, the burden of those five coloured bands is for many riders far greater than they can bear. Some say this is due to the legendary ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’. But what is it? And where does it come from?

The rainbow jersey

The white cycling shirt with a rainbow band is the special jersey that the winner of the UCI World Road Championships is allowed to wear throughout the following racing season—at least, whenever the rider is competing in the same discipline for which the jersey was won. This means that the winner of the rainbow jersey for the road race is not allowed to wear the jersey during a (team) time trial, for example.

The same applies to the winner of the men’s trial time at the world’s: he or she may only wear a rainbow-pattern streamlined suit when competing in time trials. This is, for example, the reason why we saw (current time trial world champion) Rohan Dennis riding in the UAE-tour in his normal Bahrain Merida outfit. This is because Alejandro Valverde is the world road racing champion, and only he is allowed to wear the rainbow jersey during road races.

regenboogtrui Valverde

Alejandro Valverde being congratulated by former winner Peter Sagan. Photograph: Cor Vos.

The ‘curse’

The legend of the curse is that it brings bad luck to the rider who wears it. Valverde has already stated that he doesn’t believe in it, but one of the recent winners, British sprinter Mark Cavendish, was a victim of the curse and failed to win much of significance while wearing it.

regenboogtrui Mark Cavendish

Mark Cavendish, one of the ‘victims”‘of the rainbow jersey. Photograph: Cor Vos.

Victims in the past

Time will tell as to whether Valverde is right (to assert that the curse is nonsense) or that he has underestimated the power of the juju at play. In the past there have been a number of riders who have fallen victims to the curse—or at least would prefer to forget the season that followed their world championship victory. Paulo Bettini’s brother died in an accident a week after he won the jersey, for example. Allesandro Ballen was always at his best during the Spring Classics, but he caught a virus right at the start of the season when he began wearing the rainbow jersey and missed all the following classics. Then comes Philippe Gilbert: in that great year during which he won the Amstel Gold Race, the Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, he ended the season by winning the road race at the world championships. His next victory didn’t follow until over a year later.

Philippe Gilbert: does he ride better without the rainbow jersey? Photograph: Cor Vos.

By contrast, there are enough success stories about riders who have ridden well when wearing the rainbow stripes—Peter Sagan to name but one. But it appears the extra attention the jersey generates is more easily carried by some riders than others. We will be watching Alejandro Valverde particularly carefully in the 2019 season…