Know your enemy: cycling rivalries

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Cycling has felt bereft of long standing rivalries in recent years, the kind that endure and pit two major characters against one another. Procycling magazine analyses the importance of rivalries and asks why they’ve gone missing.

This article was taken from Procycling magazine issue 277, January 2021.

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When Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel went head to head at the Tour of Flanders this autumn it was blockbuster viewing. Here were two exceptionally talented riders, born just four months apart, on the same career trajectories, matched equally in their physical abilities, taking each other on in one of the most prestigious races in cycling. Having raced each other for years in cyclo-cross, passing wins back and forth like tennis players firing shots over a net, Van Aert and Van der Poel’s rivalry had finally spilled onto the road after years of anticipation. It was a clash of the Titans.

The week before, at Gent-Wevelgem, signs of simmering tension off the bike had emerged between the two. Van der Poel and Van Aert were part of the nine-rider group that contested the race’s finale, but in the last 10 kilometres the pair marked each other out, and in doing so both missed out on the win. “There was only one rider who was really targeting me. Apparently, he preferred to see me lose rather than making a chance to win the race himself,” Van Aert said tartly after the race. 

Finally, cycling had a real rivalry between two of its most exciting talents, one that was as fascinating to watch on the road as away from it. It’s a head-to-head rivalry that could last for years and define a generation. Are you Team Wout or Team Mathieu? Fans picked their side. Journalists analysed every look, move and word exchanged for days afterwards in the run-up to, and after, Flanders. 

It’s no wonder everybody’s excited. It feels like cycling has been devoid of fraught, enduring rivalries for years. At the Tour de France Sam Bennett and Caleb Ewan were the two top sprinters in the race and shared the bulk of the wins between them. The two sprinters get on very well, and could be seen chatting during stages and congratulating each other on social media when one beat the other to the win. There was so much love between these two, it couldn’t get lost even if it tried.  

Rivalries have an important place in sport. Sport is emotional. Cycling is much more than people simply riding bikes very well and very fast. What makes sport interesting to fans is the people, as much as the element of competition: the human stories, the endeavour, the feats of physical excellence, all of which help put fans in front of television screens and on the roadside. And rivalries cut right through the middle of that.

“It gets to the heart of what road racing is about,” Ned Boulting, cycling commentator and writer, says to Procycling. “Try as they might, the image shapers who are in control of WorldTour teams, who vainly try and create loyalty towards one team, they’re pissing in the wind, aren’t they? Because ultimately, even though it’s a team sport the team is built around one purpose and one purpose alone and that is to propel an individual towards the victory. And actually it’s only the individual that matters, ultimately, in terms of the public understanding. Which is why cycling fans identify with particular riders rather than teams. 

“So when you get a rivalry that’s born out, to use the cliché, mano a mano, the essence of road racing is laid bare. Everything else falls away and you concentrate on the two different characteristics of the individuals who are closely matched, and often if there is a bit of dislike thrown in, or a grudge - grudges are great - then it just makes it all the better.”

Giro Rosa 2019

Anna van der Breggen in the rainbow stripes and pink jersey Annemiek van Vleuten at the 2019 Giro Rosa (Image credit: Getty Images)

While cycling is a team sport, the fluidity with which sponsors and names change and riders transfer between teams means that fans very rarely latch their allegiance onto one squad in the way that happens in other team sports like football or rugby. Cycling fandom is different, though if fans do pick a rider to support, that loyalty tends to last. Fans also favour along national lines, so the Colombian fans will yell for Egan Bernal or Rigoberto Urán, whoever they ride for.

Not since Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara retired, arguably, have we had a duel between two equally talented and equally successful riders, whose careers crossed over at exactly the same time (similar to Van der Poel and Van Aert, Boonen was older than his Swiss counterpart by just five months). That rivalry was made all the more significant by the fact that both riders had loyal fanbases. Tornado Tom versus Spartacus was a contest that transcended cycling as it pitted two once-in-a-generation talents against each other for over a decade. Even now, years after they’ve retired, it’s almost impossible to say for certain who was the better. 

Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten’s battle recently has also lasted for multiple years. Yet there’s the added complication that both are Dutch and frequently have to race as team-mates as well as against each other. While they will happily attack each other on the road, that’s typically where their rivalry stays. Mark Cavendish had a perfect match in Marcel Kittel, and theirs had the making of an epic contest. But even when these two sprinters were in their prime, crashes or form often limited how frequently we saw them race together on the biggest stages - the 2013 Tour de France was the only edition of the race both riders made it to Paris. The closest Chris Froome, the most successful grand tour rider of the last decade, came to a true rival was Alberto Contador, and he retired in 2017, his career on a downward slide while the Briton was still very much in his pomp. You only need to look at how easily Peter Sagan won his seven Tour green jerseys between 2012 and 2019 to see how much he has lacked an equal competitor for much of his career.

