The Curse of the Rainbow Jersey – Rant

Aug 10 2005

I’m not especially prone to misfortune. In the past, I may have attributed some long losing streaks to curses, and it seems to start raining pretty much every time I get off work, but these instances of bad luck aren’t anything outside the realm of probability. Back before last fall, I didn’t believe the Red Sox were cursed, and I still don’t think the Cubs are. There’s 30 teams in the major leagues (though there haven’t always been, but there didn’t used to be play-offs, either), so with a perfectly even distribution, since the first Series in 1903, each team should have won between 3 and 4 times by now. The Red Sox have 5 titles. Doesn’t seem too cursed to me.

Anyway, in recent years, the murmers from cyclists and cycling fans alike have been growing about a so-called “Curse of the Rainbow Jersey.” This rumor will no doubt be fueled greatly by Oscar Frieire’s announcement this week that he will not be racing at this year’s Worlds, in his home city of Madrid, on a course custom-tailed for a sprinter such as himself, for a win that would make him the winningest in World Road Race history. Decidedly bad luck.

And of course, this all gets even weirder when you consider that the 2003 World Champion, Igor Astarloa, isn’t even on a ProTour squad anymore (returning to baseball, this is like a World Series MVP turning up the next year in AAA ball), due to strange doping intrigues and mid-season team swapping that kept him from getting results, or even really knowing when and where his next race was going to be. Mario Cipollini, the 2002 World Champ is now retired, having never regained his pre-World Title dominance, and the ’01 champ, Friere again, had an awful season in 2002, winning only a single Tour stage before suffering a season-ending back injury.

It gets weirder: Romans Vainsteins, the 1999 champ did net a podium finish in Paris-Roubaix in early 2002 (most likely because he had 4 teammates in the top 7) but never showed himself on a pro podium again. 1999 was Friere again, and before that, it was Oskar Camezind, who retired in 2004 after testing positive for EPO and not scoring any major results for years. Laurent Brochard, the 1997 winner, has been known more for his hairstyle than riding in recent seasons.

Looking futher back, we see Greg Lemond, who won the road title in ’89 and never won a TdF stage again. Stephen Roche followed up his ’87 Tour win with a Rainbow Jersey and never won again. Freddy Maertens, one of the greatest sprinters ever, won in 1981, and it was his last major professional victory. And let’s not forget Alfredo Binda, who won the first Worlds back in 1927, added two more to his palmares before retirement, and has gone down in history as the greatest rider to never win the Tour de France. MY GOD! It’s the Rainbow Jersey curse!

Of course, these are all very selective statistics. Don’t mention how many Giro stages Binda won (41), or that Maertens took the World Title in ’76, and went on to the winningest season in the history of professional cycling, taking (among other honors) 13 STAGES of the ’77 Vuelta. Then there’s Johan Museeuw, arguably the greatest classics rider in history, who won the rainbow back in 1996, when he was just another Belgian hardman. Oh, yeah, and some Yank named Lance Armstrong won the race back in 1993. I wonder if he made anything of himself afterwards?

Proponents of the curse will no doubt haggle to me about Musseeuw’s nearly-career ending knee injury, or Armstrong’s nut cancer. I would remind these gentlemen that cycling is not an especially friendly sport to the human body. Nearly every pro rider has been forced to take time off from injuries sustained in crashes, resulting from overuse, or because of plain old exhaustion. Did Laurent Jalabert ever win a World Title? No, but he spent several months on the trainer after seeing how far he could shove his proud Gallic proboscis into the pavement at Armentiere in the late 1990’s (turns out, not very far). Bad things happen to cyclists. It’s just part of the sport.

If you’ve gotta blame the recent misfortunes of World Title holders on something, try the Tour de France. Before 1990, the list of World Title holders reads like a who’s who of pro peleton greats: Lemond, Hinault, Zoetemelk, Moser, Merckx, Gimondi, Janssen, Coppi, Kubler, Bobet, Schotte etc. Since the rise of the Tour as the cycling event, the World Championship has declined in status. Anyone aiming to be on top form for the coming July will not want to put out 250k+ of maximum effort in mid-October. Plus, Worlds is not a ProTour event, meaning that today’s super-strong, million-Euro squads have little to no interest in the race, giving riders have little incentive to keep at top form that late into the season. Where was Amrstrong last October in Verona? Where was Ullrich? Where was Boonen? Where was Petacchi? Where was McEwen? Worlds used to be unique that it appealed to everyone from stage racers to sprinters. Now it seems to be only of interest to one-day racers, whose other season objectives are 6 months earlier. Who’s the best one-day rider in recent memory? To me, it’s Paolo Bettini, who got San Remo, an Olympic Title, a couple Lieges and some World Cups Overalls to his credit in the past few years. How many World titles does he have? None.

So without strong team support, at the butt end of a huge and grueling season, and with little else beyond prestige and a fruity-looking jersey on the line, World Titles have fallen more and more frequently to second-tier riders. To be sure, Friere is a great champion, but he’s long been injury prone, and one really has no idea what races he is and isn’t going to start. Beyond Cipo and he, though, none of the World Champions since Museeuw seems to be a rider with any sort of legacy. So don’t tell me the rainbow jersey has been cursed. It hasn’t. It’s just been downgraded, like many other formerly great cycling events, in cycling’s TdF-and-ProTour-driven modern era.

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