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.
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.