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About the Spring Classics

The Spring Classics, also called the Monuments of Spring, are some of the most important races in the professional racing calendar. While the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia are usually the races we think of and that are the most well-known, it’s the Classics that really connect us back to the early days of cycling (indeed, some of the Spring Classics are descended from the first organized cycling races), and are the closest to the sports heart.

The Spring Classics are a series of one-day races, and are completely different than a 3-week long tour like the Tour de France. While the Tour is widely considered to be the most difficult sporting event in the world, the Spring Classics are widely considered to be some of the toughest sporting events in the world, and for good reason. Firstly, they are held in the Spring, when the weather in Europe is usually at its worst. It’s not unusual for there to be snow, rain, cold, and strong winds during the races. Secondly, they are very long, with the longest among them at over 290km in length (180 miles). Thirdly, many of them feature cobbles and very steep climbs, which are both physically and mentally demanding.

 

The Races

The traditional Spring Classics are composed of 5 races, each with its own character and traditions.

1. Milan-San Remo, aka La Primavera (Italian: the first of spring) is usually held in mid-March. This is the longest of the classics races, at roughly 290km (180miles). The race is known for its length, tough hills, and extreme weather (the race was cut short in 2013 due to a blizzard). Of all the classics, this one most resembles a “regular” road race, and often comes down to a sprint finish.

2. Gent-Wevelgem is a Belgian race, and the first of the cobbled classics, usually held the weekend after Milan-San Remo. A mostly flat race, the route does include the famous Kemmelburg, a brutally steep cobbled climb that can be treacherous in the rain on the way up, and outright dangerous on the way down, and is usually where the races deciding moves are made.

3. Tour of Flanders (Flemish: Ronde van Vlaanderan) is a Belgian race celebrating its 101st anniversary in 2014, and is traditionally raced the around the first weekend of April. The race is held by some to be the toughest in the world, not because of its cobbles, but because of its layout. While the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are worse, the Flanders course requires more changes of direction in the cobbled sections, which can be more dangerous, and all of the climbs—including the murderous Koppenberg—are cobbled as well.

4. Paris-Roubaix, aka The Hell of the North or the Queen of the Classics, is a French race and is probably the mostly widely-known and prestigious of the classics. It is always held the weekend after the Tour of Flanders. Known for its 28 infamously horrible cobbled sections, mud, dust, bad weather, and utter unpredictability, Paris-Roubaix is often one of the most exciting races to watch of the year. Of all the races on the calendar, this is usually the one where a single, very strong rider can break away and win early in the race. In 2014, watch as Tom Boonen tries to go for a record 5th win.

5. Amstel Gold is a Dutch race that is both the last of the Spring Classics and the first of the Ardennes Classics, traditionally held a week or two after Paris-Roubaix. The race is a newer addition, only added in 1966, but it’s legendary toughness and difficulty connects it spiritually to its fellows. Featuring 33 climbs, some with grades approaching 20% on a course of 251km (155 miles), this is a race that favors riders who can climb.

 

The Riders

Classics specialists are truly a breed apart in the professional cycling world. When most of us think of the pro’s we think of skinny, waifish athletes who look like they could do with a good cheeseburger or two. While this describes the riders who can dance up the mountains in the Tour de France, these are also the guys who usually sit out the Classics. The riders who are able to dominate in races like Paris-Roubaix or Milan-San Remo are usually much bigger (Fabian Cancellara, one of the most successful riders, is about 6’1”, 185lbs), and for good reason. Bigger riders are usually able to better deal with the cold, they have the physical toughness to handle the cobbles, and they have the raw power to overcome the strong winds.

The Classics also require a different sort of riding style. While a CG rider in a grand tour can shelter behind his team mates, saving his energy and biding his time over a period of days, the unpredictable nature and single-day duration of the Spring Classics means that only the truly strong survive. The riders who specialize in the classics usually have huge diesel engines that can crank out massive amounts of power for hours on end, allowing them to force the pace, splinter the field and drive their weaker opponents into the ground. Usually, they also have an unbelievable tolerance for pain. Not only are they dealing with the extreme distances, and terrible conditions, but the jarring, bone-jarring hits of the cobbles as well. As Fabian Cancellara himself once said of Paris-Roubaix: “In Trouee it starts. And it finishes in Roubaix with pain.”

 

The Toughest of the Tough

While all of the Classics are important, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix stand apart from the rest in their mythical status. The legendary toughness of the courses means that in any given generation only a handful of riders-- usually Belgians-- come to dominate these early spring races, with a string of Classics victories in these races usually defining entire careers. Amongst the most successful riders have been Eddie Merckx, Roger de Vlaeminck, John Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. Only two riders (de Vlaeminck, and Boonen) have ever won Paris-Roubaix four times, while Merckx, Museeuw and Cancellara have each won three times. Merckx, Museeuw, and de Vlaeminck have long since retired, but Boonen stands a good chance of winning a historic and unprecedented fifth victory in 2014, while Cancellara is hoping to tie him with four. An upcoming talent to watch is Peter Sagan, who at the tender age of 24 (2014) has already won Gent-Wevelgem, and has been on the podium  in Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders. As he matures, we can probably expect big things from Sagan.

But it's not all about big names in the Classics. Because of the very real chance of a crash, an ill-timed punctured tire or mechanical problem, or just bad placement going into the narrow cobbled roads, often the biggest contenders are absent from the race finale. Also, because the race is only one day long, it's not unusual for a virtually unknown rider to be "the man with the golden legs" on that particular day who can solo away to victory. A good example is Johan Van Summeren's surprise victory in the 2011 Paris-Roubaix. Through good tactical riding and a bit of luck, Van Summeren found himself in a solo break away (with a slowly leaking rear tire), trying desperately to stay just seconds ahead of Fabian Cancellara, while his team leader (and then current World Champion) Thor Hushovd, a pre-race favorite, found himself far back in the field and out of contention. It was pure, nail-biting drama till the very end, and made for one of the most exciting finishes to Paris-Roubaix in recent memory.

Road Cycling