Rivalries in women’s cycling: the good, the bad and the ugly

by Loren Rowney


Rivalry in sport is an interesting topic, and I’ve seen both the positives and negatives of this word “rivalry”.  I think if we look at sports like tennis, there have been some of the greatest rivalries between competitors. Federer and Nadal is probably my favourite, I guess you could look at them as “frenemies” in a sense. One thing that is absolutely clear within this rivalry is that they both have a deep respect for one another on the court. No one claims to have worked harder or deserved the win more, which I think is a sign of true sportsman.

Rivalry between teams is often about the under dog, or a David and Goliath scenario. Within the cycling world, I guess, US Postal and Team Sky are the Goliaths of the sport, at least in the media. They are the big budget teams who win a lot – too much, if you ask some people – and thus this love/hate relationship begins to form. It seems when one team is super-dominant, and has everything (financially and physically), it is them against the world.

Boels against the rest of the world

Right now, in women’s cycling, Boels-Dolmans is that team to beat. There was a time when it was HTC Highroad or Rabobank, but these past few years it has really been the orange squad that everyone looked to make the race winning moves. They are the big budget team of women’s cycling, that shows up at races with an awesome bus, and all the support one could want. But they win the big races, and do it in style. In terms of depth, they probably have the most talented team as well. It’s easy for other teams with lesser results – and a lower budget –  to feel envy towards the “big dogs”. Hence why when they lose, there’s a little “yippee” inside most peoples head. Is it the under dog mentality, or just pure envy and jealousy? I don’t know.

With that said, Boels had a slow start to the season and has only returned to their winning ways since the Ardennes week this year. In the meantime, other teams have stepped up the game and stuck it to them, particularly the Dutch team Sunweb.

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In a small example of the rivalry between teams, let’s talk about the Boels-Dolmans vs. UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling saga at the women’s Tour of California. This was one hell of an exciting race, that came down to a mere second on the last day between American Katie Hall (UHC) and Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen (Boels). In a nail-biting finale, Anna and her Boels teammates got the better of UHC and won the tour.

The controversy around this victory by Boels, was based on Stage 3 of the tour. Katie Hall was in the lead by a few seconds, so it was imperative that UHC took the intermediate sprint points away from her. While Anna actually has quite the kick on her, Katie is a climber through and through. According to riders in the race, Anna’s teammate pushed one of Katie’s teammates off the road (see video above), causing her to unclip and thus not sprint to take the points from Anna. Anna came second, and edged to within one second of the lead. In the end UHC didn’t petition against Boels, and everything was left to the last day, where Anna successfully won some bonus seconds in the intermediate sprint to win the tour (also taking the Women’s World Tour jersey in the process).

I guess it was easy to get involved in the hype, the gossip and chit chat around the sprint in stage 3. I myself at the time was thinking, “well that’s not cricket,” meaning that maybe it wasn’t fair what unfolded in stage 3. This little incident ended up  creating a fierce rivalry between the two teams, with a bunch of American teams getting behind UHC (apparently) to try and help them win the tour. Everyone so desperately wanted to see the underdog take on the big dog, you know, David and Goliath style. An American team taking victory on American soil against the big bad wolf, Boels-Dolmans. But UHC didn’t get  their fairytale ending.

I think the rivalry between Anna and Katie – UHC vs Boels – is a healthy type of rivalry that makes sport exciting. Rivalry between individuals and teams is something that simply goes hand-in- hand in sport.

Boels got their fairytale ending, and a Lexus too!

Rivalries within teams

Rivalry within teams, however, is toxic, and ends up filtering its way through the whole team. I’ve seen it firsthand, and the tension, anxiety and bitterness in those teams was palpable.

Competing against a teammate for selection, I think, is one of the ugliest things in this sport. Cycling is a tough one, in the sense that you have your trade team that you compete for all year-long, and only compete for your national team on very few occasions within a year. Competing to make the World’s or Olympics roster has ruined friendships and caused massive disarray within teams. There is no friendly rivalry when a spot is on the line for the Olympic games. It seems people will do anything to secure that spot, even if it means taking legal action. In fairness, there have been some arbitrations that must have been very hard to decide who to take.

In my opinion, no one athlete deserves it more than the other. In the end, it simply comes down the potential for an athlete (and federation) to medal, and funding. Federations will always send athletes that they have invested a lot of funds and time into. And too often, the athlete is left with nothing but stress and bad feelings.

I think what most people forget about the modern Olympics is the values of the games: excellence, respect, friendship. After the Olympics are done and dusted, riders return to their trade teams and carry on for the remainder of the season, generally feeling a bit of “post-Olympic depression” along the way. Any harm done to others in the process leading up to the games cannot be undone, and you end up living with the consequences your whole career, still having to see that rider you arbitrated against (and will be huge rivals with for the rest of your career!).

Anna Meares and Victoria Pendleton

Rivalries past and present

Some rivalries in sport will continue throughout whole careers, you just need to look at the rivalry between Victoria Pendleton and Anna Meares. I would say that was one of the greatest rivalries in track racing, and it made for not only exciting racing, but also a lot of media surrounding the two athletes.

Other great rivalries that come to mind are that between Canadians Genevieve Jeanson vs Lyne Bessette in the early 2000;  Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg in the 1980s; Marianne Vos and Sanne Cant’s ongoing battles in cyclocross.

Within the current road world, I can’t comment so much on the rivalries within the women’s peloton. What I can comment on, is the fact that when Lizzie Armitstead really stamped her authority all over the women’s peloton in 2014, some people didn’t like it. There was much chatter in the peloton when Lizzie won another race, because she just did so with dominance and grace. The girl could not only accelerate like a full blown sprinter, but she could out-climb  climbers. So I believe there was much rivalry in the top percentage of the peloton against Lizzie. At the 2015 World Championships, it was Lizzie against the world, literally, and she prevailed, she was the best on the day.

I guess if we throw it back to 2012 and 2013, Vos was the person to beat, and this year, it’s Anna van der Breggen. Every year there will be someone who is dominant across the board, and rivalries will form between teams. I’m sure there is a friendly rivalry between Sunweb and Boels, since they’re both super strong Dutch teams, and Sunweb is nipping at Boel’s heal, edging slightly closer to becoming the next “super team”.

Since retiring, I am really begin to understand and realise this is just sport. Anything I did on the bike as an athlete, in terms of results, was for me and me alone. No one cares if I placed in this race or won that race. I never had any rivalries in my career, I always tried to be friends with my competitors, perhaps that is where I went wrong? No, I don’t think so, because now I have left the sport, I can still call my competitors my friends, and I know that they probably respect me more being this way, than having a bunch of medals around my neck.

Loren Rowney is a South-African born Australian living in Girona, Spain during the European cycling season. After five years in the pro peloton, Rowney is retiring from professional cycling. During her career she rode for Orica-AIS and Velocio-SRAM. 

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