Nerding Out: Is the Rainbow Curse Real in Downhill?

Apr 13, 2020
by James Smurthwaite  
Loic Bruni on the last dash to the line.

The World Championships' Rainbow Jersey holds prominence in mountain biking like nothing else. It's the holy grail of the sport and a symbol that says: "I'm the fastest, catch me if you can." Only the racers who have been able to prove themselves as the top dog in a one-shot, all-or-nothing format can earn the right to wear it and even some of the greatest riders in the sport's history have fallen short.

But the Stripes come with a downside - the dreaded curse. Crashes, injuries, middling results, the curse has struck in many different ways over the year. Steve Peat believed in the curse so strongly that he threw himself into the bushes at Leogang in 2010 to get the jersey dirty before his race run and remove the curse. That ended up being his joint-best run of the year with a 6th place finish.

So, is the curse real? And just how bad is it for the racers? We're going to dig into the data to find out.



The World Champions

There have actually been fewer World Champions than you might think. In fact, there have been 14 men and 15 women who have donned the elite Rainbow Jerseys in the event's history, although that only began back in 1990

Elite Male World Championships

Nicolas Vouilloz - 7
Loic Bruni - 4
Greg Minnaar - 3
Sam Hill - 3
Gee Atherton - 2
Fabien Barel - 2
Danny Hart - 2
Steve Peat - 1
Francois Gachet - 1
Mike King - 1
Myles Rockwell - 1
Dave Cullinan - 1
Greg Herbold - 1
Albert Iten - 1
Elite Women World Championships

Anne Caroline Chausson - 9
Rachel Atherton - 5
Sabrina Jonnier - 2
Emmeline Ragot - 2
Giovanna Bonazzi - 2
Myriam Nicole - 1
Tracey Moseley - 1
Leigh Donovan - 1
Manon Carpenter - 1
Missy Giove - 1
Cindy Devine - 1
Miranda Miller - 1
Morgane Charre - 1
Vanessa Quin - 1
Juli Furtado - 1

World Cup overall position

The first place we wanted to look was at the overall position of the rider the year they earned the World Champs jersey and then compare that to the year after. You would expect the overall position of the rider to be worse if the curse was real. The rider's overall performance is probably the best way to measure an entire season of their output so it should iron out any bad runs. We've only been able to go back to 1997 as that's the earliest year we have consistent World Cup overall results from. This misses out the first five years that World Cups and World Championships were held. It's also worth noting that sometimes the World Championships happen halfway through a season, you have to feel most sorry for Nico Vouilloz, who only had the jersey for 3 races in 2000 before handing it over to Myles Rockwell.

On the men's side of things, The World Champs jersey wearer has only improved their World Cup overall position 6 times since 1997 and they've recorded a worse position 13 times. The remaining 3 years can be accounted for by Nico Vouilloz, who retired as World Champion in 2002 and recorded back to back World Cup title and World Championship wins in 1999 and 2000.


This means that the World Champion has recorded a worse overall World Cup position wearing the jersey 59% of the time. This sounds like it's significant but on average, riders only lose 1.09 places in the overall year after they win the jersey and even if we discount the riders who improved or maintained their World Cup position, the average slip is only 3.6 places.

A lot of focus was put on Bruni doing the double last year and winning the World Champs alongside the World Cup overall, but here's another one for you, he became one of only 3 men to win the World Cup overall after having won the World Champs the year before, joining Sam Hill and Nico Vouilloz (who has done it 3 times).

For the women, the trend is even less obvious. Only 6 times in the 23 year period (26%) we're looking at has the World Champion posted a worse position the year after they won the World Championships. The biggest slip came from Anne Caroline Chausson in 2003 when she decided to only race one World Cup and the World Champs, both of which she won, of course. Other than that, Miranda Miller has the biggest difference in position when she dropped 5 spots from 9th to 14th after winning the stripes in Cairns. Before 2016, the biggest slide was 1 spot.


On average, women have been more consistent in the Rainbow Jersey than the men. In fact, the most common result is for women to end up finishing in the exact same spot in the year they earned the Rainbow Jersey and the year after.

