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Rainbow stripes: The history of the World Championships jersey

In-depth
24 Sep 2020
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Despite an initially lukewarm reception, the World Champion’s jersey is now one of the most sought-after prizes in road cycling

Words: Giles Belbin

‘You wear the rainbow jersey, the only one in the peloton. You are thinking now, in this moment, in this race, I am a different rider because I am wearing this jersey.’

Those are the words of Óscar Freire, the triple road race World Champion, who literally burst out of the pack and announced himself on the global stage at the 1999 Worlds in Verona. Just 23 years old at the time, the little-known Freire stunned the world of cycling to claim his first rainbow jersey.

‘The silence in the finishing straight was deafening,’ ran one race report, yet Freire’s win secured him a contract with Mapei, at the time one of the biggest teams in cycling.

‘It changed everything in my life,’ Freire reflected in 2017. ‘In my career and in my private life that moment changed a lot.’

Freire ended his career with three elite men’s road race rainbow jerseys to his name, a record haul matched by Rik Van Steenbergen, Eddy Merckx, Peter Sagan and Alfredo Binda, the winner of the first professional road race World Championship in 1927. 

Tentative start

The UCI first organised an official road cycling World Championship in 1921. The event was restricted to amateurs for six years until the governing body decided to open the race up to professionals, introducing the rainbow jersey and its five coloured bands, mirroring the colours of the Olympic rings but running horizontally across the middle.

The inclusion of professional riders into what was then the pinnacle of the amateur racing calendar was not without controversy. Some thought that incorporating the pros, who already had numerous and increasingly prestigious races to target, would have a negative impact on the standing of the event, and counselled against inviting competitors they considered to be solely motivated by money.

The 1927 Worlds were held in Germany, at the newly opened Nürburgring circuit. The UCI decided on a single race to be contested by both amateurs and professionals, but with a title for both categories up for grabs. That complicated matters and made some federations and bike manufacturers uneasy.

What if a famous, handsomely paid and sponsored professional was beaten by a plucky but unfancied amateur? What then for the credibility of the Worlds? To be deemed worthwhile the World Championships needed a big-name winner, and while the French pros stayed away entirely because of their doubts, the Italians turned up en masse.

This included Binda, already a two-time Giro winner, and his great rival Costante Girardengo, the original Campionissimo, with nine national titles and multiple Monuments to his name.

Binda won that first rainbow jersey with ease, finishing more than seven minutes ahead of Girardengo, while Domenico Piemontesi rounded out a fully Italian podium.

‘You can view it an exaggeration to cry for a cycling race,’ wrote journalist Giuseppe Tonelli in La Stampa, ‘but all of us Italians present at that time felt a lump in our throats and a tear in our eyes.’

A new era begins

If Binda had brought tears of joy to his countrymen in 1927, the reaction to his performance in defence of his rainbow jersey 12 months later could not have been more different. This was a time in which Binda and Girardengo were engaged in an intense battle for Italy’s affections and, for each of them, preventing the other from winning the major races was nearly as important as winning themselves.

In 1928 this was plain for all to see, with the pair unwilling to work together for fear of helping the other prevail. Neither finished the World Championship race and both were sanctioned by the Italian federation for ‘not having defended with faith and determination the prestige of Italian cycling while engaged in this most important world competition’.

The national media mocked both riders, with the Italian publication Sports Giallo publishing a cartoon that showed a large and fierce-looking official holding the two fearful cyclists – their backsides raised into the air and fingers adorned by jewels. The official had his right hand poised, ready to come down with force, like a schoolmaster dealing with a pair of naughty schoolboys.

It was the first, but by no means last, example of rivals-turned-national-teammates refusing to work together in the hunt for the rainbow jersey.

It would be another 30 years until the best women in cycling got their World Championship race. In the early spring of 1958, after being lobbied by a number of countries including Britain and Russia, the UCI confirmed that it would sanction an official women’s World Championships later in the year. Held in Reims, France, Elsy Jacobs of Luxembourg took that inaugural title, while two years later Britain’s Beryl Burton took the jersey, repeating her win in 1967.

It was Belgium’s Yvonne Reynders who dominated the early years of the women’s road World Championships, claiming four rainbow jerseys in the space of just seven years. Reynders’ record held until 1995 when France’s Jeannie Longo won her fifth jersey.

Longo, who was also a mountain bike national champion, crashed on the second lap of the race but picked herself up to solo to the win. On the podium there were tears in Longo’s eyes and a gash on her leg.

‘I was going to stop at the pits,’ Longo later said, ‘but I was encouraged to carry on. My husband was in the pits and looked at my leg and said, “It’s nothing.” When you have been racing mountain bikes you learn to recover from crashes.’

Over the years the frequency with which riders have failed to deliver the goods while wearing the rainbow bands has been noted, leading some to question whether the jersey is cursed. In 2015 there was even a paper in The British Medical Journal on the subject (unsurprisingly it debunked the theory). 

‘It’s not a cursed jersey,’ Philippe Gilbert told L’Equipe in September 2013. ‘But the problem is that it doesn’t pass unnoticed in a peloton where everybody is looking at it.’ That makes it harder to win but still the jersey is one of the most coveted prizes in cycling, a unique and visible symbol of achievement that stays on a rider’s back all season.

Win the Worlds and the rainbow jersey remains yours – until of course someone wins it from you.

This jersey is part of Paul Van Bommel’s collection of memorabilia, which is on display at the Bike Experience Centre in Boom, Belgium. Go to deschorre.be/develodroom.html