Today some electrons were spilled by VeloNews and their British counterpart in response to a study by the British Medical Journal "debunking the curse of the Rainbow Jersey." Apparently the BMJ does cheeky reports like this on occasion (unlike their counterparts, the British Journal of Medicine, splitters) and this time, if nothing else, they picked a spicy little zombie topic. And botched it all to hell.
The BMJ asserted that winners of the rainbow jersey could see various effects the following season, including "regression to the mean" (they weren't really as good as their rainbow jersey would imply); "marked man effect" (everyone sits on the Rainbow wheel); and "spotlight effect" (we're only now noticing his problems because he's the WC). It also uses the Giro di Lombardia winner for comparison, since it's the other big one-day race that time of year. Also it allows for a possible combination of both regression and excessive marking.
Conclusions? Nobody has any idea exactly what the 47 years of data said, because they couch it all in terms of stuff like "log(wins)= αi rideri+β1 Lombardy+β2 rainbow". This is why nobody likes science. But in their executive summary (thank you!) they conclude that there was a slight drop in wins in the year or years after winning the Worlds, but chalk it up to regression to the mean. Because they are heartless scientists who don't believe in obviously real stuff like the Loch Ness Monster, the luck of the Irish, or the magic that happens when you mix peanut butter with chocolate. [And then dunk it in coffee.]
So let's look a little closer at the actual evidence regarding the existence, or not, of the Rainbow Curse.
Michal Kwiatkowski (2014)
Before/Up to: 1948 points
After: 1133 points
Details: Notice anything? Yes, I am using CQ points. [I would use Podium Cafe points, which are a bit more sharply focused, but they don't go back as far.] Because cyclists are in the business of accumulating points, not just wins -- which can be somewhere between a bit and totally arbitrary. The BMJ used just wins, and even then I doubt they looked at stuff like the KOM jersey.
Anyway, Kwiatkowski had about as solid a year in rainbow stripes as he did the prior season, with the only real drop in points coming from not winning Worlds again, plus a bit of ridiculous planning on Etixx-Quick Step's part where he overdid his classics calendar, going from MSR to Dwars four days later (where he finished fourth!), then to the VPV (8th instead of 2nd), then back to Belgium for the Ardennes Classics. Kwiatkowski promptly won Amstel Gold -- begging the question about whether his 2015 campaign was maybe actually better -- then mailed in the next two. By contrast, in 2014 he was fifth, third and third. Verdict: Slight regression to the mean.
Rui Costa (2013)
Before/Up to: 1820
Details: Like Kwiatkowski, Costa is a classics guy, and like Flower he pretty much delivered the same season in rainbow that he conjured up the year before. The difference in points can be chalked up to not winning Worlds again -- the race is worth 400 points to the victor. Costa was third in Romandie and first in the Tour de Suisse both years; scored early on in his title defense, nearly won Paris-Nice, and only gave back major points in the Tour de France -- not exactly his cup of tea. Oh, and he changed from Movistar to Lampre after winning. Verdict: Regression to Lampre. Only suffering a few hundred point reduction in that move? He should get a medal for that.
Philippe Gilbert (2012)
Before/Up to: 1086
Details: Winning While Belgian is a dicey thing, it brings a lot of pressure on you to drive this cycling-mad population into an uncontrollable frenzy like Gilbert did in 2012. Combined with the fact that you're a classics rider (Belgian, yo), and you have the makings of a disaster. You only get lucky in the classics so often.
Not that that was Gilbert's issue per se; his case was more one of... I dunno, getting old? Resting on his laurels? Being human? Remember 2011 when that was in question? Verdict: Regression to the mean/spotlight effect.
Mark Cavendish (2011)
Before/Up to: 1469
Details: Ah! Our first test case with a sprinter. Cav was pretty much the exact same guy in his title defense year, minus the title defense. But it's also fair to say that things changed too. Like a curiously large percentage of the guys on this list, his defense was in a different team than the year leading up to his world title. Cav finally left the High Road nest, where he had a fantastic support group, both psychologically (a big deal here) and on the road. Sounds bad. But again... he had just as good a season up until they decided to have a hilly worlds course! Verdict: Regression schmegression.
Thor Hushovd (2010)
Before/Up to: 1136
Details: Yawn... SSDD. Hushovd didn't regress -- he had already regressed to an older sprinter who didn't really win sprints anymore. No, we were by then on to Hushovd the clever Classics and stage race guy, who achieved memorable wins through rather awesome efforts, when he was on his day. Oh, and he changed teams too, though in that case it wasn't his fault so much as Cervelo Test Team's accountant's. Verdict: Same old Thor.