Results

Best Result in the Rainbow Jersey

2018: Loic Bruni - 1st
2017: Loic Bruni - 1st
2016: Danny Hart - 3rd
2015: Loic Bruni - 1st
2014: Gee Atherton - 4th
2013: Greg Minnaar - 2nd
2012: Greg Minnaar - 3rd
2011: Danny Hart - 2nd
2010: Sam Hill - 5th
2009: Steve Peat - 6th
2008: Gee Atherton - 2nd
2007: Sam Hill - 1st
2006: Sam Hill - 1st
2005: Fabien Barel - 7th
2004: Fabien Barel - 1st
2003: Greg Minnaar - 1st
2002: Nicolas Vouilloz - 3rd
2001: Nicolas Vouilloz - 4th
2000: Myles Rockwell - 6th
1999: Nicolas Vouilloz - 1st
1998: Nicolas Vouilloz - 1st
1997: Nicolas Vouilloz - 1st
Rachel Atherton - 1st
Miranda Miller - 8th
Rachel Atherton - 1st
Rachel Atherton - 1st
Manon Carpenter - 2nd
Rachel Atherton - 1st
Morgane Charre - 3rd
Emmeline Ragot - 1st
Tracy Moseley - 1st
Emmeline Ragot - 9th
Rachel Atherton - 1st
Sabrina Jonnier - 6th
Sabrina Jonnier - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - N/A (retired)
Vanessa Quin - 2nd
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 2nd
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st

If you think winning the World Championships puts you in an elite club then try winning a World Cup in it. Only 5 men make up this threadbare list - Bruni, Hill, Barel, Minnaar, Vouilloz - however this doesn't mean that the jersey wearers end up wallowing in mid-pack mediocrity. In fact, there are only three years that a World Champion hasn't ended on the podium in at least one race the season after, Peat in 2010, Barel in 2006 and Rockwell in 2001. Even then, all of these riders posted at least one top ten result in the jersey.

On the women's side of things, that gets flipped on its head as only 4 of them haven't won a race while wearing the Stripes. Of those 4, only Miranda Miller never made it to the podium.

First World Cup Result in the Rainbow Jersey

2018: Loic Bruni - 1st
2017: Loic Bruni - DNF
2016: Danny Hart - 76th
2015: Loic Bruni - 14th
2014: Gee Atherton - 48th
2013: Greg Minnaar - 5th
2012: Greg Minnaar - 3rd
2011: Danny Hart - 41st
2010: Sam Hill - 8th
2009: Steve Peat - 7th
2008: Gee Atherton - 3rd
2007: Sam Hill - 1st
2006: Sam Hill - 1st
2005: Fabien Barel - DNQ
2004: Fabien Barel - 1st
2003: Greg Minnaar - 2nd
2002: Nicolas Vouilloz - 3rd
2001: Nicolas Vouilloz - 4th
2000: Myles Rockwell - 35th
1999: Nicolas Vouilloz - 2nd
1998: Nicolas Vouilloz - 3rd
1997: Nicolas Vouilloz - 1st
Rachel Atherton - 2nd
Miranda Miller - 11th
Rachel Atherton - 1st
Rachel Atherton - 1st
Manon Carpenter - 4th
Rachel Atherton - 1st
Morgane Charre - 3rd
Emmeline Ragot - 1st
Tracy Moseley - 1st
Emmeline Ragot - 1st
Rachel Atherton - 1st
Sabrina Jonnier - 1st
Sabrina Jonnier - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - N/A (retired)
Vanessa Quin - 4th
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st
Anne Caroline Chausson - 1st

If you look at riders first result in the Rainbow jersey, the picture is a bit less peachy. For some riders, maybe the pressure of carrying those stripes takes a while to get used to but it's difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from just one data point.

Injuries


The Rainbow Curse has been used in road cycling way before it came into use in mountain biking but it has most likely stuck in our sport thanks to the injuries that seem to follow its wearer around like a bad smell. Rachel Atherton has probably taken the biggest of the bunch after being hit by a car head-on after winning the 2008 World Championships, which took her out for a whole season. It's worth noting she still won in the jersey though as there was another World Cup race in the 2008 season after her triumph.

