The Incredible Stories of the Tour de France's Greatest Rivalries
Five and a half of the greatest rivalries le tour has ever seen
The Tour de France, road cycling’s most prestigious event, begins this weekend, and headlines have already been written before an inner tube has been inflated or the maillot jaune contested.
The rivalry between two of Britain’s most renowned road cyclists; Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome has sparked the kind of tabloid storm normally reserved for questionable immigration statistics or wayward pop stars.
While public spats like this no doubt have a team’s PR man pulling his hair out, the spice it adds to competition is brilliant for us fans. This bit of needle between tourists makes for perfect heroes and villains for us to cheer on and boo.
Starting with Sir Brad and Froomey, we take a look at some of the rivalries that have added spark to le Tour throughout the years.
2014 Bradley Wiggins v Chris Froome
Sir Bradley Wiggins is approaching national treasure status. His Tour de France victory in 2012 catapulted him into British hearts which, prior to his success, largely though road racing was a bunch of shaven-legged Frenchmen in Lycra.
But our boy Brad was billed by the tabloid press as the plucky underdog*, there to give le Frenchies what-for. And true to form, he did just that. Olympic gold, Sports Personality of The Year and even a Knighthood from the Queen followed.
And then came Chris Froome. The Darth Vader to Wiggins Luke Skywalker. Although a different kind of racer to Wiggins, Froome is every bit as good, racking up his own Olympic medals, and winning le Tour one year on from Wiggins.
Despite all this, the nation just hasn’t taken to him. Maybe it’s the rivalry between the two riders that dictates who we love and who we loathe.
"Froome: Darth Vader to Wiggins Luke Skywalker"
Things started to get a little Biggie and TuPac when both riders were vying for leadership of Team Sky following Wiggins injury hit season a year after winning the Tour de France in 2012.
In the latest installment of the spat, Bradley Wiggins has suggested that his rivalry with Froome has cost him his chance to compete in 2014's Tour de France as Team Sky simply isn’t big enough for the both of them.
This sporting rivalry is all a little bit handbags at dawn at the minute and, although this cycling soap opera is entertaining to watch at times, what we all really want to see are our greatest cyclist competing in the most prestigious road race around.
*In reality, Wiggins was never really an underdog at all, finishing 3rd in the 2009 race.
2012 Richard Virenque v Bradley Wiggins
Our favourite cycling Mod, at it again? Surely not. A bit of a strange one this, as the two raced largely in different eras, and yet still managed to have a barney.
Richard Virenque is the larger-than-life French cyclist that, during his pomp in the nineties and early 2000’s, won King of The Mountains a record equalling seven times.
However Virenque is remembered by most as the central figure in a large doping scandal that broke in 1998. Initially denying he had any involvement, despite a number of his then Festina team mates banned, Virenque finally confessed to taking drugs that enhanced his performance.
Despite this, Virenque is still revered in his native France, where he now enjoys life as a TV commentator. But back in 2012, our Brad was having none of it.
In a blog written for a British newspaper, Wiggins wrote about why he would never dope, and suggested the reverence still commanded by Virenque in France would not be replicated back in the UK if he took drugs.
Virenque promptly hit back at Wiggins in the French press, insisting that he’d served his ban and came back to still do well, before turning on the Brit. He suggested that Wiggins lacked charisma, suggested that he should attack more, and bemoaned the fact he didn’t speak French regularly enough to endear him to the French public.
A few weeks later, Wiggins went on to win le Tour, closing Virenque’s gande bouche somewhat.
2000 Lance Armstrong v Marco Pantani
A genuine wheel-to-wheel rivalry now. Fear not though, scandal fans, this one also got personal! During the 2002 race, the now disgraced American Armstong and the Italian Pantani were battling it out over a number of stages. Sustained attacks by both men made for an intriguing battle that is still spoken about by fans of le Tour today.
While racing on Mont Ventoux in the Pyrenees, both Armstrong and Pantani left the rest of the field in their wake as they fought for number 1 spot. However, Armstrong appeared to ease off towards the end of the stage, leaving Pantini to capitalise and take the victory.
At the following press conference, Armstrong bemoaned his own performance, and suggested that he gifted his rival the win. Then things got personal as Armstrong called the Italian “Elefantino" – meaning baby elephant – referring to the riders large ears.
"This rivalry was everything a Tour de France fan could want"
Pantani hit back in the French press, suggesting that Armstrong was trying to provoke him during the race, adding “If Armstong thinks the tour is over, he’s wrong… he hasn’t finished with me." He later suggested “Pantani does not need Armstrong to give him a victory", referring to himself in third person like every good sulking sportsman should.
Again, Armstong returned fire, suggesting that Pantani’s remarks were “very disappointing to me. I thought he had more class than that." adding “Elefantino has tomorrow… It’s probably the last day for him."
This rivalry was everything a Tour de France fan could want. A battle on the mountains, and a slanging match in the press, adding fuel to a fight between two of the sports heavyweights of the time.
