Greatest Rivalries in Tour de France History

Photo of author
Written by
reviewed by Rory McAllister
Last Updated:

Over its storied history, the Tour de France has been the backdrop for numerous fierce rivalries, duels that have captured the world’s imagination and indelibly marked the sport’s legacy.

In this article, we delve into some of the most epic rivalries in Tour de France history – from the early clash of titans Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali to the contentious battle between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.

We will trace the dramatic arcs of these rivalries, filled with suspense, strategy, heartbreak, and triumph. With the 2023 Tour de France underway, we’re already watching a new rivalry for the ages between Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard.

Strap in for a fascinating ride through the peaks and valleys of professional cycling’s most intense and memorable contests, covering:

  • Fausto Coppi Vs. Gino Bartali
  • Jacques Anquetil Vs. Raymond Poulidor
  • Eddy Merckx Vs. Luis Ocaña
  • Bernard Hinault Vs. Greg LeMond
  • Greg LeMond Vs. Laurent Fignon
  • Lance Armstrong Vs. Jan Ullrich
  • Alberto Contador Vs. Andy Schleck

Let’s dive in!

Greatest Tour de France Rivalries: Title Image

Fausto Coppi vs Gino Bartali

The first clash between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali in the Tour de France took place in 1949, a race that initially promised more collaboration than rivalry due to its national team structure.

However, this agreement was short-lived as Coppi publicly criticized Bartali’s lack of team spirit just before the first stage, adding fuel to their pre-existing animosity.

As the 1949 Tour de France progressed, their feud played out on the grueling mountain roads of France, where the strategic dynamics of their rivalry were most visible.

Bartali, the seasoned champion with a talent for climbing, was challenged by Coppi, an unyielding newcomer possessing a combination of climbing and time-trialing skills.

Throughout the race, the Italians dominated the field, often with Coppi initiating an attack and Bartali counterattacking, or vice versa.

Despite the internal competition, there were instances where they had to support each other to secure their positions, particularly against threats from other teams.

Coppi emerged as the overall winner of the 1949 Tour de France, with Bartali finishing second, just a few minutes behind.

In the 1952 Tour de France, a now-experienced Coppi was once again pitted against Bartali. This Tour is still remembered for Coppi’s remarkable solo victory on the stage to Alpe d’Huez, the first time the race finished at this iconic mountain.

Although Bartali remained a formidable competitor, he was unable to match the dominance of Coppi in that year’s race.

Their competition in the Tour de France remained a significant aspect of their rivalry until Bartali’s retirement in 1954.

In an unexpected twist, Bartali, as sports director, signed Coppi to his team for the 1960 season. Regrettably, Coppi’s untimely death at the beginning of the year prevented the pair from working together.

Jacques Anquetil vs Raymond Poulidor

The contest between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, two significant figures in the world of cycling during the 1960s, is inscribed in the annals of Tour de France history.

Their rivalry was fraught with suspense and drama, marked by Anquetil’s knack for seizing victory and Poulidor’s enduring popularity despite his frequent second-place finishes.

The 1964 Tour de France brought their rivalry into sharp focus. Their unforgettable battle on the Puy de Dôme, a volcanic dome in central France, has become an iconic moment in Tour de France history.

Pushing each other to their limits, Anquetil and Poulidor jostled shoulder-to-shoulder up the ascent, resulting in a legendary photograph.

While Poulidor gained 42 seconds that day, it was Anquetil, as it often was, who claimed the ultimate prize, securing the yellow jersey in Paris for his fifth Tour de France victory.

Eddy Merckx vs Luis Ocaña

Eddy Merckx first took notice of Ocaña during the 1968 Giro d’Italia.

Although Ocaña didn’t make it into the top 30, his resilience and tenacity made a lasting impression on Merckx, who was in the process of achieving his first Grand Tour victory. Thus, a rivalry was born, fueled by personal ambition and media attention.

Ocaña’s landmark victory over Merckx occurred during the 1971 Tour de France.

After a daring victory on the challenging mountain stage of Puy de Dôme in the second week, he dramatically broke away during Stage 11, attacking 60 kilometers from the finish at Orcières-Merlette.

