A while ago, a certain Mario Cipollini gave an interview where he bemoaned Andy Schleck’s desire to effectively ‘fight’ Alberto Contador after the latter’s morally dubious attack when the former’s chain was dislodged from its chainring in the 2010 Tour de France. Cipollini described how he would have attacked Contador ‘every time he stopped for a piss’ if he had been Schleck, rather then declare revenge followed by telling everyone to stop booing Contador as Schleck actually did.
Of course, Cipollini can be a rather angry man – he famously got disqualified for throwing a bottle at a commisaire at Ghent Whevelghem, and punched riders in the face when he, well, essentially when he didn’t like them. When an Italian TV show pranked him by stealing his bike, and then hid in a shed to taunt him, the vest wearing Mario proceeded to attempt to destroy the shed by hurling boulders at it and attacking it with a hammer. But, as always, he makes an excellent point, and it brings to light something that is oddly missing from cycling’s current generation: rivalries.
It is a struggle to name a pair of riders who are rivals these days. And by rivals, I don’t mean riders who are racing for the same objective – I mean riders who essentially don’t like each other. With the loss of Cipollini, Armstrong and characters such as Ricardo Ricco, who it seemed greatly enjoyed aggravating other riders by denouncing their talents, cycling has somewhat of a lack of personalities at the moment, with the most obvious ones Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara and Jens Voigt. But even these three are very amicable, and Cavendish has greatly toned down his act.
Remember the good old days of High Road, where Andre Greipel was Cavendish’s lead out man? The pair were evidently not exactly best chums, with Cavendish infamously quipping about Greipel’s ability to only win ‘sh*t small races’, which were the only ones that the management would send him to given Cavendish got the ‘big’ races, and then their falling out over the Giro stage Greipel won, which Cavendish insists he gifted to Greipel, whilst Greipel insists he beat Cavendish fair and square. Cavendish is probably the more accurate, given he spends quite a while looking over his shoulder and slowing down noticeably, checking no one was going to pass Greipel, but the rivalry simmered to the point that Greipel and the HTC ‘B-Team’ sprinters left to go to Lotto-Belisol so that they could perhaps broaden their inventory away from the ‘sh*t small’ races.
Then in the 2011 Tour, Greipel beat Cavendish in a sprint. Cavendish had only ever talked about Matt Goss as a big rival in what was always seen as a dig at the German, and now suddenly, he had been defeated by his former sparing partner? Where the hostilities to be resumed? Er, no. No soon had they crossed the line were they to be pictured giving each other a friendly hug, and Cavendish later confirmed it was all behind them. How dull.
It speaks volumes then that the nearest we’ve had to a rivalry for a while has been essentially cooked up by the press, who are determined to pit Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome against one another. To find anyone else, we have to either look at Fillipo Pozzato or Thomas Voeckler, who apparently no one likes, Pozzato because he’s a bit of a prima donna who has wasted his talent and Voeckler because he’s a bit of a loner. Tom Boonen and Nick Nuyens don’t like each other, nor do Markus Fothen or Linus Gerdermann (remember them?!), but there’s no real ‘duel’ to be seen, which is why the media has obviously looked to the past and seen paralells of the ’86 Lemond/Hinault teammates duel for comparisons with Sky’s leadership conundrum.
So why so friendly and jovial these days? Is it because they’re all financially safe? Because one rider dominates each discipline? Because the high stakes now encourage defensive riding? All are viable explanations. In the past, riders were essentially fighting for their livelyhoods – if someone was beating you, they were preventing you from living well. In an era of multimillion dollar contracts, that really isn’t going to happen, especially when the riding is so defensive now. Riders are now on the record saying its better to take the UCI points then go for the win, which means riders are essentially sitting in a group of the top 10 rather then going for the win. Logically, less attacking means less riders going head to head, which means less rivalry. The high stakes of the Tour de France these days also means you want to stay in contention rather then risk it all, which is why we’re becoming increasingly used to seeing large groups riding nervously to summits rather then risking it against one another.
And then there’s the ‘domination’ point – if you were asked to name the riders who had dominated a certain discipline in recent years, most would name only one name for each – Cavendish for sprints, Gilbert for Hilly classics, Boonen for cobbles and Contador for mountains. It’s telling that men who challenge are seen as that, challengers, rather then adversaries, and perhaps this is thus why rivalries haven’t developed – because these men havent had a consistent rival, they haven’t had time to develop any particular loathing for them. Greipel may be the answer to Cavendish, Schleck to Contador and obviously if Cancellara and Boonen could stay uninjured in the same year it would be useful, but for the time being, it looks like the trend will continue.
‘But why do you want riders to hate on another?’ you may ask. It’s a good point. It’s surely more pleasant for everyone to get along. But then the great stories, the legends of sports and cycling in general are built on these duels, these pairings, the riders who had reason to dislike one another and were matched in such a manner to make it a ding-dong battle. If someone dominates, they will be either adored or admired – the latter if they had no weaknesses, the former if they did, and most usually, that weakness is in the form of a great rival, a thorn in the side. Coppi and Bartali had one another, Lemond and Hinault did as well. McEwen had O’Grady and Fignon had Lemond as well. Cycling needs these stories for flavour, vitality and edge, but in the PR era, it looks unlikely to happen for a while.
Current riders ‘rivalries’
Cavendish vs Ferrari
Thats Roberto Ferrari, the man who knocked Cavendish off in the Giro then claimed ‘I don’t pay attention to what goes on behind me’ in a dig at the Manxman. Cavendish expressed his anger at Ferrari again when it was announced he was joining Lampre, so the two should see each other alot.
Pozzato vs Gilbert
The normally placid Gilbert gets animated about Pozzato, who he terms ‘the shadow’ for his ability to simply follow him every time he attacks and lose both of them the race. Pozzato tried to shake off that tag last year, but still seems to favour the following tactic Gilbert so detests.
Boonen vs Nuyens
Yes, even Tom Boonen has enemies. After slighting Nuyens in 2006 when Gert Steegmans came to the Quick Step team, calling him a ‘cunning riders who often wins thanks to his team…Steegmans doesnt need that kind of support.’ Nuyens was a bit annoyed given he was one of Boonen’s support riders more often then not, and claimed Boonen was disrespectful and playing mind games. With Boonen on 3 Flanders wins and Nuyens on 1, Boonen is still winning though.