To someone who has never heard of it, the "curse of the rainbow jersey" probably sounds like the least frightening superstition imaginable. But to elite professional cyclists, the bad luck associated with the rainbow jersey could mean a spoiled season... or worse.
A new study out in The BMJ gets to the bottom of what's really behind the curse, and it's not simply a matter of cyclists falling out of favor with fortune.
Distinguished by bands of blue, red, black, yellow and green across the chest, the rainbow jersey is the uniform worn by current cycling world champions. Typically, the curse is associated with someone having a bad season, often due to poor performance or a sudden injury. Then there are the doping scandals that have brought down a handful of champions following a stunning season.
X Games and Winter Sports You Won't Believe
There are also a handful of truly freak occurrence that likely give the curse its staying power:
In 1971, world champion Jean-Pierre Monseré was riding in a race when a car came onto the course and collided with him, killing him instantly.
In 1991, world champion Rudy Dhaenens had a win-less season a year after claiming the title and had to retire due to heart problems at the end of the season. Six years later, he was killed in a car accident.
In 2006, while wearing the rainbow jersey, Isaac Gálvez died in a crash during the Six Days of Ghent.
Freak occurrences aside, what explains why so many champions are seemingly brought down by what should be a mark of achievement? Theories include the "spotlight effect," in which the media and public are more likely to notice a fall from grace. Or it could be the "marked man hypothesis," in which competitors specifically target the champion as a motivator.
5 New Sports That Will Make You Laugh
Thomas Perneger of Geneva University Hospital in Switzerland constructed a mathematical model of professional wins across cycling champions between 1965 to 2013 and found a simple explanation. Known as "regression to the mean," champions are following a winning year by a less successful one, essentially averaging out their overall performance.
Superstitions have long played a role in sports. Curses like the one associated with the rainbow jersey can psych athletes out or lead them to choke at a critical moment. But some superstitions have an upside.
More positive associations, such as believing in a lucky rabbit's foot or having some kind of pregame ritual, have been shown to improve performance. A 2010 study by the Association for Psychological Science found that superstitions boosted self-confidence in some sports stars, giving them a boost come game time.
Video: How Superstitions Work
Athletes are fierce competitors, but when talent and training aren't enough to edge out opponents who also compete at the elite level, superstitions often fill the gap to explain performance results.
In the case of the curse of the rainbow jersey, athletes aren't suddenly experiencing a run of bad luck that's bringing them down, as the latest study explains. Instead, they're just returning to reality after a dream-like performance.