Cadel Evans (2009)
Before/Up to: 1912
Details: Another case of a rider just not winning worlds again, right? Right? Not exactly... You see, Evans came out storming, finishing fifth in the Giro d'Italia, which he rode because he had followed the iron-clad law of all world champions changing teams, in his case to a BMC squad that wasn't World Tour yet and needed to prove its mettle at the Giro. Evans delivered, without emptying his account for the Tour... and then broke his elbow in a crash, costing him the very real chance of winning a lame Tour between Chaingate Andy and Asterisk Alberto. He finished the Tour nearly an hour down, which is even worse than just crashing out. It didn't have to be that way. Verdict: Cursed.
Alessandro Ballan (2008)
Before/Up to: 1381
Details: After a solid winter and early spring campaign, Ballan contracted cytomegalovirus and missed ... are we done? Verdict: Cursed.
Paolo Bettini (2007)
Before/Up to: 1276
Details: 2008 was Bettini's final season in cycling, primarily because he finally found a way to not win the World Championships so he could retire in peace. He didn't bother racing again after surrendering the Arc-en-Ciel, since with it went his excuse to dress up like a peacock, something he didn't hesitate to do in all his years of earning colorful clothing. He's probably wearing gold shoes right now. Anyway, the Worlds defeat (to Ballan, who escaped when most of the peloton wasn't looking) explains the only statistical difference between before-07-champ Bettini and after. Verdict: Had to happen someday.
Before/Up to: 2012
Details: This really was the dropoff from peak Bettini -- a legit threat to win on almost any type of course -- to the guy who played out the string for his last two seasons. Nobody will ever forget him defending his long-sought Worlds win in tears at Lombardia, following his brother's death in a car accident. Wait, what?* Verdict: Cursed.
[*Seriously though... really? It's kind of amazing he kept going at all. Being the reigning world champion probably extended his career, almost by force, when he was ready to say screw it. ]
Before/Up to: 2073
Details: Um, what? He got better in Rainbow? The stats would suggest so, and they would do it on the basis of Boonen hoovering up stage wins in Qatar and ENECO and the Ronde van Belgie. Boonen also scored lots and lots of points by barely losing sprints at the Tour de France.
But is that actually better than his 2005 season? Then, Boonen won the Flanders-Roubaix Double, and took a couple Tour stages when he finally lost interest and went home to train for Worlds, which he then won. In 2006, the Tour stage wins were gone (though he spent five days in yellow), and he won Flanders but not Roubaix. I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that most Belgians were happier in 2005 than 2006. Oh, and he lost Roubaix for good when a train gate came down. Verdict: Semi-cursed. Whatever mystical force we think is behind this didn't dare go too hard on Boonen, but it made its intentions clear.
Oscar Freire (2004)
Before/Up to: 1818
Details: We can go into more details about Oscarito in a moment, but let's leave it at this for 2004: his season was cut short in April due to saddle sores. Verdict: cursed!
Igor Astarloa (2003)
Before/Up to: 963
Details: Much later in life, he was found to have turned up irregular blood samples at the 2003 World Championships, which he won, and after which he barely ever won again. Astarloa's only triumph was in the Brixia Tour, a race where they used to send guys who were not welcomed at the Tour. Given his long track record of suspicious blood samples, he appears to have made a deal with the devil, the cost of which came due very soon after. Verdict: Karma.
Mario Cipollini (2002)
Before/Up to: 1749
Details: Everything about his title defense is so Mario... just dripping with needless drama and flamboyance. Cipo needed two wins to break Alfredo Binda's record of Giro d'Italia stage victories, and got the second one on stage 9. Two days later he crashed in the rain and was hardly the same guy ever again. Verdict: Cursed!
Before/Up to: 756
Details: He got better, though it should be noted that finishing next to last in Zolder at the 2002 worlds was bizarre. Verdict: Regression to the mean.
Before/Up to: 1989
Details: It's funny, I remember Vainsteins as one of the original "who's that guy?" world champions, but the lack of wins in his title defense (just two stage sprints) masks an otherwise rather strong year. Should you ever mock someone who finishes third in Paris-Roubaix? No, you should not. Verdict: Regression to the mean.
Before/Up to: 477
Details: Eh... when you're a 23 year old world champion, you should probably be able to crank up a solid 24-year-old follow-up season. And he did. Verdict: Move along.
So, that's six curses in the last 16 years, proving beyond a doubt that the Rainbow Curse does exist, but it's about as reliable as Stijn Devolder. Take that, pointy hat BMJ guys.