THE ICON OF THE PODIUMS
Is it true to say that the World Champion jersey is the de facto symbol of cycling? That’s the question a French journalist asked himself when he began researching the background of the Rainbow Jersey: a history replete with individual stories. From official sponsor Santini to its evolution in the various disciplines and its much-vaunted curse, we bring you a lookback at this religiously admired icon.
The five colours sported by the Rainbow Jersey are the colours of the UCI and were inspired by the Olympic Rings which in turn represent the five continents. They appear in a set order from top to bottom: blue, red, black, yellow and green. World Champions are entitled to wear the Rainbow Jersey until the next edition of the World Championship begins and only in the discipline in which they won their title. So if they have won in the scratch race, they can’t wear it in the time trials (unless, of course, they’ve also won the title in that discipline too in the same year). The following season, the World Champion gets to wear the rainbow colours on the sleeve of their team jersey as a reminder both to themselves and to the entire group that they were world champion.
The first time
After its first appearance in 1927, the jersey was made by a long list of companies in both the protocol version donned officially by the newly crowned winner at the end of the competition and the one worn in the races that follow. Nonetheless, Santini is the company that has left its stamp on this iconic jersey since 1988. Media coverage the fact that the UCI has created different competitions in all the disciplines has meant that the company location has received huge worldwide exposure.
Just like Disneyland
I personally was fortunate enough to visit the Santini universe and the areas at the company where every single product is designed, developed and created from start to finish. Every single stage of the production process takes place at the company headquarters in Bergamo in the North of Italy. Walking through the corridors and open plan offices is like taking a journey back through over a half century of cycling history. The walls are adorned with dozens of jerseys from the top teams and one wall is dedicated entirely to the World Champion jerseys, all of which have been autographed by their respective winners. Just like in a modern art museum, there are two walls sporting the Rainbow Factory - Wall of Fame title: one features the autographed jerseys in the Santini collection showroom while the other traces the crowning of the champions since 1988 with a short history. To we fans, this exhibition is probably the most moving moment of a visit to the company. Far from being simple souvenirs autographed by the cyclists, these jerseys evoke atmospheres, images and even admiration for a unique moment in the life of these champions.
World Champion testimonials
The very people that have worn the coveted jersey brilliantly encapsulate its power, each one acutely aware it sets them apart and represents a cycling heritage that must be honoured during the season and in every race. In Giles Belbin’s book “Chasing the Rainbow”, three-time road race World Champion Óscar Freire, who took his first Rainbow Jersey in 1999 at the age of just 23 in Verona, says: “When you put on the World Champion jersey, you are the only one in the group wearing it. You say to yourself that right now, in this race, you are different because you are wearing this jersey». And he is not the only one. Bernard Hinault, who won at Sallanches in France, declares: «I have to go the extra mile because I have this jersey. We have to honour it and not just think we are the strongest». Julian Alaphilippe too continues to state at the start of every season that this is a jersey that has to be respected and that he always strives to ensure it shines. But this very unusual white jersey is also something that puts “a huge target on your back” as they say in cycling jargon. It means the wearer will always be noticed when they are racing, when they make their way up through the pack, when they fall or hurt themselves.
Feeling the pressure
It is also a jersey that brings with it a curse of sorts: being the winner of the world title can mean that the following season is flat with no wins or accident after accident. «Raising my arms on the podium in the World Champion jersey is something I want to do as soon as possible – explains Alaphillipe – to get rid of the pressure of wanting to win this jersey so much ». Over the years, various journalists have pointed out how often World Champions have failed to clock up wins while wearing the Rainbow Jersey. In fact, some have even hazarded that the jersey might be cursed. In 2015, the British Medical Journal even published a study on the subject. A theory that, obviously, was disproven «It isn’t cursed - said Philippe Gilbert in L'Equipe in September 2013 – The problem is that it doesn’t go unnoticed in a group where everyone is looking at it». A curse explained by the weight of expectation on the shoulders of the current Champion. So if there is no curse, is the Rainbow Jersey actually lucky? There are examples of World Champions that have enjoyed hugely successful season the year after winning the title. Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond all won the Tour de France in the World Champion jersey.
Lastly, this jersey is more than anything else a reminder for an entire season of an important competition. «Wearing it reminds you that that that day you were the best” explains Anna van der Breggen. Lizzie Deignan agrees: «It’s an honour to wear it. It is like it doesn’t really belong to you. It’s something you get a loan of for a year and I liked that ». The World Champion jersey ultimately also bears witness to the fact that Champions come and go. It’s a piece of history, a relic that is inherited and cared for a year.