1989 Greg LeMond v Laurent Fignon
This rivalry was sparked by two behemoths of the sport dueling it out, leaving any animosity on the road. Almost. The American LeMond and Fignon from France battled stage-after stage for the famous yellow jersey.
Fignon was in the best physical condition of his life and had an excellent team around him. LeMond wasn’t so fortunate in either respect, but did have two tricks up his skin-tight sleeve; tactical nous and a ground breaking bike.
At that point, organizers of le Tour only permitted riders to have 3 rest-points on their bike; the saddle, handlebars and pedals. LeMond, however, also had elbow rests on his bike, enabling him to achieve a more aerodynamic stance, giving him an advantage. Fignon and his team never lodged a formal complaint, and organisers seemed unmotivated to step in.
"Cue photographers harassing riders, TV crews being spat at, and even a fight"
The American also out-thought his opponent. When other riders attacked, he continued at his own pace, unfazed by the action around him. Through many of the stages, he stayed firmly on Fignon’s wheel, allowing his great rival to do all the work. Despite this, Fignon Slowly opened a lead up on his rival.
The on-road rivalry seeped out into the press, when Fignon suggested to a French newspaper that LeMond was being somewhat selfish, not sharing the workload, and questioning whether the Americans team were really up to the challenge if LeMond needed to rely on his rivals work rate.
LeMond, of course, replied, stating that Fignon shouldn’t be saying such things. This public spat, combined the prospect of a Frenchman winning le Tour for the first time in four years was enough to spark a media circus.
Cue scrums of photographers harassing the riders, TV crews being spat at, and even a fight that led to Fignon successfully defending himself in court against a photographer who brought an assault charge against him.
Back to the race, and Fignon had built a seemingly unassailable 50 second lead on LeMond, and with only a 24km stretch between Versailles and the Champs-Elysées left. By that point, Fignon was suffering with injury, but reasoned that it would be impossible for his rival to make up the 2 seconds a kilometre required to take the yellow jersey.
Fignon crossed the finish line and collapsed. After catching his breath, he simply asked “Well?". No reply came. He asked again, and eventually somebody told him that LeMond had done the impossible, and taken 58 second of lead.
On the floor, and in pain, Fignon had learnt that his rival had beaten him to the Tour de France title by just 8 seconds. It remains the closest finish in the history of le Tour.
1949 Gino Bartali v Fausto Coppi
This was a text-book Old Master/young upstart rivalry between two of the greatest talents the Tour de France has ever seen.
In 1939 Gino Bartali was the undisputed king of road racing. He had numerous Tour de France victories, along with success back home in the Giro d'Italia. He would win sprints effortlessly, but his forte was in the mountains, where he was peerless.
However, that year a young rider broke onto the scene; Bartali’s compatriot, Fausto Coppi. The two immediately took a dislike to each other, with the older statesman not caring for the younger man’s assertive attitude and disregard the traditional chain of command within a team.
As the two battled it out over many races throughout the years, suspicion and paranoia grew, with Bartali allegedly even breaking into to the hotel room of Coppi to see if there was any evidence of doping or cheating. Alas, none was found.
In 1949, the pair competed for the first time in the Tour de France. At this point, le Tour was contested by national teams, and the two Italians signed somewhat of a peace agreement prior to it beginning. It didn’t last.
Just before the first stage, Coppi released a statement which read;
“A team of twelve modest, united riders is stronger than a team divided among different leaders… This is why I have always reproached Bartali for his poor team spirit and why I don't like to race with him."
Animosity grew between the pair until age caught up with Bartali. Tensions thawed and Bartali even signed a then 40 year old Coppi to his own racing team.
1903 Pierre Giffard v Jules-Albert de Dion
Although these two Frenchmen were not actual competitors in le Tour, their rivalry is (kind of) the very reason the event exists, so to not include them would be a little churlish.
At the end of the 19th century, a French solider was convicted – and later cleared – of selling military secrets to the Germans. Opinions were divided in France about the solider, so much so that large protests were held across the country.
At one such event, Jules-Albert de Dion - kind of the Henry Ford on France - was arrested for protesting the soldier’s guilt (although apparently hitting the then French president on the head with a stick can’t have helped).
"le Tour has given us many fierce battles over the years"
The story was reported by Pierre Giffard, the editor of Le Velo, the leading sports paper in France at the time. Furious with the story, de Dion opened a rival sports paper, L’Auto.
Initially, L’Auto wasn’t a great success, and a meeting was called where the staff at the paper put forward ideas to help boost sales.
Eventually, a young journalist called Geo Lefevre suggested that a bike race around France would not only provide good publicity, but also mean that the papers could be delivered to a greater number of readers, thus ensuring market dominance over rival publication Le Velo.
After some deliberation – a race of that length had never been held before – the papers directors decided that the race should go ahead. On 19th January, L’Auto announced the very first Tour de France.
With a history like this, it’s no surprise that le Tour has given us so many fierce, personal battles to enjoy over the years. Rivalry is in the Tour de France's blood.