The Barnes sisters face off

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Research suggests that rivalry can make you run faster, throw harder and jump higher, but how does sibling rivalry affect that potency? Sarah Shephard looks at the science with a little help from the Barnes sisters...

Sibling rivalries aren’t unusual. They’re not even that rare in the sporting world. Think triathlon heroes, the Brownlee brothers; tennis stars, Venus and Serena Williams, football legends, Bobby and Jack Charlton and, for super cyclists, Adam and Simon Yates. 

So, when Alice Barnes opted to join her older sister, Hannah, in the Canyon/SRAM team for this season, there was an understandable ripple of excitement. “I get asked a lot about us racing each other, but we’re quite different riders,” says Alice.

Despite her efforts at playing down talk of rivalry, the Barnes sisters will struggle to escape it. After all, the most memorable sporting battles in history – blood related or otherwise – have a thread that runs through them, and that thread is a rivalry. 

The most intense ones develop over time, becoming increasingly nuanced and more deeply entrenched with every competitive meeting. They exist between individuals and entire teams, resulting in an almost tribal atmosphere whenever the rival parties compete. But, the power of these rivalries is best seen by examining the impact they have on the athletes themselves.

Psychological push 
In the aftermath of a competition, we often hear athletes or coaches talking about their opponent “raising their game,” to beat them. It’s often dismissed as conjecture, but the science backs it up, says Gavin Kilduff, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who has been studying rivalry for years. 

In one study on long-distance runners, Kilduff found that they run “significantly faster in races where their rivals are present – to the tune of an estimated five second increase per kilometre in a 5k race.”

His research proves that rivalry is a powerful motivator because athletes use rivals as psychological “fuel to train harder and push themselves on to new heights of performance.” In short, sports people are more motivated when competing against rivals than against those they don’t share that same history or have an emotional association with. 


Kilduff explains that for most athletes, the rational elements of winning are important – whether that’s prize money, ranking points or a gold medal. But when the more emotive ingredient of rivalry comes into play, he’s found that “competitors feel as though their legacy and sense of self-worth are more at stake.”

A rivalry, then, is more than just a competition, according to Kilduff. It can give a competitive event a psychological weight that goes well beyond its tangible stakes and creates the kind of sporting contests that get talked (and written) about for years – the kind that get debated in pubs, made into films and live forever as iconic moments for the sport and athletes involved. 

You couldn’t write it  
Cycling has no shortage of these, and not all of them are pretty. Over the years, we’ve seen riders go elbow to elbow on the slopes of a volcano, disingenuous deal making (I’ll help you win the next one if you help me here) and even ‘playing dead’ in order to get an advantage over a rival. 


In the 1980s, women’s road racing was defined by a rivalry between Italian rider (and champion cross country skier) Maria Canins and Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo. The pair first clashed in the 1984 Olympic road race (the first time women’s cycling was included in the Games), when a swerve from Longo caused Canins to crash on the third lap. She quickly returned to the bunch, but with 500m to go clashed with Longo, ripping out her derailleur.

The duo faced off again at the Tour de France au Feminin in 1985, when Canins won, beating the woman nine years her junior into second place.

She maintained the upper hand in their rivalry until the 1987 Tour when Longo finally got the better of Canins – who was then 38. 

The pair maintained a frosty distance throughout meetings, but it was clear the rivalry added to the electricity and adrenaline for the two riders – and us spectators.
Long-running rivals
On the track, a rivalry between two of the greatest female track sprinters of all time was the highlight of many World Championship and Olympic races.

Australia’s Anna Meares and Britain’s first queen of track racing Victoria Pendleton first fell out at a World Cup in 2006 after an aggressive piece of riding from the Australian.  

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“Anna and I are very different riders,” Pendleton said diplomatically then. “She’s someone who likes to push the rules and I definitely don’t.”

For the next six years, relations remained frosty between the two. In 2008, Meares was seriously injured in a crash six months before the Beijing Olympics, fracturing neck vertebrae and coming close to being paralysed. She made a miraculous recovery to make it to the Games, but lost out to Pendleton in the sprint and felt the Brit had been overly dismissive of her impressive recovery.

The last hurrah  
Their final face off came at the London Olympics in 2012, an event that Pendleton had already said would be her last outing for Team GB. The build up was all about the two women, with Meares telling the press that the pair had never been able to put their rivalry aside: “Sometimes, with great rivalries you can’t have great friendship. It’s easier to just be competitors.”

The Australian had the final laugh, taking gold over Pendleton in the sprint final. But, three years on, in the lead up to her own last Olympics in Rio, Meares admitted she was missing her old rival: “I will miss the intensity, the feeling I got whenever I saw her at a competition,” she told The Guardian. “If it wasn’t for the other one, we would never have reached where we did.”

This is a sentiment echoed by the Barnes sisters, Hannah and Alice, who are aware of the practical and psychological benefits of being sibling rivals who ride. 

For Alice, it has instilled a sense of direction: “Even now, I’m always thinking; I should do this because Hannah thinks I should do it. I feel pushed to do everything right. Like I’m being watched all the time.”

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And for Hannah, having a younger sibling hot on her heels has added a new intensity to her training: “When people ask, I always say that Alice is probably going to be the most successful one out of both of us. I’ve got two years on her,  so everyone looks at me at the moment as the one that’s doing the best. But looking at her last year of racing, I think there’s a lot more to come. 

Growing up, they didn’t race against each other much, with Alice focusing more on mountain biking. But they admit that the Barnes household fostered a competitive atmosphere regardless: “We’d race to finish meals at dinnertime” laughs Alice. “We weren’t ‘nasty competitive’ but we were constantly pushing each other to get better and improve.”

It was at the British National Champs in 2016 that the sisters finally got to race against each other. It turned out to be a close affair, with Hannah outsprinting Alice in the final 100m to win the striped jersey. 

“Because Hannah had an injury with her ankle the winter before, I was just happy she’d been able to have a good comeback and be in the jersey,” says Alice. “And if anyone was going to come sprinting around me, I’d prefer it to be her.”

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This season is the first time they’ve trained together in a number of years and Hannah believes it will give their training an extra boost to have each other there when the going gets tough: “Generally, we have a good idea of how each other are feeling, so I think we’ll have that advantage of knowing each other really well to help each other and push each other. 

“It’s not that you can be bossy because she’s your sister, but you do have that upper hand – you can be really, really honest with each other and I think that’s important.”

“I’ve known the Yates brothers for around 11 years now,” says Hannah, “and it’s really cool to see where they are and what they are achieving. It would be nice to be as successful as both of them and to make the Barnes name proud.”

If the sisters can harness the power of their sibling rivalry in the right way, there’s no doubt they will do exactly that.

This article is featured in the new Casquette magazine, which you can order here

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Photos: Tino Pohlmann /Thomas Maheux

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