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Best of enemies: cycling's greatest pro rider rivalries

In-depth
22 Jun 2021
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For some riders, racing becomes about more than just winning – it’s about beating one person in particular

Words: Giles Belbin

Bartali vs Coppi

By the time a 20-year-old Fausto Coppi started his first full professional season with Gino Bartali’s Legnano team in 1940, Bartali already had one Tour, two Giri, two national championships and three Monument wins to his name.

But the young Coppi, described in 1939 within the pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport as being ‘born to ride a bike’, felt no inferiority – so much so that he openly questioned his team leader’s tactics in early-season meetings.

Coppi didn’t take long to make his mark and won the 1940 Giro after Bartali, who suffered injury and mechanical problems during the race, encouraged and supported his young teammate in the Alps when Coppi was struggling.

Nevertheless, Legnano’s leader was both shocked and angered by the emergence of Coppi as a challenger on his own team. Their rivalry ignited the following year when Coppi won both the Giro di Toscana and the Giro dell’Emilia under Bartali’s nose. After the War, Coppi moved to Bianchi.

Italy would divide into Bartaliano and Coppiano. Bartali was the dogged and devout Catholic, Coppi the charismatic and graceful rider whose extra-marital affair provoked the wrath of the Vatican.

Coppi would lobby for Bartali’s exclusion from national teams, describing him to writers as a traitor and a handicap. Bartali meanwhile would study Coppi intensely, breaking into his room in an effort to find the secrets of his success.

Arguably the lowest point came when riding for the Italian team at the World Championships in 1948. Neither wanted to react to an attack by Belgium’s Alberic Schotte for fear of helping the other, and eventually both abandoned.

‘We turned around together, without exchanging a word, not very proud of ourselves,’ Coppi admitted. Both were suspended by the Italian cycling federation for an ‘unwillingness to compete’, although this was subsequently overturned.

Bartali retired after the 1954 season, ending a rivalry described by William Fotheringham in Fallen Angel as the one ‘by which all others are judged’. Bartali went into team management, even signing his former rival for the 1960 season. Sadly, Coppi’s premature death at the start of the year meant he never got to ride for his former foe.  

Anquetil vs Poulidor

It was a struggle for a nation’s affections when Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor faced off on the roads of France in the 1960s. And while the usual result was an Anquetil victory, it was Poulidor who usually won the hearts of the French public.

Poulidor was a talented rider but nowhere near the level of Anquetil. The disparity was best illustrated by French cartoonist Pellos in 1963. Anquetil, no stranger to fine living, is shown at a dining table having gorged on a feast, his distended cycling jersey emblazoned with the victories he has devoured that season: Criterium National, Paris-Nice, Dauphiné Libéré, Vuelta a España and Tour de France. Meanwhile Poulidor scrabbles under the table, looking for scraps.

Their famous battle at the 1964 Tour, where the two clashed shoulders on the Puy de Dôme, was captured in one of cycling’s greatest photographs. Two years later, at Paris-Nice, Poulidor beat Anquetil in a time-trial to claim the leader’s jersey, only for Anquetil to stage a coup, enlisting the help of other teams to snatch victory on the final stage.

The acrimony was still raw later that season at the World Championships where, paralysed by their rivalry, they refused to work together, thus allowing Germany’s Rudi Altig to take the win. In the words of journalist Pierre Chany, for three years (1964 to 1966) such was their obsession with each other they ‘offered gifts’ to other riders.

Poulidor famously landed on the podium of the Tour eight times without ever winning the race. Only two of those coincided with Anquetil winning, yet their careers remain inextricably linked. Both had roots in farming and later they would become close friends.

As Paul Fournel writes in Anquetil Alone, ‘Their ridiculous battles having considerably added to their glory, not to mention their purses, they decided they were both winners and opted for a respectful and long-lasting friendship, based on late nights, nocturnal poker games and discussions as farmers.’ 

Merckx vs Ocaña

Between 1966 and 1976, such was the supremacy of Eddy Merckx that any number of cyclists could be offered as the Belgian’s greatest rival. Felice Gimondi, perhaps, or Roger De Vlaeminck. But Merckx himself thought his most dangerous rival was Spain’s Luis Ocaña.

