Road

How 2020 proved the ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’ is still a thing

From Mads Pedersen's winning-streak after returning to his Trek-Segafredo jersey to Julian Alaphilippe's showboating sprint dramas, maybe 'the rainbow curse' is more than a myth.

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The “curse of the rainbow jersey” – a wave of bad luck that befalls the reigning elite men’s road world champion – is a myth that has long endured in pro cycling.

The rainbow jersey of world champion has weighed heavy on the shoulders of some, from Tom Simpson in 1965 to greats such as Stephen Roche and Philippe Gilbert, whose championship seasons were blighted by bad luck, bad legs, injuries, or illnesses.

While Peter Sagan’s three-straight seasons of dominating the classics and green jersey competition during his world championship years may have suggested “the curse” is just an overblown old-wives’ tale, 2020 showed that maybe there is something to the superstitious suspicion of the most coveted of garments.

Mads Pedersen sheds a jersey and starts-a-winnin’

Pedersen scored his biggest victory since winning the worlds less than a month after passing his rainbow jersey to Alaphilippe. Photo: Nico Vereecken-Pool/Getty Images

Mads Pedersen landed into the jersey of 2019 champion off the back of an unlikely victory in an attritional ride in Yorkshire. Did Pedersen win simply because he could withstand the worst of weather conditions, or was he a worthy champ?

Some suggested the former, and sure enough, the burly Dane went on to be plagued by pointing fingers and doubting detractors when he failed to show his jersey at the pointy end of the action through the opening races of 2020.

Then COVID came along and really spoiled the party. Pedersen’s dream of racing his favorite cobbled races rocking the rainbow bands were shattered when the classics season was moved back to October, immediately after the September worlds. With a tough course slated for the 2020 world championships in Switzerland, and an equally tough parcours for the rearranged race in Imola, Pedersen had no chance of defending his jersey. So much so, he didn’t even bother showing up. Hardly the most defiant of jersey defenses.

Then, boom!

Just two days after seeing his jersey passed over to Julian Alaphilippe, Pedersen landed on the podium at the opening stage of the Binck Bank Tour, and the day after that, landed his first race victory since sprinting to glory in Harrogate in the second stage of the Belgian race. Just two weeks later, the Dane scored one of his biggest results to date, winning from a select group at Gent-Wevelgem.

Maybe the Trek-Segafredo jersey suits Pedersen better after all.

Julian Alaphilippe rains on his own parade at Liège

Primož Roglič ruined the rainbow party at Liège-Bastogne-Liège Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

OK, so it’s not been bad luck or bad legs that have blighted Julian Alaphilippe‘s short tenure in the jersey of 2020-21 champion. Instead, it’s been the showboating Frenchman’s desire to show off the latest item in his wardrobe.

Alaphilippe was inches from scoring his second-career monument at this fall’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège in what was his very first race in his shiny new jersey. Having punched clear in the final sprint, the theatrical 28-year-old started a spectacular celebration waaay too early. In the meantime, Primož Roglič rolled under his right arm to take the win. As if that wasn’t enough, Alaphilippe was then relegated to fifth for a dodgy sprint. D’oh!

Clearly, Alaphilippe didn’t learn his lesson in Liège and almost repeated his misery at De Brabantse Pijl just a few days later.

The world champ was in the winning position in the final sprint and yet again began the festivities early, almost allowing a charging Matthieu van der Poel to steal the victory. Alaphilippe took the win to herald his world title season, but hey, Brabantse Pijl is no Liège-Bastogne-Liège, is it?

Alaphilippe went on to end his 2020 spell in the rainbow jersey by clattering into a race moto in the denouement of the Tour of Flanders. He’ll be hoping to have learned some lessons and upped his luck when his championship year resumes next winter.