Most sports celebrate their great rivalries: Sox-Yankees, the Milan Derby, India-Pakistan in cricket, and the college football meetings between any two neighboring southern states. Cycling has had its share of great rivalries: Coppi vs. Bartali, Merckx vs. Van Looy, Anquetil vs. Poulidor. As recently as 2005 the Tour was defined as Armstrong vs. Ullrich. But now...?
Stepping back for a moment, I can think of two ways to define a rivalry: competitive rivalries (like Coppi and Bartali), and personal ones (e.g. Simoni vs. Cunego). The best ones have a bit of both, where the two top combatants don't particularly like each other (e.g. Van Looy and, well, apparently a lot of people).
Right now in cycling, I just don't sense much personal rivalry. Perhaps it's because I can't read the Flemish press, but if there are riders or teams at each other's throats, I'd like to hear about it. The one example I keep coming back to is the administrative one, McQuaid vs. Prudhomme, but somewhere between most and all of us wish that one would go away.
What else is out there? Some ideas, on the flip...
Best Sprinter vs. Second-Best Sprinter
This is a pretty reliable formula: in the multilateral world of bike racing, the sprinters keep a pretty close eye on each other, with the recognized fastest man being the prey in the eyes of his rivals. And the familiarity can breed contempt, though unfortunately Robbie McEwen has mellowed over the years.
Anyway, the problem today is that Mark Cavendish is the fastest man, and nobody seems very close to stopping him. Worse, his most likely "rival" is Tom Boonen, who makes his living in the classics and isn't exactly a pure sprinter.Their head-to-head battles are fun, but Boonen is simply defined by the other section of his resume.
Quick Step vs. Lotto
Team rivalries are also a pretty obvious place to look, but there are some hurdles to a great rivalry. Sponsors and rosters turn over a lot. Teams don't have set geographic locales, per se. But Quick Step and (*)-Lotto have been around a while, and Belgium isn't really big enough for the two of them. Problem is, it's a tad one-sided. Or worse, the real battles (Flanders, Roubaix) are multi-sided and Lotto is getting lost in the shuffle behind teams like Saxo and Rabobank. Still, I think there's more of a personal conflict, and look forward to you guys reminding me of the nasty remarks Lefevre and Sargent have traded over the years.
Garmin vs. Columbia
Totally invented, though at least Cavendish is talking shit about beating Garmin in the team time trials. Sure, Astana will probably take all the fun out of this discipline, but otherwise the two American squads are a fair fight. Anyway, the two best teams from any one country are a good place to look, but it's not that simple.
Alberto Contador vs. Cadel Evans
Little-known fact: Lance is not Contador's chief rival for the Tour title. Last time Contador took to the road in France, he eeked out the second-closest victory in the race's history over Evans. The rematch was unfortunately put on ice last year, and it's not even still clear that Evans is the main threat. Carlos Sastre will be wearing the #1 dossard; young guns like Andy Schleck and Robert Gesink will be heard from; etc. Evans-Contador might have been a one-shot rivalry, which is to say not really a rivalry at all.
Tom Boonen vs. Fabian Cancellara vs. Alessandro Ballan
Now we're getting someplace. Three world champions, three Monument winners, all in their prime, going head-to-head, stalking each other on two or more of the world's biggest stages. What I love best about this rivalry is how it pits different skill sets: Boonen's power sprint, the pressure of Cancellara's ferocious, steady pace, and Ballan's cagey, aggressive approach. It's too bad that conditions weren't worse in the finale of Paris-Roubaix last year; as it was, Boonen wasn't likely to get dropped and we knew who'd win the sprint. But in dicier circumstances, the sight of Boonen, Cance and Ballan head to head could have several different, very cool outcomes.
That's all I can conjure up for now. Who do you think is cycling's top rivalry?