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5 of Cycling’s Classic Rivalries

By Megan Flottorp

Emotional, dynamic, and undeniably a driving force for some of the best athletic performances ever recorded, rivalries are a big part of what makes sports so exciting for fans and athletes alike. Born from a desire to out-perform another great talent, the best rivalries constitute a mixture of antagonism, respect, and, when allowed to run their course, often an element of friendship. 

Cycling has no shortage of star riders who have gone toe-to-toe over the years, and watching these lively relationships unfold has long been a major captivating component of the sport’s great races. As young riders join the ranks each year, new cycling rivalries arise and continue to provide excitement and gossip for fans. Let’s take a look at a few of the great contentions that have helped shape cycling into the sport it is today.

Jacques Anquetil v Raymond Poulidor

Tour de France 1964. Anquetil (on the left) and Poulidor on the Puy-de-Dôme. © Profimedia, AFP

Anyone who knows the story of these two French greats will be able to tell you that, despite the cycling rivalry, in the end, the pair were secret pals with a boatload of respect for one another. What ultimately became a testament to the value of friendships born out of athletic strife though, was initially a tale of a divided France. Anquetil, hailing from northern France, had the effortless charisma of a born winner. He was stylish, respected, and a fabulous time trialist. Poulidor, meanwhile, was an outspoken climber from the central region. He was a little rough around the edges and often wound up coming in second. Always at each other’s necks, their epic duel on the Puy de Dôme in 1964 is the iconic moment that captures it all. A ruthless endeavour, Poulidor ended up winning the battle and taking Stage 22 of the 51st Tour de France, but Anquetil would win the war, having out-manoeuvred his opponent overall.

Although they never went head to head again, their mutual presences on the racing circuit continued to fuel rumour and anticipation over the course of their careers. Nevertheless, it is Anquetil’s last words to Poulidor, said while on his deathbed, that really speaks to the lasting impact of their friendship. As Poulidor recalls it, “He said to me that the cancer was so agonisingly painful it was like racing up the Puy de Dôme all day, every hour of the day”. He then said, “I will never forget it, My friend, you will come second to me once again.”

Leontien van Moorsel v Jeannie Longo

Currently in her sixties and still winning races, there’s a good reason why Jeannie Longo has remained such a contentious figure in the world of cycling. For years it seemed that she could not be stopped and that her unfaltering dominance was going to overshadow a whole generation of women cyclists. That is until Leontien van Moorsel, inspired by Longo’s accomplishments, came along to make her mark on the scene.

The young woman, who would go on to become a Dutch legend, took her first national championship at the age of 15. A force to be reckoned with on both the track and the road, she would ultimately battle it out with Longo to take two Tour Féminin titles. At the 2000 Olympics, van Moorsel became the most successful female cyclist in a single Olympiad, taking gold medals in the road race, time trial, and individual pursuit, not to mention silver in the points race. Three years later, she would go on to set an hour record that stood for twelve years, having ousted the previous top spot held by her rival Jeannie Longo.

Greg LeMond v Bernard Hinault

Hinault and LeMond
Hinault (L) and Lemond (R) in 1986. © Profimedia, AFP

A tale of the more controversial sort that illustrates how a cycling rivalry can originate from a betrayal, the LeMond and Hinault debacle involves a stab in the back. In 1985 Bernard ‘The Badger’ Hinault promised his friend and teammate Greg LeMond that, in exchange for his help in winning that year’s Tour De France, Hinault would assist LeMond in taking the title the following year. Hinault did indeed win in 1985, but that’s where things get messy. Although there’s likely more to his change of heart than a simple act of selfishness, Hinault’s relentless attack throughout the mountain stages at the ’86 Tour certainly didn’t seem intended to help LeMond to victory. Full of fury and out for revenge though, LeMond turned his anger to the pedals and ultimately made history riding into Paris as the first American to win the prestigious Tour de France championship.

Marianna Vos v Lizzie Armitstead

2012 Olympics
Vos beats Armitstead in the finish to win the women’s race in the 2012 Olympic Games. © Profimedia

Two of the top cyclists in the world, Marianna Vos and Lizzie Armitstead (now Deignan) captured the world’s attention with their iconic battle at the 2012 Olympics. Going into the event, Vos was the favourite and had established herself (after much hard work and many well-earned victories) as the darling of women’s cycling. That didn’t mean she didn’t have her work cut out for her though, as there was a pool of incredibly strong talent to contend with. Great Britain’s team included the 24-year-old Lizzie Armitstead, who went into the race as a team leader and had the backing of her entire nation at a home Olympic Games.

The press was wild with local pride and ran story after story about Armitstead’s chances of medalling. Naturally, the Armitstead-v-Vos cycling rivalry played a starring role in generating hype and anticipation around Olympic cycling’s crowning event. And it did not disappoint. A battle for the ages, the pouring rain only added to the spectacle which was packed full of unpredictable action, aggression, and thrills. Vos ended up walking away as road race champion that year, but the two have gone on to have many dynamic races together and have played a critical role in boosting the profile of women’s cycling.

Fausto Coppi v Gino Bartali

Coppi vs Bartali
Coppi refreshes himself in front of his Bartali in the climb of the Col du Galibier. © Profimedia

And last but certainly not least, you can’t really talk about cycling rivalries without the rivalry to end them all. Dividing the Italian cycling world in two, Coppi joined Bartali’s team in 1940 and didn’t waste any time proving that he meant business. He took the win at that year’s Giro d’Italia, (much to the chagrin of Bartali) and thus began a contest that would play out time and time again. Over the year, the two men repeatedly made it clear that they much preferred to fight each other than work together, even if it cost them both the victory.

The tension they generated also came to take on a symbolism outside of the world of cycling and, similar to the Frenchmen mentioned above, spoke to a larger social divide within the country they both called home. Coppi was representative of the industrial north, and very modern, while Bartoli’s supporters were from the south, and tended to be more traditional, religious and rural. Although the animosity never truly dissolved between the two, they did have their moments of camaraderie. In 1952 on the Col d’Izoard, for example, one of the pair helpfully passed a water bottle to the other (never mind the fact that both riders (supported by their boisterous fans) would go on to claim credit for being the one who handed over the bottle).