Merckx was unable to counter the move, and Ocaña gained an astounding nine minutes, seizing the race lead.

However, Ocaña’s moment of glory was tarnished by a tragic turn of events. A crash on the slippery roads of the Pyrenees, while he was leading the Tour in the yellow jersey, forced him to withdraw from the race.

The 1971 Tour ultimately went to Merckx, but he openly acknowledged the lingering uncertainty surrounding the race’s outcome had Ocaña not crashed.

Two years later, Ocaña triumphed in the 1973 Tour de France, in the absence of Merckx who had chosen to focus on winning the Vuelta a España/Giro d’Italia double.

Earlier that year, during the Vuelta (which was back then scheduled between April and May), Ocaña had left a notable impression on Merckx by outperforming him in the mountains, ultimately finishing second overall.

Merckx told Ocaña’s biographer, Alisdair Fotheringham, “That was when he most impressed me. If I had joined the Tour that year, it would’ve been a big fight.”

Bernard Hinault vs Greg LeMond

During the 1985 Tour, Bernard Hinault was on track to secure his fifth Tour title.

He wore the yellow jersey early on, but a crash halfway through the race resulted in a broken nose and a decline in performance. The twelfth stage through the Pyrenees marked the first flashpoint.

Greg LeMond, young and vigorous, was instructed not to cooperate with Stephen Roche in an attack as the team strategy prioritized Hinault.

Feeling restrained and frustrated, LeMond eventually finished second overall, while a struggling Hinault wore the yellow jersey to Paris.

The drama intensified during the 1986 Tour, which was ostensibly LeMond’s year, according to a promise made by Hinault the year before.

However, the Frenchman showed no signs of yielding, attacking LeMond at every opportunity. The eleventh stage, an individual time trial, saw Hinault taking a significant lead, causing confusion and dismay for the American.

Stage 18, from Morzine to Alpe d’Huez, witnessed another memorable episode.

Just one day after LeMond had finally managed to claim the yellow jersey, Hinault launched another unexpected attack, forcing LeMond to respond and follow him down a treacherous descent of the Croix de Fer.

The stage concluded with the iconic image of the two men crossing the finish line arm-in-arm. Despite this apparent show of unity, Hinault stunned LeMond by telling reporters the race wasn’t over.

The rest of the race continued in the same vein, fraught with tension and intense competition. But at the finish line in Paris, it was LeMond who emerged victorious, standing one step above Hinault on the podium.

Hinault, known as the Badger, ended his professional career at the end of 1986, while LeMond went on to achieve further glory, claiming two more Tour titles.

Greg LeMond vs Laurent Fignon

With a sturdy physique and the support of a high-performing team, Fignon was a hot favorite for the 1989 Tour de France victory.

Although potentially underprepared, LeMond had a distinct edge thanks to his tactical savvy and a revolutionary bike for the final time trial. A new handlebar design, previously pioneered by triathletes, allowed him to maintain an aerodynamic position, providing a significant advantage.

LeMond’s game plan throughout the Tour was unconventional. He maintained his own pace, undeterred by the flurry of attacks from other competitors. He frequently drafted behind Fignon, conserving his strength while leaving Fignon to shoulder the bulk of the work.

While this strategy benefited LeMond, it bred friction between the two, prompting public criticism from Fignon, who accused LeMond of shirking his part of the workload. LeMond defended his tactics, igniting a press controversy that heightened the drama.

By the time the Tour approached Paris, Fignon had managed to carve out a seemingly insurmountable 50-second lead over LeMond.

With only a final 24 km time trial between Versailles and the Champs-Élysées remaining, Fignon was confident about his lead despite nursing a calf injury. However, LeMond was not to be easily dismissed.

In a nail-biting finale, LeMond put in a devastating performance to close the time gap on his revolutionary bike, leaving Fignon and spectators stunned. Having crossed the finish line, a pain-stricken Fignon anxiously awaited the confirmation of his defeat.

The shock came when he learned that LeMond had pulled off an unthinkable feat: securing the yellow jersey with a lead of just 8 seconds, the closest finish in Tour de France history.