One of their first professional encounters was at the 1968 Giro. Merckx was in the process of winning his first Grand Tour and even though Ocaña wouldn’t break into the top 30, he still caught the Belgian’s eye.

Ocaña, for his part, was obsessed with Merckx. He named his Alsatian dog after the Belgian so he could order ‘Merckx’ around and call him to heel. The rivalry, fuelled by the press, was at its most intense between 1971 and 1973 when the two men barely uttered a word to each other.

Ocaña’s most famous triumph over Merckx came during the 1971 Tour. Early in the second week the Spaniard won on Puy de Dôme. Then on Stage 11 Ocaña attacked 60km from the finish at Orcières-Merlette. Merckx couldn’t react and the Spaniard took more than eight minutes and the race lead. The cycling world was stunned. ‘Never will things be like before,’ wrote Jacques Goddet.

Ocaña’s career was beset by misfortune, however, and a crash while wearing yellow in the storm-struck Pyrenees later ended his race. Merckx would go on to win the 1971 Tour, though even he admitted, ‘The doubt will always remain.’

Ocaña won the Tour in 1973 while Merckx sat out the race to concentrate on winning the Vuelta/Giro double. At the Vuelta, then held in April, Ocaña impressed an in-form Merckx by dropping him in the mountains. Ocaña finished second overall to Merckx in Spain.

‘That was when he most impressed me,’ Merckx told Ocaña’s biographer, Alisdair Fotheringham. ‘If I had raced the Tour that year, it would have been a great battle.’

Hinault vs LeMond

The best rivalries are those between riders who are both successful but fundamentally different in outlook. One may be daring and adventurous, the other prosaic and calculating. Those differences split public opinion and affection, and if the riders happen to ride on the same team, so much the better.

Step forward Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, the old-school Frenchman with a fearsome reputation and the American upstart intent on shaking up the cycling world – ‘a Huck Finn with steel thighs’ as Sports Illustrated described LeMond.

LeMond joined Hinault’s Renault team in 1981 and performed well despite being only 19. Hinault left to join the new La Vie Claire team in 1984 and LeMond followed him a year later. That’s when the rivalry really got going.

In 1985 Hinault was going for a fifth Tour. He took yellow early but broke his nose in a crash halfway through the race and soon struggled. In the Pyrenees, with Hinault trailing, LeMond was instructed to not co-operate with Stephen Roche in an attack.

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‘They lost me the Tour because they told me to stop working when I was strong enough to attack,’ LeMond said afterwards. Hinault wore yellow to Paris; LeMond came second.

Twelve months later it was supposed to be the American’s year but Hinault was merciless, attacking his teammate at every opportunity. The Frenchman rode hard in the Pyrenees and took yellow, prompting the American to admit he was confused.

Hinault then launched another attack on the stage to Alpe d’Huez, just one day after LeMond had finally wrestled the jersey from him, forcing the American to react and follow a daredevil descent of the Croix de Fer. The two men finished that stage arm-in-arm, Hinault taking the stage, LeMond retaining yellow. Then, much to LeMond’s astonishment, Hinault told reporters the race wasn’t over.

In the end LeMond stood one step above Hinault in Paris. The Frenchman retired at the end of 1986 while LeMond went on to a further two Tour titles.

Longo vs Canins

It is one of the most notable rivalries in women’s road cycling. For six years during the 1980s France’s Jeannie Longo and Italy’s Maria Canins went head-to-head at all of the world’s most important races.

Both had a background in winter sports – Longo was an Alpine ski champion, Canins a cross-country skier – but both switched to cycling at the beginning of the 1980s. Women’s cycling took a step forward in 1984 when the women’s road race was added to the Olympics, and a women’s version of the Tour de France was launched, although frustratingly the events were so close together on the calendar it was virtually impossible to participate in both.

At the Olympics, Longo and Canins were in the final group of six that seemed destined to contest the sprint, but Canins accidently hit Longo’s rear wheel and her derailleur broke.

Longo finished the race on foot. ‘I cried for days. I was so disappointed that I never wanted to race again,’ she said in 2014. Longo has since said that the incident was ‘probably the start of our rivalry’.

