Where’s The Beef?

With the Tour de France celebrating Raymond Poulidor last weekend, one tangential aspect was the enduring rivalry between Poulidor and Jacques Anquetil. Even if they’d happily chat as retired riders they were always seen as opponents. It’s been a while since cycling has had any contest that continued once the finishing line was crossed, let alone a dividing line that’s split families and a nation alike.

There are rivalries today, think Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel; Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar but here it’s two riders each trying to win and when one does, the other often has to lose, it’s a matter of sharing the spoils. It’s a far cry from Coppi and Bartali, or Anquetil and Poulidor.

Sometimes these rivalries saw riders embody splits in society, both Coppi and Anquetil represented a certain type of modernity and consumerism during a period of rapid economic change; Bartali and Poulidor were rural types who could have a shovel in their hand as much as a handlebar. Their differences were exaggerated into caricatures and sometimes people projected onto them.

There have been many other rivalries and most aren’t the kind you could basis a sociology thesis on, Eddy Merckx vs Luis Ocaña was much more of a classic sporting rivalry, likewise Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. Sometimes though there could be more tension, Cyrille Guimard found a way to wind up the Merckx with the right, or wrong, words and Merckx delighted in responding on the pedals. Giuseppe Sarroni and Francesco Moser could sometimes duel more in the media than on the road. Part of this was sport out on the road, another component was verbal digs and attempts to wind-up their rivals. This all added spice to racing.

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Today? Van der Poel and Van Aert won’t be going on holiday to each other but they’re courteous to each other. Slovenian fans might express a preference between Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar but they’ll often support both and the two get along fine. There’s still litigation between Dylan Groenewegen and Fabio Jakobsen but that’s more down to procedural insurance claims in the Polish courts rather than either rider saying “I’ll see you in court”, both can’t be friends but they don’t trade quotes, and they’re probably all the better for it, both in terms of image and getting a good night’s sleep. There might be some grudges in the peloton but they’re kept private although David Gaudu’s rift with Arnaud Démare leaked out but it didn’t simmer any more, at least in public and it was hardly Hinault vs Lemond. There’s no media trying to oppose riders, maybe 50 years ago Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot could have been arch rivals within France with Bardet as the modern figure and Pinot as the rural type although clearly they’ve hardly divided up French cycling, let alone the wider audience. Netflix had a go at Wout van Aert vs Jonas Vingegaard but the dramatisation isn’t rooted in any public opposition so nothing more either.

One thing that’s different is the sport is no longer mediated by newspapers. No a blogger isn’t here to take a pop at journalists, it’s more that quotes from one rider could be published in a newspaper and their rival could read them, get the wrong end of the stick and reply with a tirade in another newspaper the next day. These days it’s much more likely things aren’t read out of context, that the actual quote is heard on TV, clipped on social media and so on. All teams have a staff of public relations advisors ready with the communications equivalent of a fire extinguisher.

There’s also an element of being careful what you wish for. If riders in the past occupied different sides of a dividing line in society, who wants to see this kind of clash today? Take any contemporary issue and imagine two leading riders on opposing sides. For example a self-declared ecologically conscious rider getting into an argument with someone who thinks climate change is a hoax, take your pick from wedge issues. I don’t know about you but sport can be a refuge from these things.

34 thoughts on “Where’s The Beef?”

  1. I think there was always a simmering dislike between Cavendish and Sagan, on the back of that 2016 (?) crash, but I suspect they were both media savvy enough to sidestep it.

      • I’m not sure it’s fair to say there was a beef ‘between’ them- it was more Cavendish being an ass towards Greipel, and Greipel steadfastly refusing to push back (except on the bike, after he switched teams, when he frequently had the measure of Cavendish). I think rather than ‘beef’ it was ‘bullying.’

