This is a beautiful time of year to be a cycling fan. The Classics are in full flight and with it comes tough racing, often brutal weather and riders going all out for the win. Don’t wait until the Tour De France rolls around in July to start watching cycling. These races are far more entertaining and engrossing. We give a few reasons why you should be switching on.
Whereas the Tour de France is raced over three weeks, the Classics are all one-day races, taking place mainly in Belgium and northern France from the end of February to the end of April. There are a handful of Classics later on in the summer and autumn, but the core of the classics season takes place in the early Spring.
The Spring Classics will have all of the contenders at their peak and victories in these races are very important for careers and teams. While we may have seen them race at events such as Tour Down Under, the riders are now in form and this isn’t an early season hit out for riders. For many riders this is the most important part of the season, those who aren’t Grand Tour Contenders this may define their season.
Already this year we have had races such as Milan San Remo (the longest one day race) won by Team Sky rider Michael Kwiatkowski and the semi Classics such as E3 Harelbeke and Gent Wevelgem which has shown that Peter Sagan is on form along with BMC rider Greg Van Avermaet and the return of Philippe Gilbert of Quick Step for the remainder of the Classics.
The Classics are split into two parts. The Cobbled Classics are raced over a combination of asphalt and cobblestones, frequently on tight and winding rural lanes. Some of the cobbled classics are mainly flat, such as Paris-Roubaix and Scheldeprijs, but others include a barrage or short and sharp hills, such as the Tour of Flanders and E3 Harelbeke. They are traditionally won by powerful riders who are expert bike-handlers on the cobbles, such as last years Roubaix winner Aussie Matt Hayman or living legend Fabian Cancellara.
The Ardennes Classics are hilly races that all take place in the Ardennes region of Belgium and the Netherlands. They have as much as 4,500m of vertical ascent and a race-deciding climb close to the finish. There are three Ardennes classics, all of which take place within the space of a week in April: Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They are usually won by pure climbers, such as Alejandro Valverde or Joaquim Rodriguez, or riders who can power their way up short and sharp climbs, such as Philippe Gilbert or Simon Gerrans.
The Classics bring the potential of treacherous conditions and narrow battered roads. A Spring Classic is raced with intensity and every last rider finishes completely shattered. There’s rarely a race where most of the riders sit-in and wait for it to come down to a bunch kick. There is no tomorrow, no waiting for the third week.
This is racing where the race favourites could attack with 100km to go, or the final 15 kilometres is just riders who are extremely fatigued continually surging and attacking. Favourites may crash out on a cobbled sector, or flat at the wrong time, the races continually throw up different aspects that you often don’t see at more calculated routes like the Tour De France.
So here is what is coming up in the Classics.
Tour of Flanders
When: April 2
Where: Antwerp to Oudenaarde, Belgium
What: Paris-Roubaix looms large in Australians minds but, for Belgians, the Tour of Flanders is the Grand Final of cycling. Cobbles! Climbs! Cobbled climbs (hellingen)!
These fans love their cycling, it is their national sport after all. Expect to see them lining the cobbles and cheering them on. With out a doubt the two stand out favourites for this year are Sagan and Van Avermaet.
When: April 9
Where: Paris to Roubaix, France
What: For a race that is essentially a lottery, Paris-Roubaix never produces an unworthy winner. It’s simply too hard, with 55 kilometers of ancient, battered cobbled roads that jackhammer the pack into submission, ruining bikes and bodies. If it rains, riders deal with treacherous mud; in the dry, choking dust.
With Matt Hayman winning this last year for Orica Bike Exchange, expect a lot of Aussies to be spectating this year. Although for the majority of the fans it will all be about ‘Tom Boonen’ who is a 4 time winner. This is his final race of his career and lets just say – he is a bit of a big deal.
History lovers: If you’re watching on TV, you may catch glimpses of old mine shafts and deserted factories; the Nord Pas des Calais region was once France’s mining and manufacturing center. But both World Wars hit the area hard; the race’s nickname—the “Hell of the North”—refers not to the cobbled roads the riders traverse, but the aftermath of World War I’s trench and chemical warfare.
Amstel Gold Race
When: April 16
Where: Maastricht, the Netherlands
What: A relative babe among the classics, Amstel is “only” in its 52nd year. But it’s now a vital part of the “Ardennes Week,” the trio of hilly Classics that shift racing from the windswept cobbles of Flanders and Roubaix to the stage-race season.With 30 relatively short climbs, Amstel is a punishing course, and the climbs increase in frequency as the race nears the finish, which makes it among the most suspenseful events in bike racing.
Who wouldn’t love a race named after a beer company and the winners are presented with a giant beer to drink on the podium? For this race look out for Philippe Gilbert who has made a return to form in recent weeks.
When: April 19
Where: Huy, Belgium
What: Fleche Wallonne is a curiosity among Classics: there’s a sprint finish for climbers. The 200km race features a lumpy course, but the primary feature is three circuits that traverse the famed Mur (wall) de Huy, a short but agonizingly steep climb. An early break always figures; and is almost always caught. The final ascent of the Mur typically sees a pack of 50-plus riders in contention, which is quickly whittled down to a handful of riders at the summit. The early part of the race isn’t that exciting, but the final one to two circuits make up for it.
Over just 1.3 kilometers, the Mur averages 9.3 a percent grade, with corners up to a chain-breaking 26 percent. With his current form and previous success can anyone get around Movistar rider Alejandro Valverde?
When: April 23
Where: Liege, Belgium
What: LBL concludes the Spring Classics; after this, it’s stage-race season until August. More importantly, many pros consider LBL the hardest one-day race in the sport.
How come? Amstel has more climbs, Flanders is longer, after all. But LBL is a whole other beast: It comes at the end of the Ardennes Week, which only makes it harder to survive its combination of length, hilliness, and the often cold-wet-windy conditions in which it’s contested.
Nicknamed “la Doyenne,” it’s the oldest continuously run event in pro cycling; the first edition was held in 1892. Last year Wout Poels of Team Sky won ahead of Orcia Bike Exchange rider Michael Albasini. Dan Martin of Quickstep will be a rider to watch.
Need more motivation – this 20 minute video will get you ready!