September 29, 2009 by Irish Peloton
Rainbow Jersey: Blessing or a curse?
Congratulations must go out to Cadel Evans for winning the World Road Race Championship with an uncharacteristically aggressive attack on the final lap in Mendrisio last Sunday. He crossed the finish line solo and claimed the gold medal for Australia. The importance of having a strong team was evident with the Australians. They placed Michael Rogers in the major break of the day who sat on and didn’t contribute, then eventually it was the Aussies themselves who pulled back the dangerous 29-rider break of the day with Stuart O’ Grady, Adam Hansen and Matthew Hayman all doing their fair share of work at the front of the chasing pack. This set up Evans to make his move towards the end of the race. The smaller nations (including Ireland) just wouldn’t have been able to exercise such control over a race like this. It wasn’t to be for the Irish riders who all fell by the wayside before the final selection was made. Roche, who it seems had perhaps over-trained in the run up to the race, was dropped after only 100 kilometres or so and abandoned not long after. Martin managed to stay with the main favourites until about 2 laps to go, and Deignan fared slightly better only getting dropped when Cancellara decided enough was enough and put the hammer down on the final lap.
The victory for Evans makes him only the third non-European to take home the title of World Road Race Champion after Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong. Recently, I pondered what is the best preparation for a rider attempting to win the Worlds and I came to the conclusion that abandoning the Vuelta in the final week is the best tactic. Well Evans has certainly bucked the trend and proved me wrong in that respect and in fact, he becomes only the second man ever, along with Abraham Olano in 1995, to finish on the podium of the Vuelta and win the World Championships in the same year.
However, the most important trend which Evans has now dis-affirmed, is winning with an all out attack. He has silenced the critics that have labelled him as a wheel sucker for most of his career. Evans must be commended for his race winning attack, and he is widely receiving the plaudits for doing so. As such , I find it ridiculous that Evans has been lambasted for following wheels his entire career, and yet at the recent Vuelta, Alejandro Valverde was being lauded for his maturity for doing exactly the same. Valverde didn’t even win a stage of the Vuelta. He finally achieved top spot at a Grand Tour which had eluded him thus far in his career, by not succumbing to his gung-ho tendencies, riding conservatively and following his rivals. This seems to me a perfectly cromulent approach to winning a major stage race and I don’t understand why Evans has been condemnded for doing it and yet Valverde’s performance was hailed as ‘consistent’ and ‘mature’.
So what now for Evans? Will wearing the rainbow jersey of World Champion finally instill within him the confidence to take that final step to the top of a Grand Tour podium? Or will he succumb to the much discussed curse of the rainbow jersey? I’ve often wondered whether this ‘curse’ is a myth or whether it is based on fact. There’s no doubt there have been some appalling cases of the curse in the past. Luc Leblanc was ravaged by injury in 1995 while in the rainbow jersey, barely winning a race. The same fate befell Stephen Roche after his golden year of 1987, barely even starting a race. Perhaps most spectacularly of all was the case of Rudy Dhaenens who won the Worlds in 1990 and never won another race before retiring in 1992.
But this particluar series of unfortunate events occurred many years ago, what about the more recent World Champions? Has the curse of the rainbow jersey continued? To find out, I’ve consulted the immensely informative website, Cycling Quotient, which provides rider rankings depending on their results throughout the season. The site describes itself as the non-official successor of the UCI ranking system which disappeared with the introduction of the Pro Tour in 2005. So I’ve compiled the CQ Rankings of the World Champions of the last 8 years to see how they all performed the years preceding and succeeding their rainbow jersey winning years:
As can be seen, with the exception of Oscar Freire who slightly improved in 2002 and a sensational performance by Tom Boonen in 2006, riders generally take a fairly sharp turn for the worse whilst wearing the rainbow jersey. Clearly, there is a lot of pressure heaped on the shoulders of the current World Champion, and with the added media scrutiny and P.R. commitments that come with the jersey, perhaps the World Champion could be forgiven for a slight lack of focus. It remains to be seen how Evans will handle this added pressure, as he has been known to get a bit frosty with the press in the past. My hope is that Evans can buck yet another trend and put in a stellar performance next year. For a man who lady luck has not smiled at fondly, now’s his time to shine. I’m not sure what his race plans are for what remains of the season, but if he takes to the start line of the Tour of Lombardy, the final monument classic of the year, I certainly won’t be betting against him to immediately break the curse of the rainbow jersey.