  2. A lot of that old stuff was ginned-up by newspapers who needed to sell copies. These daze it comes along as those brain-farts branded as TWITTER and the rest of the social-media so HO and HUM…or for me Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz when it comes to this s__t. STFU and let your legs do the talking!
    Meanwhile, do journo’s at LeTour working on TV ever ask any real questions? The GCN/Eurosport crew seems to waver between a__-kissing, answering the question for the rider being interviewed with their own stupid opinion..or worse, giving them advice on how the upcoming stage should be ridden! All ended with a “Have a good race!” like they’re flight attendants saying “Buh-bye” as the passengers exit the plane. Why the ambient sound option doesn’t mute these clowns too is something I don’t understand.

    • GCN is a disgrace, they’re basically only interested in promoting the sales of very expensive bikes and gear. As for journos, they’re certainly hardly interested in boosting competitive behaviour. Maybe a bit in Belgium, but not really. French, Italians, Swiss and Slovenes are basically “patriotic” (let’s see how “our” riders, that’s what matters to them). The Spanish writers like Arribas seem to go “poetic” and just produce convoluted prose over nothing much. I read this blog assiduously, although I don’t always agree with its perspective, because it’s the best written and most interesting around.

      • I pretty much agree though I do like the Italian duo of Luca Gregorio and Riccardo Magrini..and I’m far from alone. It’s not just old-farts like me…a few years ago we were watching Il Giro on RAI TV in Italy with a much younger colleague. HE was streaming the race while with us just for Magrini’s commentary! I’ve tried a time or two to watch the 360 show after LeTour but by then I’ve been in front of the TV for too long already!
        OTOH the GCN video stuff on Youtube is just advertorial presented by clowns, even if they once had racing licenses!

  3. Speaking of beef, Moscon got a flat today and it was the first time I realized he was at the Tour. Everyone dislikes him no? I’d sure you could get people quoted slagging him.

    • People are interested in rivalries between winners. Moscon, talented as he obviously is (or was), is not a winner, and therefore is ignored, by both fans and the press.

  4. Coppi and Bartali, also the French semi-equivalent (Poulidor was a star, but hardly a champion like Bartali?)… that’s an era long bygone when cycling, road racing, actualy mattered. Nowadays, general public probably won’t tell a Pogacar from a Van der Poel. Back then? Bartali overcoming his rivals to – sure, anecdotaly, but still – to stifle the boiling pot of Italy after the 48 Togliatti atentate… cycling perhaps outgroved the sport and so, naturaly, sporting rivalries mattered, resonated more. Therefore people projected their experiences, hopes, dreams or views into simulacra of sporting heroes representing paradigmatic qualities.

    Also, as mentioned by Larry, the public discourse was perhaps monopolized by large media houses, while nowadays it’s shattered, with the recipients – nowadays consumers – divided into insignificant subcultures – each marginal. Divide et… amuse to death?

    • And concerning the last paragraph… well, to care for what you wish for is bit more complicated. The thing is… sport is abused as a refuge from hard topics by consumers, but also by – policymakers. Sportswashing is real, and not just by unsavoury regimes and corporations.

      Should – an example – Atletico de Madrid fans consider their club a refuge while the club (in fact a corporation) promotes a disgusting oil and gas regime? Should we applaud Pogacar promoting fossil fuel exploiting dictatorsip? For more than a century sport is not just a refuge (and it still can be a beutiful refuge!), but a business and even a political tool.

    • Remco occasionally says some things that make him look immature or arrogant, and the glare of the public spotlight seems to shine pretty brightly on him. But he mostly comes across as young and naive, so I don’t really see him as a villain per se. If we ever get a full-on Remco-Pogi-Jonas battle it might get juicy. Maybe.

  5. Quite interesting indeed as most of our societies are so divided these days when it comes to politics. It’s a fresh breeze in this mess.

