The so-called curse of the rainbow jersey is a myth, according to research published in The BMJ. We’re not so sure, and suspect that for every world champion who enjoys success afterwards, others have a barren spell.
The study, undertaken by Dr Thomas Perneger of Geneva University Hospital, Switzerland, compared the results of UCI men’s road champions and winners of the Giro di Lombardia (nowadays, Il Lombardia).
It’s a strange subject to see addressed in the publication formerly known as the British Medical Journal, explained by the fact that it’s the Christmas issue, which each year contains off-the-wall – and often, spoof – articles.
For example, also featured in the current edition are articles under the headings, Zombie infections: epidemiology, treatment, and prevention and Black medicine: an observational study o doctors’ coffee purchasing patterns at work.
Analysing the results of both races from 1965 to 2013, Dr Perenger was seeking to test various hypotheses often put forward to explain why the reigning champion seems to underperform during the year they sport the rainbow bands.
Those include the "spotlight effect" (as the current champion, there is more attention on the rider’s performances), the impact of being marked by rivals, and “regression to the mean.”
The latter is a statistical phenomenon which in this study translates into a successful season that culminates in a world championship win being followed by a less stellar year as the rider’s results average out over time.
Dr Perenger looked at how many wins each rider had achieved in the season in which he won the rainbow jersey (year 0) and in each of the two subsequent seasons (years 1 and 2).
The average number of wins taken in the base year was 5.04, and the following season it was 3.96. In the third year, it was 3.47.
The trends among winners of the Giro di Lombardia followed a similar pattern, with respective victories in the three seasons analysed of 5.08, 4.22 and 3.83.
In conclusion, he said that a world champion "is significantly less successful during the year when he wears the rainbow jersey than in the previous year, but this is best explained by regression to the mean, not by a curse."
Coincidentally, the period analysed begins with a year when one man – Great Britain’s Tommy Simpson – won both the world championship and the Giro di Lombardia.
He failed to achieve an individual victory the following season, then in 1967 – the year of his death on Mont Ventoux – won five races, the overall at Paris-Nice, two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, the Isle of Man International and a stage of the Giro di Sardegna.
It’s not clear whether those last two races would have been included in Dr Perenger’s analysis, but we suspect that the performances of certain riders in the year they won the world championships and the following two seasons may skew the results somewhat.
The obvious name that springs to mind is Eddy Merckx, who won the rainbow jersey in 1967, 1971 and 1974.
In each case, those world championship-winning years came in a hugely successful season for the Belgian – 10 Grand Tour stages alone in 1974, when he achieved the Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double.
With the exception of 1976, as his star faded, the following two seasons after each of those rainbow jerseys were hugely successful, too.
And while 2011 may in hindsight have been the high point in Mark Cavendish’s career, with victory in the worlds following the green jersey at the Tour de France, he was still racking up wins in the following two seasons, with seven stage wins in UCI WorldTour races alone in both 2012 and 2013.
But then, consider riders such as Italy’s Alessandro Ballan; in 2008, he won the world championships and also took a stage in the Vuelta, but the following two years produced a solitary stage win at the Tour de Pologne, where he also won the overall.
Meanwhile, Stephen Roche’s phenomenal 1987 season, when he won the Triple Crown of the Tour, Giro and world championship, was followed by an injury-ravaged 1988 that saw the Irishman draw a blank.
So while Dr Perenger’s analysis of the winners of the rainbow jersey over the past five decades or so may show a close resemblance to the trends observed among winners of the Giro di Lombardia, in reality there are huge disparities in the experience of those who have won the world championships.
Some, it seems, are blessed – but others do indeed appear cursed; further research is needed, we believe.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.