The Iridescent History of Cycling: The Quest for the Rainbow Jersey

2023-08-04 04:30:01

In the world of cycling, the holy grail is not a gold medal, but a rainbow jersey.

Unsurprisingly, it rains a lot in Glasgow at the beginning of August. But no matter the weather, to tell the truth, we know that it is the rainbow that will punctuate the next few days in the Victorian city. From August 3 to 13, the third city of the United Kingdom organizes the world championships of cycling. And, in the kingdom of the little Queen, more than a gold medal, we dream of being crowned with the famous iridescent jersey. A tradition specific to cycling, for more than a century.

Whether you are a convict on the road, a track sprinter, a BMX artist or a mountain bike rider, the reward for a world champion is the same: a white jersey, surrounded by five horizontal bands of blue, red, black, yellow and green, which is mistakenly called the rainbow jersey.

In truth, two of the seven colors of the famous meteorological phenomenon are missing, but who cares? These five colors are those of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which itself borrowed them from the Olympic rings. By extension, these borders thus refer to the five continents, as imagined by Baron Pierre de Coubertin at the end of the 19th century.

A century of history

The appearance of this jersey in the peloton, however, has nothing to do with the father of the modern Games. His induction dates from 1922, during the world track cycling championships started in the English rain, interrupted, and finally completed a month later under the sun of the Parc des Princes, in Paris. A meteorological coincidence, like a blink of an eye, which marks the beginning of the iridescent history of cycling because, from 1927, this award was extended to road cycling, as it would later be to other disciplines.

Among the men, it was the Italian Alfredo Binda who remained the first wearer of the rainbow jersey on the road, in 1927, while the Luxembourger Elsy Jacobs became in 1958, in Reims, the first world champion on the road. road. More than a medal, this jersey then becomes the official tunic of the world champion for one year, until the next edition of the Worlds.

But this rainbow is not ephemeral, since once the jersey has been returned, the rider keeps the iridescent stripes at the end of the sleeves of his team’s jersey for the rest of his career (only in the discipline concerned ). Thus, Julian Alaphilippe wears them in every road race, even if he lost his title in September 2022, but not in the time trial.

In this way, a world champion title remains visible for life in a cyclist, regardless of the discipline, like the stars embroidered on the tunics of the world champion football teams, and unlike the yellow jerseys, polka dots, green or white of the Tour de France. These distinctive jerseys on the races are also the only ones that can cover the iridescent tunic. In any other case, if a world champion does not wear his rainbow jersey, he is liable to a fine of 2,500 to 5,000 Swiss francs. Which, in practice, never happens because of the prestige of this Grail.

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A fantasy curse

However beautiful and mythical it may be, the rainbow jersey can still be frightening, especially in men’s road cycling, where it is considered a curse. The latter was born of several misadventures that occurred to wearers of the tunic, in particular Isaac Galvez and Jean-Pierre Monseré, both of whom died in the race while wearing it… Another example, less dramatic: world champion in 1987 after winning the Giro and the Tour de France, the Irishman Stéphen Roche had a white season in 1988, like Julian Alaphilippe after his second planetary coronation. A week after his coronation in 2012, the Belgian Philippe Gilbert was ironic about this curse, after a violent fall on the Tour of Lombardy, his first race with this jersey.

Dismantled by a British study, this curse actually results from a simple change: the world champion’s jersey makes its wearer more recognizable, visible and therefore watched by opponents, as can be the yellow jersey on the Tour. It is therefore harder to escape by surprise when wearing the most recognizable tunic in the peloton. Several examples show that you can shine with the rainbow on your back, like Louison Bobet, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond, all winners of the Tour with the famous cursed jersey on shoulders.

Like any mythical object, the rainbow jersey has a mystical side to it, but remains the absolute quest of every cyclist. In Glasgow, two hundred will be distributed to future world champions. For now, the record belongs to the Pospisil brothers, Czech twins crowned twenty times world champions of… cycle-ball [un sport proche du football mais joué sur des vélos et opposant des équipes de deux cyclistes seulement]. The Swiss Nino Schurter, mountain bike specialist (in competition in Glasgow), has 16.

On the French side, with 13 tunics in her dressing room, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is a collector. And the Rémoise could well add a few to its collection in the coming days, in Scotland. Because if it rains in the sky of Glasgow, we are not safe from a clearing in the tricolor sky, and therefore, from the appearance of a rainbow.

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