  6. To the question, “where are the epic rivalries in cycling?,” I think of this exchange in ‘Sunset Boulevard’:
    “You used to be in silent pictures, you used to be big.”
    “I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

    Relative to it’s standing during the epic rivalries described above, road cycling has gotten small. I don’t think this isn’t the fault of more polarized societies, politics in sports, the death of big newspapers, etc. There are still epic rivalries in major sports around the world. Our beloved road cycling is simply no longer a major sport, even it the core countries like Italy, France, Belgium, etc.

    • Yes, that’s the main reason,but still… the world around cycling also changed. Are there actualy any major rivalries in other sports which transcendent the sporting niche? Messi and the Funchal Primadonna represent different histrionics, perhaps different approaches todporting career, but hardly anything more. You can choose between an empty shell modelling for Saudis and… an even emptier shell modelling for Saudis.

      Ok, perhaps clubs do represent more resonating rivalries? I’d argue that no, they don’t anymore. At least among general public. Bardrid are generic footballing brands. You have Celtic and Rangers, but that’s an abberation. Milan and Inter are similarly cosmopolitan, Athletic and Erreala always formed a rather friendly rivalry and in cases of Boca and River or Sparta and Slavia the old famous class divide is probably long gone.

      Nowadays most societies are divided by anecdotical lines into weird niches, there is no important political divide discussed in most countries anymore. Just petty cultural clashes.

      • I don’t know soccer, so can’t comment, but among US sports (those that are hugely popular in the US, and are widely popular elsewhere in many cases) there continue to be epic rivalries on the team level and, to varying degrees, among individuals. This is true in the NFL, the NBA, college basketball, college football, and MLB. When I talk to soccer fans I get the impression that they take their historic team rivalries very seriously, but I know little of rivalries among individuals stars. I used to be pretty fond of tennis, and I think there continue to be major individual rivalries there, although being tennis it’s all pretty polite (of for the days of Jimmy Conner and John McEnroe). I’ll leave it to others to discuss if motor sports and golf, also widely popular, still have the kinds of rivalries that I recall when I followed those sports some years ago. I’m guessing they do, because I believe it’s baked into our DNA to pick favorites to cheer for, and to live somewhat vicariously through them.

        I’m a fairly keen reader of history, and I think the ideas in your final paragraph that societies are now more divided into weird niches than they used to be, or that our cultural clashes are more petty than they used to be, is not supported by the historical record.

        • Well, I perhaps misread Inrng’s question of lack of great rivalries as a question of rivalries transcending the sport – or a sport. Rivalries into which fans would project their own dramas and important discussions.

          Concerning the last paragraph, I formulated it intentionaly provocatively, perhaps, and surely in a simplistic way; so if you wish we can discuss it. My point is nowadays no big political topic is publicly debated because policymakers are actualy those, who set the agenda, aren’t they? And after avantgarde, European and American moderna (Pound, Eliot… Eliot was a proper star, you know) and mainly the culture of 1960s the capital learned to incorporate almost every challenge by monetizing it and no one found a way to compete as of yet. We are probably waiting for a big crisis to wake.

          So while we are facing perhaps the biggest danger human civilization ever faced, we don’t discuss it. We ignore it. Perhaps the damger is not that big and / or perhaps sapiens will prevsil as they are supposed to always do. Still, we don’t discuss it. And we don’t discuss anything. Globalists and localists fight their petty fights without discussing this divide as a political topic. Cultural conservatives and liberals take turns with stupid topics, and fight their petty wars, while both dides are unable to formulate a consistent political agenda. Ok, I hyperbolize a bit, but not that much.

          • “Rivalries into which fans would project their own dramas and important discussions.”

            Yes, this is exactly what happened in the past, and what happens now, sometimes with sports personalities, sometimes with leaders. It’s part of human nature. The Greeks and many other civilizations understood this well, and perhaps it’s fair to say it was a defining characteristic of their religions.

            I think discussion of the topics in your last two paragraphs are unlikely to be fruitful. I have learned the hard way that virtually no one is convinced to change their beliefs via rational argument, no matter how passionate and erudite. I do agree that most people do focus inordinate attention on trivial topics, and sleepwalk through life, but that’s no more true now than a most any time in history. And yet we muddle through. Anyway, back to cycling and sports rivalries.