Rachel was also famously injured in the Rainbow Stripes in 2017 at Fort William. She dislocated her shoulder in the woods section, relocated it herself but unfortunately ended her golden streak of 13 races won on the trot. Then again, if you've won as many World Championships as Rachel has, things are going to go wrong at some point. Aside from Rachel, only two other racers have failed to register a result the season after winning the jersey. Both Vouilloz and Chausson retired shortly after winning the stripes in 2002 and 2004 respectively, that's one hell of a mic drop.

Disaster for Loic Bruni on his first run of the day straight over the bars and down on his his right arm.

Other notable injuries in the Rainbow jersey include Loic Bruni taking himself out on the first corner in Losinj in 2018, Sam Hill injuring himself while training at home halfway through 2011 and Fabian Barel breaking his foot while riding in Finland in 2006. Are these scattered incidences enough to constitute a curse? Probably not in a sport where injuries are so common.

So, is there a curse?

No, of course not, curses aren't real.

There is, however, a lot of pressure involved in wearing the Rainbow Jersey. In the offseason a racer will be pulled from pillar to post by media and sponsor requests, including from non-endemic brands, maybe for the first time. They will also set themselves an impossibly high standard - the best in the world. The psychological pressure that adds to a racer's already stressful job is significant and no doubt affect their racing for the next 12 months. If anything, it's a surprise that racers do so well after earning it at all.

So, sure, while there have been a lot of incidents that point towards a Rainbow Curse, it seems to not have much of an effect by the end of the season. Fast racers are fast, who knew?


74 Comments

  • 59 3
 "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
  • 33 1
 Indeed, but I want more! Race starts/podiums, winning drive chain, Boxxer vs. 40 ... I want to nerd out like so super hard! I've got 40h this week to digest your #'s! GO
  • 24 1
 @racecase: don’t forget about average rock size on course, number of turns, temperature, air and track humidity, lift queue length the day before, comparison of suspension setup vs the degree of hardness of the mattress the athlete slept on the night before, cut or uncut tires, composition of tree species next to the race course, wheelhouse, frame material, bar rise and sweep, the possibilities are endless.
  • 9 1
 *wheelsize, apparently I haven’t talked enough shit on pinkbike yet for my phone autocorrect to know the word.
  • 38 1
 26” wheels have won the most world cups
  • 2 1
 My very favorite Mark Twain quote!
  • 1 2
 Statistics for something where you have every result, all participant characteristics etc can be incredibly accurate because you have the entire dataset.

What they're doing here is equivalent to if you had the stats for the entire population of the planet as a parameter.

It's like when they do this in hockey, they're not sampling any % of the "population" they have access to all results over the course of "x" years which makes the result more meaningful.
  • 2 1
 @slowmoe: except it wasn't his nor Benjamin Disraeli. The original usage in 1891 is credited as 'anonymous'.
  • 1 1
 @racecase: do it yourself???
  • 2 0
 @vroomvroompartystarter: except that something people who haven't done statistics don't realise is that the numbers are always open to interpretation. A perfect data set can't make up for poor logic or interpretation. Not saying that's what's happened here but your comment made it sound like complete data equates to perfect analysis which is not the case.
  • 2 0
 you have $1m, I have $0.
Statistics says we both have 1/2 million.
  • 1 0
 @ismasan: the average between the 2 is 1/2 million. Not actually saying you have 1/2mil each
  • 1 0
 @makripper: I was cheek in tonge trying to illustrate the point of the OP, but thanks for your insight on the semantics anyway Wink
  • 1 0
 @ismasan: tongue in cheek lol
  • 2 0
 @makripper: hahaha, lapsus...
  • 34 6
 The overall WC title is more prestigious and is the pinnacle .

A one day event that makes you the world champ just means you’re the best on that day .

I’ve never understood why cycling has this
  • 26 2
 Yeah, but you can win the overall title without winning once, which basically means you weren't the best on any day.
  • 7 2
 @rc3kartusa: valid point . Also a good stat they could dig up and see how many people won the overall without ever winning a race in that year . The consistency needed to win the overall on different tracks and weather is why is a greater title then the world champs .
Moto GP
F1
Supercross

And all other sports don’t have a win day championship it’s all about the long game . There are many riders on that list who just got lucky on one day , but other wise had marginal careers in racing .

