Professional cycling nowadays is a year-long occupation. Gone are the days when a pro would jump off the bike in October and take four weeks off, his trusty steed tucked away in the box room under the stairs or down in the old garden shed.
The libations might flow, the belly would most certainly grow, hair would accumulate on the legs and those first spiteful weeks of winter would have him more or less hibernating, allowing him to feel, if it’s ever possible for us cyclists, almost like a ‘normal’ person.
But all that is now a thing of the past for the world’s best riders. The season no longer starts not in March but in January at the Tour Down Under, quickly followed by the windy tours of Qatar and Oman, before they finally head to Europe.
However, to the true cycling fan, and indeed, at the risk of offending Aussies, Qataris and Omanians, the true season begins with the spring classics, the first of which is Omlop Het Nieuwsblad, a race that was first held in 1945. You wouldn’t find a single fan of the sport in the world that would argue that these aren’t great races, these one day spring battles.
The best riders in the world, bar a few of the dull specialists, gather to smash each other to pieces (and indeed to be smashed themselves) on winding lanes and over hallowed cobbles in northern Italy, the Netherlands, France and Belgium.
Of these classics, five stand out as truly special, demarcated by the tag ‘Monument,’ signifying these races as pillars in the history of the sport. The history of each is unique and unalterable, stretching back in some cases to the 19th Century.
Milan-San Remo is the first true Classic of the year, first run in 1907. The Tour of Flanders comes next, first held in 1913, followed a week later by Paris-Roubaix, the ‘Queen of the Classsis’, its first edition dating way back to 1896. Then comes Liege-Bastogne-Liege, dating from 1894. Finally we have the one Autumn Classic, the Giro di Lombardia, from 1905.
Personally, I look forward to this season of Spring Classics more so than I do the Giro d’Italia, the Vuelta a Espana or even the Tour de France, and I believe that these great, old, single day races embody more of the true spirit of cycling than those three-week long slogs around nations.
Whereas a Grand Tour is like a cruise ship vacation around an archipelago with the odd gale force wind that sends the teacups flying, a classic is more like a five or six hour voyage of discovery of the self, in which all but a mere handful are found wanting. There’s not so much a selection on the road as a cull of the inferior, and in turn an elevation of the great.
There’s no spinnakers to be unfurled, no trade winds to be taken advantage of, it’s 5 hours on the deck of an 18th Century bucket in a hurricane with all hands on deck and many a man overboard. Not even a minute to stop and pee, you just go in your shorts. Whereas in a Grand Tour the favorites wait and see, duck and dive and pick and choose their moments to attack, in the Classics those moments are thrust upon them.
Of course, in a race like the Tour de France there may be the Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez to be climbed and then there is no hiding place, but in Paris-Roubaix say of in the Tour of Flanders, it is non-stop balls-to-the-wall action. Riders fight to get to the front for the entry to tight sections on the course like they are sprinting for the finish line on the Champs d’Elysee, hitting 65km for example on the approach to the Carrefour de l’Arbre, one of the hardest and most famous cobbled sections of Paris-Roubaix.
Once they hit it, it’s then slightly downhill. Over cobbles. On a 3 meter-wide road. At 65km per hour!
Former professional rider Leon Van Bon rode the race many times, and he describes the forest road thus:
“The cobbles of the Forest are so bad and almost always wet and slippery. In front, the chances of a crash are minimal. You can choose your path and that makes the chance of a flat tire less. When it’s really wet you feel like a tightrope walker, 100 feet above the ground, swaying in the wind with the thin, taught rope beneath your tires. Millimeters from disaster.”
Whereas in a Grand Tour a race favourite has several chances to amend for mistakes, this is not so in the Classics, where a single moment can destroy a year’s preparation. We saw it just recently when Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha went into the mud at the Amstel Gold race and ended up on his back, then was unable to get back to the peloton.
The roads can be so windy and are so thin in that race that the peloton of 200 riders can stretch back a good 250 meters. Cars cannot get to the front to help riders with flat tires and so it is very much a case of every man for himself.
Of course, winning the Tour de France is hard, almost impossibly so, as is the Giro and the Vuelta, but there is something almost impossible to describe about these Classics that makes them, for me at least, better than Grand Tours because they truly encapsulate exactly what cycling is.
I’ll try to explain, but forgive me if I don’t nail it. Here goes:
In this world in which so much is covered in the veneer of the modern, in which so much has the feel of plastic, and in which much of sport too has the sense of the robotic, where every detail of preparation has become meticulous to the point where it takes the actual character of the rider out of the equation, races such as Paris-Roubaix, Flanders, Milan-San Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege offer the perfect antidote to that.
Whereas the Tour and Giro feel at times like grand circus’ swirling their magic through the French and Italian countrysides and the Vuelta feels like a slightly hungover 3 week Balearic island cruise, these Classics remind us of what it means to be truly human, to have to roll up the sleeves, to get stuck in and to fight to the very last breath.
It’s brutal out there, men rise and fall and some go home forever beaten whilst others, the select few, become lions, true kings of the roads, heroes in their own lifetimes. There is nothing plastic or glitzy about Roubaix, nor Amstel, nor Fleche-Wallone. It’s often cold and always hard and there is absolutely nowhere to hide.
If you fall you are left by the roadside, there is no going back for downed men, no next day to claw back time. At the back you are forgotten, whereas at the front the battle is always on. Sometimes we witness true greatness, as with Cancellara at Flanders, winning solo, and then a week later at Roubaix, fighting both exhaustion and Sep Vanmarcke for a third win in the famous velodrome.
Commentating on Eurosport, former top pro Magnus Backstedt cited the greatest sections for a rider to race over, in terms of the sheer excitement of the crowds. He named Alpe d’Huez, the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the Arenberg Forest and the Mur de Huy.
Only the first is from a Grand Tour, the rest feature in Classics.
That says it all for me.
Those that ride in Grand Tours are all champions, no doubt, and the winners become legends too. Yet there is something about these Classics that stand out, that whet the appetite more than any other races, for me at least. The season doesn’t exactly end in May, but it certainly starts in March…
this article originally appeared in the magazine, SPIN