      • Nobody in Germany ever called Jan “der Kaiser”, old rantler.
        “Der Kaiser” is the nickname of Franz Beckenbauer, the world famous footballer. For at leas 50 years now.

    • In a way but arguably they both needed each other more than they loathed each other, both drew on reserves knowing the other was their challenger but there was never too much beef between the two; unlike briefly Pantani and Armstrong.

  7. Could one reason for not seeing this much anymore is the use and proliferation of sports psychologists. I can imagine they would tell riders to stay well clear if these issues as it has the potential to limit athletic ability.

    • I don’t think the use of sports psychologists is nearly as widespread as you suggest. I think Inring is correct that team PR departments give riders this message, and also work hard on damage control when someone does say some stray nasty remark so that feuds never really develop.

    • This is a terrific point. Even if the individual athlete doesn’t see a sports psychologist, the ideas promulgated by them have clearly spread throughout sport. I think it’s generally positive for athletes, even if it robs the spectator of some good drama. I think decreasing negative emotions is good for most athletes, although there are always some who thrive on conflict.

      • I really think it’s much more PR teams and sensitive sponsors who are the driving force behind whatever decrease we’re seeing in public rivalries.

        The majority of super elite athletes aren’t psychologically healthy – they’re obsessively driven, narcissistic, and often fueled by anger and perceived slights. I think the job of sports psychologists (and I’ve known a couple) isn’t to help athletes be better balanced, at which point they would lose their edge and probably quit their sport – it’s to help the insecure and self-doubting ones be more confident, help the driven ones not waste their obsessiveness in non-productive ways. There are plenty of sports where the coaches and team management work hard to stoke rivalries and grudges (even within their own team) and encourage unhealthy practices.

        In the same way, team doctors aren’t there to make sure the athletes are as healthy as they can be. I know they say they are, but team doctors know that being a super elite athlete in most sports is NOT optimally healthy. A family doctor would tell an amateur to quit a sport after a concussion or two, or when their bone density was declining, or when an eating disorder was the price of admission, or when they were showing signs of cardiac hypertrophy that could lead to sudden cardiac death. A family doctor would not prescribe strong meds that have nasty long-term consequences just for short-term performance benefits, or use pain meds and cortisone to cover of musculoskeletal injuries before they can heal. But team doctors do that stuff all the time, or at least look the other way while patching up broken bones and road rash.

  8. Ukraine v Russia is a conflict which definitely has taken from the center of politics to many sports, from tennis and soccer to track and field and the Olympics.

    Not sure where this stands in cycling, but Ukrainian players not shaking hands with their opponents or being outright against competing with their Russian contestants is the ultimate conflict having arrived in the sports since the war had been started by Russia.

    The petty conflicts of the past might mostly have been media-generated nothings, but there’s always been the Muhammad Ali’s, female soccer stars or even transgender athletes, too, who have brought forward truly important and controversial issues. That can happen in cycling, too.

    • India/Pakistan and PRC/ROC are national rivalries (both including unresolved territorial disputes) which have spilled onto the sporting field many times over the last 75 years, and will continue to do so long after Putin and his war have entered the history books.

  9. On PR messaging and politics, remember how Trek-Sagafredo handled Quinn Simmons’ tweets which indicated he supported Trump a while back? If I followed well, the tweets made up a total of three words and two emojis and he was then suspended for “conduct unbefitting a Trek athlete”.
    Maybe he was more vocal off the web and this was irritating TS management, but suspending him and expecting a public apology could in itself be easily interpreted as a political statement, non?

    On irrelevant non-winner Moscon, INEOS’ tolerance of his racism (no contract termination) was a disgrace that should not be forgotten in a sport that struggles with global inclusion at the best of times.

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