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From freak injuries to the inevitable exposure tied to it, winning the rainbow jersey at the World Championships can be more of a curse than a blessing for the victor. The curse is a well-known myth around the cycling world but does it really make a difference? We took a look at the science behind it.

Back in 2015, just as Peter Sagan went on his incredible run of three successive victories in the Men’s World Championship Road Race, the British Medical Journal took a look at the numbers behind the so-called curse. The main thing they looked at is the ‘spotlight effect’ – the way in which every world champion, and national champions to a lesser extent, is easily identified by the distinctive striped garment they go on to wear for the year following their win. This is always mentioned by commentators and it is always striking how easy it is to spot from the helicopter shots during the races.

Peter Sagan
Sagan celebrating the stage win on the 3rd stage of the 2017 Tour. © Profimedia

The report also suggests that a world champion may struggle just as much as they did before but due to their new notoriety for winning big races, they are then under a considerable amount of added pressure to perform on similar events throughout the next year.

The results

Throughout the report, the data, provided by procyclingstats.com, shows an inconclusive impact on a rider once they have won the world championship. The data set is from 1965-2013, a varied sample size, that showed that overall wins do drop off the year of winning the world championships and the year after.

Interestingly, the same data got compared to the winners of the Tour of Lombardy, a race normally on similar terrain to the Worlds and also at the same time of year. The results were surprisingly similar, showing that once a race is targeted, the only thing separating results from a monument to a world championship, is the more visible nature of the winner.

But what about since 2013? Have we seen more races won or lost by the world champion and has the dreaded curse returned to spoil a rider’s 12 rainbow months?

Peter Sagan
Is Sagan a victim of the rainbow jersey curse? © Profimedia

2015 onwards

The reason why the last six years have been so interesting is, essentially, Sagan. Not only was he successful wearing rainbow stripes but he continued to win at the Worlds, taking the title in 2015, 2016 and then, probably his finest victory, in 2017 after an incredible sprint finish in Bergen.

With wins at the Tour De France, Ronde Van Vlaanderen, and Paris-Roubaix, you could argue that Sagan had eviscerated any curse due to the sheer weight of wins in the biggest races, whilst racing in the rainbow jersey. But, having said that, his form since 2018 has dipped – it’s still impressive but not as good as it was three years prior. Wins at the Giro and one at the Tour since 2019 are still there for him but his share of wins and podiums is drying up.

The interesting thing with someone like Sagan and the rainbow jersey curse is that he has always been in the spotlight and therefore a ‘marked man’ at the biggest races but that never seemed to stop him. Whether he will have a part to play in Belgium this year is another question but you could argue a renaissance of his career could come if he wins his fourth world title.

Peter Sagan
Mark Cavendish Peter Sagan pictured on the podium after the men’s elite road race at the 2016 UCI World Road World Cycling Championships in Doha, Qatar. © Profimedia, Zuma Press – Archives

The others

So, let’s look at the other riders to have won the title since the end of Sagan’s reign.

Taking the jersey in Austria was Alejandro Valverde. The evergreen climber had a strong 2019, mainly on home turf with his biggest win coming at his domestic grand tour on stage seven to Mas de la Costa. But with just one overall win and a handful of stages, nothing to write home about for the veteran.

In 2018 in Yorkshire, it was the surprising Mads Pedersen who took home the jersey in a two-up sprint against Matteo Trentin.

Pedersen was the biggest surprise winner since, arguably, Rui Costa in 2013 and his wins were few and far between. He did suffer from bad luck due to the Covid-19 pandemic, cutting short his ability to show off his prize at races, and although the course in Harrogate suited him perfectly, you could argue that this was a one-off as he has seen more success in reduced bunch sprints since that victory. Whether he suffered from the curse or not, I can’t say.

Mads Pedersen
Pedersen in 2019. © Profimedia

And last, and perhaps the most interesting since Sagan, is Julian Alaphillipe. A swashbuckling rider, never scared to take the race on to risk it all, he won the 2020 title at Imola, thanks to a breathtaking solo effort.

Most of his wins have come in similar fashion since then, taking home a stage at this year’s Tour De France on the opening day, and La Fleche Wallone, showing that he is in the prime of his career when the road is lumpy and he can get the power down. He will be a good bet for this year’s road race in Flanders, an area where he has suffered misfortune in recent times.

In summary, the curse of the rainbow jersey in men’s road racing is something that will continue to be talked about in the coming years and decades. It is the drama of seeing someone win the world title and then really struggle with their dominance the following year that fills our imagination. Whether the racing in the jersey is good or not, the narrative always remains.The numbers may prove otherwise but for us romantics who love the sport, the curse will always endure.