PEZ Goes to the Movies: The Legend of the Rainbow

With the recent UCI World Championships in Glasgow covering almost every aspect of professional bike racing except for cyclocross, there was plenty to celebrate. While there were epic battles aplenty (i.e., the Men’s Elite Individual Pursuit), the premier events must be considered the Elite Men’s and Women’s Road Races, both with deserving winners of the Rainbow Jersey in Mathieu van der Poel and Lotte Kopecky respectively. And, happily, nobody mentioned The Curse.

The Rainbow Jersey of the Road World Champion is a sacred vestment in pro cycling, the only jersey that the winner gets to wear in every race for the following year, unlike race-specific garments such as the Maillot Jaune in the Tour de France or the Maglia Rosa in the Giro d’Italia. Cycling is a conservative sport, often looking to the past, which is easy to do given the history of the racing calendar. And cyclists being a sometimes superstitious lot, with traditions such as pinning the race number 13 on upside, the focus on the success or failures of the wearers of the Rainbow Jersey has caused some to consider it to be something cursed. This question is the subject of a new GCN+ documentary, “The Legend of the Rainbow Jersey.”

van vleuten
World champion Annemiek van Vleuten

Cillian Kelly is GCN’s statistician and as a presenter here has a fan’s childlike enthusiasm for all things cycling. The show begins with a visit to an Irish fortune teller, who, upon being given a Rainbow Jersey to handle, declares it to be a garment of much emotion and even some tragedy. Kelly’s task is to bring the story of the jersey and its dark past into the light and he undertakes this challenge by going to Belgium, the epicentre of cycling, and in time for the 2023 Liėge-Bastogne-Liėge race.

Evenepoel in Liège

The premise of The Curse is that winners of it have a dreadful season the following year and this is certainly true in some cases. Stephen Roche, who had an amazing year in 1987 by winning the Giro, the Tour and the World Championship, won nothing in 1988, and several other riders had records that were not much better, although Freddy Maertens, who had a pretty miserable year in 1982 after his 1981 Worlds win, is also the rider with the most wins in a season (44), which happened the year after his first Rainbow Jersey win in 1976! Others have studied The Curse and come up with three logical interpretations: the Spotlight Effect, where the failures of the champion are much more noted than those of other riders; the Marked Man Effect, where the visibility of the jersey means redu’s ced opportunities for attacks or escapes; and the Regression to the Mean, where the rider, who had a stellar year winning the jersey, returns to his (or her) usual form the following year.

Kelly with the rainbow jersey of Benoni Beheyt

Statistician Kelly attempts to run through the numbers of what happened to winners and is not convinced there is enough to say the jersey really does have a negative effect on a rider. He categorizes winners is a different way as well: a) stars-to-be early in their careers; b) stars in their prime; c) stars ending their careers; and d) the outsiders. Visiting the excellent cycling museum in Roeselare, Belgium, he pull out a panel with the jersey and medals of 1963 winner Benoni Beheyt, who grabbed and held back fellow countryman and cycling legend Rik van Looy, to take the win, to the mortification of the entire country and more or less the end of his own career.

Jean-Pierre Monseré

Perhaps The Curse might be most applicable in the story of young “Jempi,” Jean-Pierre Monseré. He won won the Worlds in August 1970 and died the following March at 22 in a minor race while wearing the Rainbow Jersey as he was preparing for Milan-San Remo. He was struck by a car that entered the course and the museum in Roeselare has an excellent exhibition devoted to him. (Kelly does not mention that terrible postcript to this: five years later Monseré’s seven year old son Giovanni died after being struck by a car while riding his racing bicyle—and while wearing a Rainbow Jersey).


Of course, many of the riders mentioned by Kelly had excellent seasons after their Worlds victories so he decides to talk with a range of people about The Curse, including journalists, fans at L-B-L, and a number of the pro racers getting ready for the race. None of the young racers seemed convinced of any kind of curse (except perhaps that they had not been able to actually win it yet!) and the fans were doubtful as well, although if their man Remco did not win L-B-L that day they would consider it, maybe. Of course, Remco Evenepoel’s 2023 season was to be a portrait of a cyclist energized by the Rainbow Jersey…

With the fans in Liège

Kelly has the opportunity to interview several of the past winners of the jersey: Johan Museeuw does not believe there is a “ghost on the jersey,” and his season in 1997 started quite well, although failure to win his two biggest races, Flanders and Roubaix, that year, was a letdown but racing at this level is always hard. Michal Kwiatkowski, 2014 winner, seemed ambivalent about The Curse, noting that moving around in the peloton was easier with the jersey, while riding away from it was not. Rui Costa (2013 winner) speaks of the pressure to perform with the jersey, and how other riders treat you. This is amplified by Philippe Gilbert (Mr. 2012), who clearly has respect for the jersey and what it means but clearly did not enjoy the psychological effect. He notes that he was an attacker and when you were the Rainbow Jersey it is not that a few other riders want to go with you but more like 50 in a race, so in some ways it changed him as a racer.

Philippe Gilbert

Philippe Gilbert’s 2013 was not all that great (one stage at the Vuelta) but in the years following he would add much lustre to his palmares, with wins at the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold, and Paris-Roubaix, to cite only a few successes. Annemiek van Vleuten, whom Kelly notes that at the time of filming had only a third place win in her post-2022 career in the Rainbow Jersey, would of course win two of the major women’s stage races (in Italy and Spain) later in the season as she prepares for retirement after an astonishing career. And we know that Peter Sagan and Tom Boonen both had seemingly endless wins in the Rainbow Jersey and afterwards, so no curse there.

Kelly spoke to Johan Museeuw

“The Legend of the Rainbow Jersey” is an enjoyable hour to spend with Cillian Kelly, the cycling nerd’s cycling nerd, as he plays the historian, the star-struck fan, meeting legends of the sport, the star-struck fan drinking a beer on La Redoute with the other beer-drinking fans, and even undergoing merchantile therapy as he shops for jerseys. It is a nice dive into the history of one of pro cycling’s iconic garments and the interesting characters who have campaigned in it, whether beset by qualms or enjoying it to the full.

Michal Kwiatkowski
Michal Kwiatkowski thoughts on the rainbow jersey

“The Legend of the Rainbow Jersey”
Presened by Cillian Kelly, directed by Harry Dowdney
51 minutes
GCN+ Originals, 2023
Available through streaming on GCN+

That jersey

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