For the next five years the two traded Tour titles – Canins beat Longo in 1985 and 1986, while Longo beat Canins from 1987 to 1989 and regularly outperformed the Italian at the World Championships. That included edging Canins in a tightly fought sprint in Italy in 1985 after fighting to stay with the Italian on the circuit’s main climb.

‘I took revenge [for the 1984 Olympic incident],’ Longo later said. ‘In the lion’s den I beat Maria Canins and became the World Champion.’

Canins meanwhile reflected in 2014, ‘Clearly we had some battles, me and her, but always with a great sense of sporting spirit… we smiled, we joked.’

Canins is some nine years older than Longo and retired from competitive cycling in 1995. The Frenchwoman, meanwhile, continued claiming elite titles well into the 2000s and still rides amateur events today. Her five World Championships Road Race wins, four World Championships Time-Trial titles and 20 French national championships wins all remain records.

Armstrong vs Ullrich

‘Once again, he was the rider to beat, the most talented and credible challenger in the peloton.’ So writes Lance Armstrong of Jan Ullrich in his book, Every Second Counts.

Again, it was the differences between the two that rendered their rivalry so fascinating. Armstrong, the man who had beaten cancer, was as driven as any athlete has ever been, eyes firmly set on securing the top prize in cycling year after year. Ullrich was supremely gifted but too easily distracted, prone to off-season weight gain and controversy.

It was in 2003 that the German got closest to toppling Armstrong. Ullrich had entered the Tour that year looking lean and healthy but then struggled with a fever during the first half of the race.

He roared back into contention with a stunning display during the Stage 12 time-trial, winning the stage and getting to within 34 seconds of Armstrong, who was in yellow but struggling.

This was the American’s most incident-filled race. He suffered dehydration, an unplanned detour across a grassy slope and a dramatic fall after catching his bars on a spectator’s bag. But the German refused to capitalise, waiting on Luz Ardiden for the American to gather himself and rejoin the race when just 15 seconds down on GC.

In the end a fall during the rain-slicked final time-trial ended any chance Ullrich had of taking the overall win and he finished 61 seconds behind Armstrong in Paris.

Both riders have had problems following their respective retirements. Armstrong’s are well documented, while in 2018 Ullrich was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Frankfurt after two separate allegations of assault were levied against him.

‘He was such a special rival to me,’ the American posted on Instagram after visiting Ullrich in Germany. ‘He scared me, he motivated me, and truly brought out the best in me. Pure class on the bike.’ 

Van Aert vs Van der Poel

This is the rivalry that is getting the cycling world talking about rivalries again.

Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel have been riding head-to-head on the international stage for the best part of decade, starting in cyclocross as juniors. Van der Poel drew first blood in the international arena, winning the 2012 Junior Cyclocross World Championships in Belgium.

Van Aert would get his revenge two years later, winning the Under-23 title in the Netherlands. Both riders made the move to elite level the following year.

Since 2015 they have shared Cyclocross World Championships between them, Van der Poel winning four titles, Van Aert three. But it is their battles on the road during the one-day Classics that have taken the rivalry to the next level.

Both already have a Monument to their name – Van Aert winning Milan-San Remo and Van der Poel taking the Tour of Flanders during the Covid-hit 2020 season. It was at Flanders where the rivalry hit new heights, the two breaking away alone before Van der Poel took the sprint by a quarter of a wheel.

While there is said to be a genuine respect between the two – Van der Poel has said that they each make the other stronger – the rivalry has occasionally blown up into a war of words. During the 2020 edition of Gent-Wevelgem they watched only each other, enabling Mads Pederson to take advantage.

‘There was one rider [Van der Poel] who didn’t want to win and was only looking at me,’ Van Aert said. ‘Apparently he would rather I lost than he won himself.’

‘It’s a bit shallow to say I raced to make him lose,’ countered Van der Poel. ‘I always ride to win the race.’

Already one of the most enduring of cycling duels, with both men only 26 years old, this is a rivalry that’s set to run and run. Perhaps it will one day become the greatest of them all.