The rainbow jersey is cycling’s most prized garment. The bands are eternal, and set apart the winner from the rest of the field.
A grand tour leader’s jersey, such as the maillot jaune, carries more weight as a measuring stick of a complete cyclist, but the rainbow jersey is elusive, exclusive, and select. And the best part? The winner gets to wear it for an entire year, in every race they start (except a time trial). The Tour de France winner takes off yellow as soon as they step down from the podium on the Champs-Élysées.
“It was special every day that I wore the rainbow jersey,” said Belgian Philippe Gilbert. “People could see you. The fans would call your name. You were the world champion, and the jersey was something incredible to wear.”
The rainbow jersey is among professional cycling’s ultimate goals. The biggest names have won the prize in the road race event — Eddy Merckx, Greg LeMond, and Bernard Hinault — and it’s a career-long quest for any elite rider in the peloton.
Yet for all the accolades for the winners, there is even more heartbreak, frustration, and disappointment for the runners-up, the nearly-men, and anyone who almost won but couldn’t.
Two riders in today’s peloton are facing this quandary. Fabian Cancellara and Alejandro Valverde, arguably two of the best, most-combative one-day riders of their generation, remain on the brink of the world title.
Cancellara is missing this year’s worlds after two painful crashes earlier in the year and illness at the Vuelta a España. With cycling’s “Spartacus” mulling retirement next year, one of the contemporary peloton’s best may never win the rainbow jersey, though he has won the world time trial championship four times.
Valverde, meanwhile, has won an incredible six world championship medals, a record that he’s proud of, but even a half-dozen podium finishes do not equal one world title.
Robbie McEwen, the retired Australian pro, lamented his chance to win in 2002, when the heavily favored Mario Cipollini nipped him at the line in Zolder, saying at the time, “The world title was right there. You’re a half-wheel from the rainbow jersey.”
Those riders are in good company. For all the big names — and not so big names — who have won the world title, there are plenty who did not. Here are four major names who never won the rainbow jersey:
Jacques Anquetil, France, second in 1966: Cycling’s first truly modern grand tour rider, “Monsieur Chrono” was never a great one-day racer. His fortes were time trials, and grand tour GC, becoming the first to win five Tours de France from 1957-1964. As his dominance in grand tours waned, he did pick up his most significant one-day successes, with Gent-Wevelgem in 1964, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1966.
Close call: Anquetil raced 10 world championships, never medaling, until he almost won in 1966. Held in Nurburgring, Germany, also host of the very first world championship in 1927, Anquetil made it into a three-up sprint for the stripes. National hero and confirmed sprinter Rudi Altig out-kicked his former teammate, Anquetil, at the line. Anquetil took silver, but was content to have finished one spot ahead of his longtime rival, Raymond Poulidor, another big name who never won the world title.
Roger De Vlaeminck, Belgium, second in 1975: Perhaps the best classics rider of his generation, with 11 victories in cycling’s monuments, and one of only three riders to win all five, De Vlaeminck had a frustrating run at the worlds. Adding even more luster to his already rich palmares is the fact that his successes came in the golden years of Eddy Merckx. The pair fought some epic battles throughout their careers.
Close call: The only major one-day race that eluded De Vlaeminck was the world title. His skills, honed in cyclocross, made him king of the cobbles, winning four titles in the “Hell of the North,” earning him the nickname, “Monsieur Paris-Roubaix.” The 1975 worlds were held in Belgium, in Mettet and Yvoir, and De Vlaeminck, who won his third Roubaix that spring, was among the favorites. Merckx was still a factor, despite coming off a disheartening 1975 Tour, when he was infamously punched on the Puy-de-Dome and lost to Bernard Thevenet. The hilly course was ideal for the hometown Belgians, but it was 1972 Olympic champion Hennie Kuiper who came out the winner. The Dutchman rode away from an elite group that included both Merckx and De Vlaeminck along with Thevenet, Lucien Van Impe, Francesco Moser, and Joop Zoetemelk. De Vlaeminck crossed the line second, 17 seconds back, the closest he would ever come to the stripes.
Miguel Indurain, Spain, third 1991, second 1993 and 1995: Forever remembered for his five grand tour wins and his powerful time trial performances, “Miguelón” came very close to the world title on three occasions. The quiet, humble Spaniard was renowned for his ability to win grand tours, packing in five straight yellow jerseys and two more at the Giro d’Italia. Indurain carved his reputation for riding conservatively in the mountains, and crushing it in the time trials. That didn’t mean Indurain didn’t want to win, but he made friends in the peloton by sometimes letting his rivals take victories when he knew he had control of the leader’s jersey.
Close calls: Indurain was an active worlds racer, with three podiums during his run as king of the Tour. He missed out on becoming just one of four riders to win the Tour and world title in the same year (not counting Merckx or Stephen Roche, who won the Giro, Tour, and world title in the same season in the elusive “triple crown”). The first came in 1991, when longtime rival and nemesis Gianni Bugno, second to Indurain in that year’s Tour, relegated “Big Mig” to third in a relatively easy course in Stuttgart. In 1993, upstart rookie Lance Armstrong surprised the favorites with a long attack to win in horrid conditions in Oslo. Indurain won the bunch sprint for silver, but he missed out on a chance to join the “Triple Crown” club after winning the Giro and Tour earlier in the season. His last major medal run came in the mountains of Colombia in 1995. After winning the world time trial title (introduced as a separate category the previous year), Indurain didn’t chase down compatriot Abraham Olano, who won on a punctured tire, with Indurain beating Marco Pantani to take second.
Sean Kelly, Ireland, third in 1982 and 1989: One of the most successful riders of the 1980s, Kelly was part of a new wave of international riders that started to crack the stranglehold of the old-school European powers within the peloton. His palmares are stellar, with victories in the Vuelta a España, seven record wins at Paris-Nice, and nine “monuments,” tied for third on the all-time list. In 11 worlds appearances, he would punch into the top-10 on seven occasions, earning two podiums, but never winning the rainbow jersey.
Close calls: In his third worlds appearance, Kelly would play a starring role in the 1982 worlds, with Giuseppe Saronni taking gold in Goodwood, Great Britain, ahead of Greg LeMond, with Kelly third. That year saw controversy within the American team, with Jonathan Boyer accusing LeMond of leading the chase when he was alone up the road. LeMond opened up a long sprint, but Saronni came around him with 200 meters to go, relegating LeMond and Kelly to leftovers, with Boyer angrily crossing the line in 10th. Kelly and LeMond would once again be protagonists in the 1989 worlds, held in the rain in Chambéry, France. LeMond was hot off his eight-second Tour victory over Laurent Fignon (another rider who never won the world title), and the Frenchman was bent on winning the stripes on home roads. Fignon attacked mercilessly in the late laps, but a group that included Kelly chased him down. LeMond opened up the perfect sprint to win his second world title, with Dmitri Konyshev second, and Kelly, once again, third.