I still respect the rainbow jersey and the talent and skill required to win one . But a little overrated
  • 2 0
 I somewhat agree. A more interesting aspect of World Champs is that every rider is riding for their country, not a factory team. Something I wish was analyzed more was how each country performed on the day, rather than focusing on the individual riders.
  • 2 0
 Not at all the World championship event is what really proofs who is the guy that with out that much of support from the teams can make it happen, it is all or nothing, no team and or season strategy, for me the World champion is the real champion!
  • 1 0
 @mxmtb: um. Who are the many riders on the list that 'just got lucky'?
  • 2 0
 I would agree with this but then there is Katie Compton , the FIFTEEN time US national cyclocross champion. It's only one race but to be prepared for that one race that matters and actually win it means something.
  • 2 0
 I don't think I will ever not find it utterly bizarre.
  • 1 0
 @mxmtb: I don't see any rider on the list that just got lucky. Even back to the early world champions, every single one of them had a big name back in the day.
  • 1 0
 World Cups = race for your team
World Champs = race for your country
  • 27 0
 Let's take a second to appreciate how much a BEAST Anne Caroline Chausson was
  • 14 0
 Just wanted to comment on what a class act Wyn Masters is, I feel like in every shot I see of injured riders he's there lending a hand.
  • 8 0
 Betteridge's law strikes again: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no." Fun looking at the stats tho!
  • 7 3
 "Is the world round?"

"Is space a vacuum?"

"Will I die?"

"Does Betteridges law make sense?"

"Do Pinkbike commenters spend more time typing vs riding?"

J/K - interesting 'law', holds true for pretty much every headline....
  • 6 0
 ONE: there aren't enough races.

2nd: The one time race for world champ is as strange as NASCAR putting their biggest race at the start of the season. I don't get it, but I'm cool with it. I just want to see racing!

III: the fast guys win the races to see who's fastest.

Lastly: I'm on round 4 of WCDH replays. Racing is great.
  • 8 0
 Easy to see who the real GOATs are, Vouilloz and Chausson hardly ever stepped down from podium while active racing.
  • 5 0
 I'd love to see this idea applied to mass start events (XCO, XCC, cyclocross), where the Rainbow Jersey could serve as a literal target for your competitors.
  • 1 0
 I might be confused by your comment, but isn't this all of road/track racing? The world champion jersey has a "curse" in those disciplines, as well. Different courses play to different specialists, and the WC definitely has a target on his/her back.
  • 2 0
 There's a new series on Netflix called The Least Expected Day that follows the Movistar (world tour road) team through their 2019 season. Early on they talk about how the rainbow jersey can lead to a rider resting on their laurels, so to speak. Not motivated to go for the kill any more. It's a good documentary if you're into that side of the sport.
  • 1 0
 @iliveonnitro: Absolutely. I was just trying to keep it more "on topic" for pinkbike, even though I very much enjoy watching road and track cycling as well
  • 1 0
 @SangamonTaylor: Thanks for that recommendation!
  • 5 0
 Honestly that video of Rachel relocating her shoulder by stepping on her hand and pulling it back into place is probably the most metal thing I’ve ever seen.
  • 3 0
 Reminds how well soccer players deal with injuries too Big Grin
  • 3 0
 This one is for all the mega nerds out there 3.

Not sure if anyone will see this but I have a degree in statistics and I think there might be some errors here. First im not sure that even the mean of difference in world cup position is correct. I only did the men and tried to read off of the graph, but I got -0.455. Here is my data let me know if I read something wrong: c(-10,10,0,0,-2,-4,-5,2,7,1,-1,-1,-4,11,-3,-1,-4,-1,-4,-4,-3,6). Also I got the mean of all the negative values (those who did worse the following year) to be -3.36.

I did a quick t test to see if there was a significant difference in the true mean world cup position of world champions before and after winning the rainbow jersey. A t score of -.42 on 21 degrees of freedom means that our p value is .34 (oof). There is very little evidence for a rainbow curse with respect to world cup positions. These results support the conclusions made but with a bit more mathematical oomph.
For the super ultra mega nerds out there I can post the R code.
  • 1 0
 Analysis for women:
data: c(0,1,0,0,0,0,5,0,1,-1,1,2,4,2,-1,-1,0,-3,-5,-4)
alternative: mu_d less than 0
mean = .05
t = .095 df = 19 p = .54
Even less evidence for a curse.
  • 3 0
 If you want to really nerd out, the phenomena can probably be mostly explained by "Regression toward the mean"....doesn't make as interesting a story though : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regression_toward_the_mean
  • 2 0
 that's pretty much "the fast guys are faster than the slow guys," right?

