Mountain biking’s rainbow jersey winners

Jul 20, 2020, 14:27 PM

The rainbow-striped jersey of UCI World Champion is the biggest prize a mountain biker can dream of. Once you win it, it’s always with you, and even when your reign comes to an end, you’ve earned the right to wear the famous stripes on your sleeve or collar forever.


We previously explained the origins of the jersey and its design representing the earth’s five continents. In mountain biking, the rainbow stripes aren’t as long-standing as for our road counterparts – it’s 30 years since the first UCI Mountain Bike World Championships for cross-country Olympic (XCO) and downhill (DHI) – in Durango, USA, in 1990. Check out some highlights over these three decades here.


The first UCI World Championships saw the first three mountain biking rainbow jerseys presented to riders on home soil – Ned Overend and Juli Furtado in XCO and Greg Herbold in DHI. Only Elite Women’s DHI winner, Canada’s Cindy Devine, prevented a stars-and-stripes clean sweep of rainbow stripes. None of the original four recipients retained or re-gained their titles, but were pioneers for some incredible individuals.


Furtado was followed in 1991 (Ciocco, Italy) by compatriot Ruthie Matthes while Overend handed his title to countryman, John Tomac. A true multi-disciplinarian, Tomac took DHI silver in the same Championships, and while no American man has won the XCO Worlds since, there have been DHI victories for Dave Cullinan (1992) and Mike King (1993) with Myles Rockwell (2000) the last American male to win mountain bike stripes: that’s right, Aaron Gwin, for all his UCI World Cup prowess, hasn’t – yet!


Furtado went one further in discipline-crossing excellence by winning the DHI UCI World Champion’s jersey in Canada in 1992. She was followed by American women Missy Giove in 1994 (also on home soil, at Vail, Colorado) and Leigh Donovan in 1995 (Kirchzarten, Germany). In XCO, rainbow jerseys were earned by Alison Dunlap (2001, at Vail again) and Kate Courtney (2018, Lenzerheide, Switzerland).


Early dominance


That US dominance in XCO was halted by an early-90s hat trick for Henrik Djernis (Danish champion for ten years straight), the first rider to successfully defend his rainbow stripes. The three-in-a-row was soon matched by Canada’s Alison Sydor, and surpassed by Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja, whose first stripes in 2002 (Kaprun, Austria) paved the way for three further consecutive titles, 2004-6.


“Of course becoming the World Champion for the first time back in Kaprun in 2002 is something very special,” she told Limitless Pursuits.


The Norwegian’s dominance has not been seen again since in the tightly-fought women’s XCO UCI World Championships, which have only witnessed one repeat winner in the last seven years, the incumbent Pauline Ferrand-Prévot – the French rider whose unique palmares includes Junior rainbow stripes in three disciplines in 2009/10 and Elite rainbow stripes in cyclo-cross, road and mountain bike XCO in 2014/15.


Ferrand-Prévot confounded expectations again in 2019 by pairing her XCO rainbow stripes with a matching jersey for cross-country Marathon (XCM).




The record for multiple wins continue to be broken in Men’s XCO, first by the dominant Julien Absalon, the Frenchman whose victory in 2004 – on home soil at Les Gets – was the first of four consecutive Worlds wins, which were followed by a long wait for the fifth at Lillehammer (Norway) in 2014. Absalon’s record in his discipline is second only to Switzerland’s Nino Schurter, about whom he said: “He gave me motivation, a lot. It pushed me to work harder and try to beat him. It felt so good when I managed to beat him, and I think it was the same for him.”


The Swiss rider took ownership of the XCO rainbow stripes to another level. Schurter has won eight world titles including the last five straight, and achieved the “perfect season” in 2017 – winning the rainbow stripes and every round of the UCI World Cup.




The French inspirations


In men’s DHI, another magnificent seven titles went to Nico Vouilloz – the Frenchman’s victory in 1995 (Kirchzarten, Germany) was the first of five consecutive wins. Along with countryman Fabien Barel (double World Champ including Les Gets 2004), Vouilloz inspired a generation of riders, not least the current – and four-times – rainbow jersey winner, Loïc Bruni, also from France.




However, Schurter still has work to do to reach the all-time greatest number of rainbow stripes victories, and even Vouilloz fell one short of his compatriot – the legendary Anne-Caroline Chausson.


From 1996 (Cairns, Australia) through to 2005 (Livigno, Italy), she beat the best in the world – the only one she didn’t win in a decade was her home Worlds, Les Gets 2004. Along with DHI, Chausson also won mountain bike four-cross (4X) rainbow stripes twice, and its predecessor, Dual (as well as racing BMX to Olympic gold!)


“In racing, if two people have the same training programme, the person with the better mentality will win,” she told in 2016.


Like Vouilloz, Chausson’s legacy is the highly successful female French gravity riders she inspired, including DHI UCI World Champions Sabrina Jonnier (2006 and 2007), Emmeline Ragot (2009 and 2011), Morgane Charre (2012) and the reigning holder, Myriam Nicole.



What’s next?


Nicole, Bruni, Schurter and Ferrand-Prévot are as proud of their stripes as any of the other mountain bikers who have earned them. The mountain bike rainbow jerseys will be presented this year in DHI, XCO (individual and team relay), and E-MTB across one amazing week in Saalfelden Leogang, Austria, in October. What new stories and legacies will the 2020 Worlds bring?