The Rainbow Jersey. The mark of the world champion. Those colored hoops represent one of the finest achievements the sport has to offer, rivalling the Maillot Jaune of the Tour de France and the cobblestone trophy of Paris-Roubaix.
There are even some at the top end of the sport that desire the Rainbow more than any other accolade, more than Tour champion, certainly more than World #1, a designation that carries little real weight in all honesty.
Why? Because the world champion wears those colours all year long, in every race, in every training session even, if they so desire.
The worlds race is generally so hard that only the best can achieve victory, and they do it on a day when those best suited to the course are all at or very close to their best.
Yet the Rainbow Jersey can bring with it, for more than a few, something else, something known, darkly, as ‘the curse of the Rainbow jersey.
The most recent example came in the form of the Italian rider, Alessandro Ballan.
Claiming victory in 2008, Ballan then contracted the disease Cytomegalovirus, which suppresses the human immune system. Ballan had such a torrid time of it that he failed to win again while wearing the famous jersey.
A strikingly similar case was the Irishman Stephen Roche, who suffered knee problems after a stellar year in 1987, in which he won the Triple Crown of the Giro d’Italia, the Tour and then the worlds, a feat only equaled by one other rider, the legendary Eddy Merckx.
1988 brought zero wins for Roche.
Others to feel the wrath of the Rainbow include Tommy Simpson (1965 WC), Freddy Maertens (1981 WC), and Paolo Bettini (2007 WC).
This year’s incumbent is a rider who has commanded fear and respect in equal measure since turning pro back in 2003, Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert.
Gilbert has a palmares that is simply stunning, including a host of Classics, mini-classics, stage victories in Grand Tours and days in the Maillot Jaune.
And yet after claiming victory in last year’s world championships he’s still awaiting his first victory in the Rainbow jersey, with his best result of 2013 being second place in Brabanste Pijl and the slim picking of a fifth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
This is a rider who racked up an incredible 11 wins in 2011. These wins were incredible not in terms of the total but in their importance.
Belgian national road and time trial champion. First in the Tour of Belgium. First at Liege, Amstel Gold and La Fleche Wallone, first at the Strade Bianche and a win in the Tour and a day in Yellow, among others.
So what happened? Has he lost the plot? Lost the form?
To find the answer we need to look not at 2013, but back to 2012 when he joined the BMC Racing team.
Before that move, Gilbert had been a devotee not of coaches, SRMs, heart rate monitors and training plans, but of riding and training on ‘feel’.
Upon joining BMC he took on the advice of their coaches and switched saddles, two factors that he later admitted he felt contributed to his lack of form and niggling injuries through the season.
He bounced back with two wins at the Vuelta a Espana and then that memorable worlds win, where he looked truly like the Gilbert of 2011, but since then his palmares has recorded not a single victory.
Then we have to factor in the effect of the hallowed hoops. It takes a leap of imagination to truly believe in the curse of the Rainbow (unless you’re Ballan, Bettini et al), but there is no doubt that having that fabric on your shoulders brings with it pressures that are only too obvious.
With the eyes of the whole world – and the rest of the peloton – on your back, every move you make is scrutinised and in some ways telegraphed. The wearer feels that outside pressure and also the pressure from within, to get an early win and to put the nerves at rest.
In this sense then the jersey is both a blessing and a curse.
His second place at the recent Belgian ITT championships suggests that he is finding form once again, but then you could have said that several times this season.
Is Gilbert cursed? If he doesn’t win in 2013, the believers will say yes.