"the fast guys are fast more often than the slower ones are?"

This data pool seems pretty shallow to be diving any deeper than "the fast guys sure are fast."
  • 2 0
 Past DH results always highlight one thing above all else:
Nico Voullioz was the absolute master.
Completely untouchable.

I watched Steve Peat's 'Won't Back Down' film recently, which is great and everything, but it goes on about how Steve and Nico had this even rivalry and gives the impression they were equally matched, each taking equal victories. I'm sorry but the stats don't remember it this way...
  • 1 0
 Just started reading “The Hot Hand” by Ben Cohen. The whole time was wondering how winning streaks apply to different sports, DHI especially. After being in the middle of DH racing on and off for 20 years (mechanic and manager) adds an entire new dimension to how these athletes perform.
  • 4 0
 imagine having the privilege of popping rach’s shoulder back into place... that nutter blew it
  • 3 1
 I will add to the factoids that were missed. Leigh Donovan won elite worlds in 1995, her best result with the RAINBOW was a Win at Mont St Anne. She also was 2nd at the 96' world champs, to ACC by .18 seconds.
  • 1 0
 A more interesting graph would be overall year of championship vs next year. Also compare with second place finisher data for each year to see if being first is substantively worse.
  • 4 3
 Too many frenchies in these statistics; I don`t know why, but this must be a plot against the world, or the universe...
Where are the north-american by the way?
In my ass? Wrong answer Smile
  • 4 0
 The only conclusion you can draw is that Anne-Caro is a legend.
  • 1 0
 Would say that could be more interesting to know if Loic will still be in a Stripey jersey next year, IF Worlds do not happen this year?
  • 4 0
 you're the champ until someone beats you, I say!
  • 4 1
 One thing is for sure regarding the jersey... Gwin wants one!
  • 3 0
 Haha!! Yes he does
  • 3 0
 Gold jacket, green jacket, who gives a sh*t
  • 2 0
 The 2 times Gee won the world champs, Sam could've won it but he crashed. But that's racing.
  • 1 0
 So, according to these stats, the best result for Vanessa Quin in the rainbow jersey was 4th. Her first result the rainbow jersey was 2nd. Or did I miss something?
  • 5 3
 Who cares of World Championship Title? I have many participation trophies.
  • 1 0
 Is this a real question, or are we just bored during quarantine?

The answer is obviously, No.
  • 1 0
 the Pre 97 thing is a cop out - I found WC results back to 92 when it was the Grundig Supercup rather than the UCI World Cup
  • 2 0
 No. It is not real.
  • 1 0
 But it could be...remember the Chicago Cubs and the Goat man?
  • 2 0
 @Supergirl56: The problem is people quit getting drunk and running to third base....

(kind of a cool social remification thing as to why they do not do that any longer)
  • 2 1
 They used to say the exact same thing about the jersey for Roadies....
  • 2 2
 Is Pinkbike paying by the word or something? You could have just written "No" on the article!
  • 2 0
 Pinkbike is bored...they have to find something to write about
  • 3 0
 Oh dude, so many of us are happy to read this stuff in a normal year. This year... well you just dont get it.
  • 1 0
 @flaflow: it was a joke about a yes or no question headline that goes into a 1,000 word essay.
  • 1 0
 I thought that Nicolas Vouilloz was 10 times elite world champion
  • 2 0
 Add in the Jr titles.
  • 1 0
 @stikmanglaspell: True that! Even if in Vail 94 his junior time was the overall scratch if I do remember well!
  • 1 0
 Always love to see the nerds out here catered to.
  • 1 0
 Curses aren't real? A pox on your family!
Below threshold threads are hidden

Post a Comment



Copyright © 2000 - 2020. Pinkbike.com. All rights reserved.
dv65 0.016305
Mobile Version of Website