Does the curse of the rainbow jersey exist?

The British Medical Journal takes a festive look at cycling's enduring myth

The curse of the rainbow jersey doesn’t exist, according to a study in the British Medical Journal. However, heightened attention on the reigning world champion does mean they’re likely to win less, so perhaps Peter Sagan and Lizzie Armitstead can expect a tougher time of it in 2016.

The study that was conducted by Dr. Thomas Perneger at the University of Geneva and published by the BMJ medical journal as part of its light-hearted series of Christmas research papers.

“In 1965 British cyclist Tom Simpson won the World Championship Road Race, then broke his leg while skiing during the following winter and lost his 1966 season to this and other injuries. In the ensuing years, champion after champion encountered all manner of misery while wearing the jersey: injury, disease, family tragedy, doping investigations, even death, but especially a lack of wins. It soon became obvious that the rainbow jersey was cursed,” the article introduction reads.

The study looked at all world champions from Simpson in 1965 to Rui Costa in 2013, and compared their season in the build-up to the Worlds to their year in the rainbow jersey and the year after. Dr. Perneger then compared it to the winners of the Tour of Lombardy during the same period.

He found that world champions would win, on average, 5.04 times in the year leading up to their title. The following season in the rainbow jersey would see that drop to 3.96 and the year after they lost the jersey would drop again to 3.47. In comparison, Tour of Lombardy winners would enjoy 5.08 in the year of their title, followed by 4.22 the year after, and 3.83 in the next.

“The curse of the rainbow jersey probably does not exist. The current road racing world champion wins less on average than he did in the previous season, but this phenomenon is best explained by regression to the mean,” Dr. Perneger concluded. “The relative lack of success was not restricted to the season in the rainbow jersey but persisted in the following season and affected equally the winners of the Tour of Lombardy. There was nothing remarkable about the year spent wearing the rainbow jersey.”

“Nevertheless, this study may not rule out a curse entirely, as it tested only one facet of the curse—the decrease in wins. I found no good data about the personal problems of professional cyclists.”

The British Medical Journal is better known for looking at more serious issues but each Christmas they take a slightly irreverent look at some slightly less pressing concerns such as the rainbow jersey curse and whether or not there really is something called the Christmas spirit. The curse of the rainbow jersey has for decade captivated fans and journalists alike. Each world champion is watched like a hawk to see whether or not the curse will befall them, there are even books on the subject.

Is this report likely to stop people speculating about the curse? Probably not.

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