bikebritain Says October 6, 2012

The 'Curse' of the Rainbow Jersey

“Sorry,” said that chap in the brown jumper as he elbowed me in the back, trying to get a spot adjacent to the fence for the first appearance of the riders on Guildford High Street during the final stage of the 2012 Tour of Britain. “Sorry,” he said again, when he deliberately elbowed me again thirty seconds later. 

Later on, when we returned to the same spot to prepare for the climax of the race, the crowds had already swelled to the extent that it would take some serious brown-jumpered-elbowing to get back to where we had been, so we contented ourselves with a reasonable spot and watching the race unfold on the big screen. As the breakway group were brought back together on Barhatch Lane, it became apparent that Team Sky were in control and ready to deliver the chance for Mark Cavendish to claim a third stage win on the 2012 ToB. Unfortunately, it had to become apparent to me on the big screen as, by the time the riders began to stream past, I could not see a thing. I poked my camera through the tangle of arms and legs between me and the fence and clicked away, hoping for the best, and then turned back to the screen to see Mark Cavendish, arms aloft, crossing the line in the rainbow jersey once more. I think that I was happier seeing that image on the big screen than I would have been if I had brown-jumpered some elderly ladies, children, and a chubby guest writer out of the way to get to see the riders close up.

In a sporting and cycling year that has, with justification, been dominated by the Olympic success and Bradley Wiggins atop the pile in the Tour de France, the sight of Cavendish in the rainbow jersey of the World Champion has, quite rightly, also been an enduring image. It only really occurs to you when you see it, that it seems as if he has never not been wearing it, if you’ll forgive the grammatical horror of that statement.

Whilst “the curse of the rainbow jersey” is an exaggerated notion, and I’ll come back to that shortly, you could consider that “honouring the rainbow jersey” could be similarly overstated. But, after that final stage victory as World Champion, Cavendish declared: “I really wanted to win on my last day in the rainbow jersey, so that I could go out in style,” and this seems to have been the theme running through Cavendish’s year; wearing the rainbow jersey with both style and pride. He has certainly done that, delivering a trio of stage wins in both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, as well as crossing the line first in three of the eight Tour of Britain stages. Cavendish has also won in Qatar, in Belgium, in the Netherlands, and in Denmark in the rainbow stripes and it certainly feels as if he has revelled in the attention that has come with the accolade.

Commentators far and wide have recognised in Cavendish a sense of reverence for the significance of the status of World Champion, not just winning the race itself, but the honour of displaying that status for the following twelve months. Cavendish has ridden as if that status meant something tangible to him. It will be a strange sight to see him back in civvies next season, be they the colours of Team Sky or in the lycra of another.

Of course, not everyone has been as humble or as fortunate as Cavendish, a fact that the new World Champion Philippe Gilbert might be wise to heed. Before he panics, however, he should be assured that the unforgiving rampage of “the curse” is probably not sufficient to necessitate his hiding behind the waffle stand and refusing to race for the next year.

Somewhat amusingly, the Wikipedia entry for the rainbow jersey devotes 50% of its content to “the curse” and lists amongst its victims Laurent Brochard and David Millar, ostensibly because they were subsequently punished for doping offences. Not so much a curse as justice, you might argue. Seriously, if I ripped of 90% of this article from Wikipedia and then won a Pulitzer Prize for it (bear with me, I’m talking hypotheticals), I don’t think the Pulitzer could be considered cursed when I was exposed as a charlatan who writes this rubbish at his desk when he is being paid to do a different job entirely.

However, there are some who, adorned with the rainbow jersey, have not been blessed with the greatest of luck. Tom Simpson appears to be the first recognised victim of the curse; winning the Road Race in 1965, but then broke his leg skiing at the start of 1966 and thus missed out on not just wearing the journey but the money-spinning benefits that came with it. How much use he would have been able to make of them is debatable, however, as he tragically died of exhaustion during the 1967 Tour de France. The next credible candidate is also the one that felt the curse at its most acute. Poor Jean-Pierre Monsere, Road Race champion of 1970, lost his father to a heart attack during a celebration of his victory, and then in march of 1971 passed away himself after colliding with a car during the Grand Prix de Retie.

The consequences of becoming World Champ were a lot less fatal for Freddy Maertens or his immediate family but, having won the Tour de France green jersey for the third time and the rainbow colours for the second in 1981 to add to a host of other honours during a glittering career, he never won a major race again. It is a complicated curse that doesn’t affect you the first time, then kicks in second time around, but these curses have a will of their own. Stephen Roche was struck down by the curse, which obviously took particular offence to his remarkable ‘Triple Crown’ in 1987. Shortly after lining up the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and World Championship honours on his mantelpiece, Roche suffered a knee injury and missed almost all of the following season as a result. Cursed? What else?

Spaniard Igor Astarloa, road race champion in 2003, moved to Cofidis for the following season, rather inconveniently just as they suspended themselves due to doping allegations. Poor Igor. Except not really, as by 2008 he had proved himself a little partial to a little of the doping himself and he was banned in 2010. Finally, Alessandro Ballan got a bum rap after winning in 2008, quickly being diagnosed with cytomegalovirus and missing a big chunk of the next season. When he did return he was nowhere near his best, and he probably wished he’d never won the blasted thing. Except he probably didn’t.

To counter the theories of a curse or, more accurately, destroy them completely, we can present Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, who all won a little thing called the Tour de France whilst in the rainbow stripes, as well as Alfredo Binda, Gianni Bugno and Cadel Evans, who all had notable success in the year following their road race victory. Oh, and Freddy Maertens the first time round.

Mark Cavendish has had a year which neither encourages nor discourages cursory theorists, if you balance the victories with his Olympic disappointment and not competing for the green jersey in the Tour de France, but one thing is for sure; he has done the jersey proud as he wanted to do. In another year, perhaps the idea of Cav winning back-to-back Sports Personality of the Year awards wouldn’t be quite so unlikely, but he will have to settle for having been a mighty fine World Champion.



Words by Lukey

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