“It almost never happens that riders and rivalries overlap perfectly in sync,” says Boulting. “There’s always a slight sense that one rider is on the up while another rider is starting to fade. That might be the difference between Van der Poel and Van Aert because their trajectory is locked in step and it might be a case that even [Remco] Evenepoel and [Tadej] Pogacar become the GC Van Aert and Van der Poel.”

The most beloved rivalries in cycling history are those that involve something more than two people who were physically matched. Those that best capture public imagination have been rivalries where personality, as well as attributes on the bike, have split the two riders into opposing camps. As Boulting points out, professional road cycling has its roots in newspaper reportage, with races like the Tour and the Ronde created by journalists and newspaper owners,  who could write extraordinary tales of human effort and endurance to sell copies of their papers. For fans, who were unable to follow a race that traversed huge distances over multiple days with their own eyes, the reports in the papers were their only gateway into the sport. Stories were embellished and adventurous and filled with narrative arcs and characters, otherwise why would fans be interested?

Think of Fausto Coppi versus Gino Bartali, a legendary contest written in cycling folklore, which still permeates the modern-day Giro d’Italia through imagery and homages en route, despite the fact it dates back 70 years to the 1940s and 50s. Their rivalry cut so deep it divided Italy, let alone cycling, into two. Bartali was the older of the pair by five years, and won his first of three Giros in 1936. A devout Catholic, the conservative ‘Gino the Pious’ was largely backed by the rural south of the country. Contrast that with the younger Coppi, whose divorce made scandalous headlines and who was popular with  supporters in the industrial north. Both fought during World War II, both initially raced as team-mates but then spent the next 10 years swapping titles between them. 

Or think of Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, two French riders, one a champion, one an  underdog. City boy Anquetil against rural working class Poulidor. While separated by just two years in age, one - Poulidor - started racing as a teenager, while the other - Anquetil - was a latecomer to the sport. Anquetil had the trophies and major victories, but Poulidor had the love of the French public. 

Even consider Cavendish and Kittel. Cavendish was the best sprinter in the world and almost unchallenged before the German came along in 2013. Cavendish was stocky, dark haired, a bullish Briton, a rider who got low and aero on his handlebars when he sprinted, and who wore his heart on his sleeve and spoke his mind. Kittel was his polar opposite; tall, blonde, a giant on the bike by comparison, who used his size and pure power to speed away. He was reserved, clean-cut, discreet and conscientious, thoughtful in his answers, rarely saying things he wasn’t in control of. 

“There’s an understanding… when we report on cycling and the characters who cycle and race, we’re telling a human story about a human endeavour. And you tell me a story that doesn’t involve rivalry, or human hubris, or weakness or valour, or endeavour. All we do is tell a story and you can’t tell a story unless you’ve got the characters,” says Boulting. 

Boonen, Cancellara

Cancellara and Boonen go head-to at the 2010 Tour of Flanders (Image credit: Getty Images)

There are countless studies that have examined the motivational effects rivalries can have in sport. Coming up against a physical equal means riders have a literal target of what they need to strive towards if they want to win, someone to push them even further. It can have physical and psychological benefits and drawbacks. 

“It’s almost the worst-case scenario that someone is physically your equal. You can imagine a twin, that they are identical to you. Therefore the only competitive advantage is your mindset, which is the place people don’t want to be exposed,” says former international cricketer Jeremy Snape, who founded the Sporting Edge consultancy and hosts the Inside the Mind of Champions podcast. “Your mindset, for me, would either be your confidence, your resilience, your ability to withstand the pain of long distance road cycling, or it’s the strategy, the ability to think and take risks under pressure and the timing of attacks.”

Snape says there’s a fear of inadequacy which drives motivation in sport, and that plays a bigger role when rivalries are involved. Riders start to question and doubt what they’re doing and if it’s enough compared to the effort their rival might be putting in, it can push them to go even further. Lance Armstrong, who was almost entirely unmatched in all of the Tours de France that he won, still said of Jan Ullrich, the German who finished second to him in Paris three times: “The other guys… no disrespect to them, didn’t get me up early. He got me up early.”

Cavendish, similarly, said of Kittel when he retired in 2019: “For many years of my career I felt unbeatable, invincible. One rider came that changed that… He was the first rider I ever had to ‘work out’ how to try and beat. Marcel, I want to say thank you for a rivalry that lifted my game.”