Lance Armstrong vs Jan Ullrich

Ullrich was catapulted to fame when he won the Tour at the young age of 23 in 1997, and subsequently earned seven podium finishes.

However, he found himself persistently overshadowed by Armstrong, who began his winning streak in the late 1990s and continued into the early 2000s.

The 2001 Alpe d’Huez stage perfectly encapsulated the intensity of their rivalry. During this stage, Armstrong – in a moment that has since become symbolic of their rivalry – locked eyes with Ullrich before surging past him to clinch the stage victory.

In 2003, Ullrich came agonizingly close to eclipsing Armstrong.

Despite battling a fever that had plagued him during the first half of the race, Ullrich displayed an incredible show of determination during the Stage 12 time trial. He won the stage and succeeded in narrowing Armstrong’s lead to a mere 34 seconds.

This edition of the Tour de France was fraught with challenges for Armstrong.

He grappled with dehydration, had to navigate an unexpected detour across a grassy slope, and suffered a fall after his handlebar snagged on a spectator’s bag on Luz Ardiden.

In an unexpected show of sportsmanship, Ullrich chose not to capitalize on Armstrong’s misfortune, waiting for the American to remount and rejoin the race.

Ullrich’s dreams of Tour de France glory were dashed during the final time trial. A slip on the rain-slicked course set him back, and he ended up crossing the finish line in Paris 61 seconds behind Armstrong.

Yet despite these off-bike challenges, the mutual respect between the two remained undiminished.

Following a visit to Ullrich in Germany, Armstrong hailed his former rival, stating, “He was such a special rival to me. He frightened me, pushed me, and really made me bring my best. Pure class on the bike.”

Alberto Contador vs Andy Schleck

The rivalry between the Spaniard and the Luxembourgian began in earnest during the 2009 Tour de France.

Contador, who rode for the Astana team, and Schleck, representing Saxo Bank, battled it out, with Contador ultimately emerging as the victor. Schleck finished second, setting up a narrative of contention for the coming years.

The 2010 edition of the race proved to be the most controversial and memorable.

During the 15th stage, Schleck was leading overall and attacked on the Port de Balès, a hors categorie climb known for its grueling difficulty. During his attack, Schleck’s chain came off, and Contador seized this opportunity to launch an attack of his own.

Contador pushed on, while Schleck was forced to stop and rectify his mechanical issue. Contador’s attack was seen by many as a breach of the unwritten rule in professional cycling: you don’t attack the yellow jersey wearer during a mechanical incident.

Contador won that year’s Tour by a margin of 39 seconds – exactly the time he had gained on that contentious stage.

A significant twist in their rivalry came in 2012 when Contador was suspended from competition due to a doping violation. Schleck, now seemingly poised to take advantage of Contador’s absence, was unfortunately sidelined from the 2012 Tour due to a serious injury.

In recent years, significant rivalries were largely absent due to Team Sky‘s overriding dominance. Nairo Quintana courageously challenged Chris Froome multiple times, with varying degrees of success depending on the year in question.

As we stand on the cusp of the 2023 Tour de France, a promising rivalry is brewing between Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard. Both cyclists have established their prowess by either clinching victory or securing the runner-up position in 2021 and 2022.

We want to hear from you!

Which rivalry was the most memorable for you? Do you see any emerging cyclists who might shake up the 2023 race? Who are you cheering for this year?

Leave your comments below and join the conversation. Your insights and passion help make the anticipation for the next race even more exciting!

Photo of author
Quentin's background in bike racing runs deep. In his youth, he won the prestigious junior Roc d'Azur MTB race before representing Belgium at the U17 European Championships in Graz, Austria. Shifting to road racing, he then competed in some of the biggest races on the junior calendar, including Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, before stepping up to race Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix as an U23. With a breakthrough into the cut-throat environment of professional racing just out of reach, Quentin decided to shift his focus to embrace bike racing as a passion rather than a career. Now writing for BikeTips, Quentin's experience provides invaluable insight into performance cycling - though he's always ready to embrace the fun side of the sport he loves too and share his passion with others.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.