“You don’t need a rival to be champion, because you just need to be better than everyone else. But if you want to get to the closest you can be to your personal best it would suggest that a rival will allow you to stretch your performance to anything you would have done if you were slightly more comfortable,” says Snape. “So if Usain Bolt had somebody that was a split second behind him, you can imagine he wouldn’t be running and looking sideways and having that picture taken [at the Rio Olympics 100m semi final], he’d be nose forward dipping to the line - and what times would he have done? That’s the question.”

There’s also an argument that rivalries can have an effect on the type of racing we see. The reason those iconic cycling rivalries are so well remembered is because of the type of dynamic, all-or-nothing racing they spawned. Rivalries can lead riders to take risks they otherwise might not have taken when racing against someone else, as they’re fearful or aware of the threat posed and that they need to do something spectacular if they want to win. Normality goes out of  the window. “You believe you’re under so much pressure to perform against this imagined threat actually because you’ve catastrophised the threat so much you actually take bigger risks in the race,” says Snape. 

“For example in cycling, you’ve got to attack earlier than you thought you had to and you blow a gasket before you even really needed to because you were so worried about the fitness that your rival has got. That ability to stay rational and focused on your best game is as important as worrying about what your rivals’ best game is.”

So if we’re lacking rivalries, are we lacking that type of racing? And ultimately, is it bad for business? 

Perhaps the lack of engaging rivalries is a symptom of athletes having less charisma. Cycling has professionalised its media operation in recent years. Access to the riders is more restricted, every WorldTour team has its own communications department and riders are trained in how to speak to reporters. 

Riders typically avoid controversy, knowing that social media and 24-hour internet news cycles mean it will end up in the public domain in minutes. Engaging in a war of words with an opponent will often bring a level of attention most don’t want.

We’re already asking riders to produce exceptional performances when they’re racing. Are we asking too much of them to have to play up to and entertain with rivalries, too? Boulting doesn’t think so.

“However much media management or spin you might want to put on a bike race, these rivalries exist. Even in the most sanitised period they don’t go away. Most of it goes unnoticed. But when it filters through to the very big names, the big guns at the top, then it’s going to be noticed. And I see no reason for people, for the image masters who control these teams and these riders, to sanitise that. I think we should celebrate it.”

Snape has a different explanation for why rivalries might have diluted in cycling in recent years. 

“I think cycling is one of the most scientific and measurable sports. There’s power, wattage, calorie intake, sleep quality. It’s very scientific and rational and I think what we’re talking about here is emotional, human, irrational, and those are things that need to be balanced in equal measure, I would say, with science,” he says. “Those marginal gains are getting tighter, which is great to see those human performances advancing. But I think what we also need is not two spreadsheets battling out against each other; this is two human beings and what we really need to amplify in individual races are those narratives and human stories.” 

Living up to all the expectation and hype of the greatest cycling rivalries, the Tour of Flanders came down to a contest between Van der Poel and Van Aert. The two escaped with Julian Alaphilippe, and after the Frenchman crashed they contested the final 40km alone, before sprinting for the victory. But perhaps the most telling moment was not when Van der Poel beat Van Aert narrowly in the sprint, to take round one, rather in the moments after the finish line, moments that initially were missed by the TV cameras and only emerged later on social media as the duo shook hands. For all the battle on the road, and words said in the heat of the moment, when all is said and done there’s a mutual respect that says a lot about Van der Poel and Van Aert’s relationship. In terms of rivalries, that’s as good as it gets.

“The responsibility that sport has in society and communities is to show people what’s possible and how to win and lose fairly, and so when we see these great individual rivals together and it’s talked about for weeks and weeks leading up to the Tour de France, or FA Cup final, whatever it might be, it draws the whole country in or community of cyclists in,” says Snape. 

“What we really want to see is a dog-eat-dog race, somebody to stand on the podium looking absolutely battered and for them to shake hands with their rival and say, ‘See you next year.’ That’s not only compelling in the short term, that’s essential for the long term of sport. Because there will be thousands of teenage boys and girls that look up to that podium and say, I’d love to be like that one day.” 

Sophie Hurcom is Procycling magazine's deputy editor. Take advantage of Procycling magazine's subscription offers (opens in new tab) and never miss an issue.

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Sophie Hurcom is Procycling’s deputy editor. She joined the magazine in 2017, after working at Cycling Weekly where she started on work experience before becoming a sub editor, and then news and features writer. Prior to that, she graduated from City University London with a Masters degree in magazine journalism. Sophie has since reported from races all over the world, including multiple  Tours de France, where she was thrown in at the deep end by making her race debut in 2014 on the stage that Chris Froome crashed out on the Roubaix cobbles.