The metrological winter has come to an end, and this coincides with the most exciting time of the cycling season.
The end of February, March and April sees four ‘Monuments’- the Cobbled Classics; the Ardennes Classics; and two of the greatest week-long stage races. Put simply, it’s two months of cycling saturation and being glued to the TV screen (if you’re not there by the roadside, that is!)
- Let’s start with the Cobbled Classics: ten races in Belgium and northern France, all of which are made famous by cobbled bergs and uneven farm roads. They start with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and are followed by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, La Samyn, Dwars door West-Vlaanderen, Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgmen, Tour of Flanders, Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix. All of which guarantee exciting racing.
- After the cobbled races comes the Ardennes Classics: hilly one-day races in the Netherlands and Belgium that typically suit riders like Philippe Gilbert – ‘puncheurs’ – as they are called in cycling parlance. The week of Classics in mid-April begins with the Amstel Gold Race, followed by La Fléche Wallonne and then Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
- Italy throws in with two mega races itself. On 18th March is the first ‘Monument’ of the year, Milan San-Remo. A sprinter’s favourite, the race is over 300km in length and is one of the most demanding races on the calendar. But two weekends before that is Strade Bianche, literally meaning ‘White Roads’. Dusty roads make for a truly epic race.
- In-between these one-day icons are some of the finest week-long stage races: Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. The former typically sees Tour de France riders square up to each other in the ‘Race to the Sun’, while the latter is being billed as the Giro d’Italia’s precursor – with Nairo Quitana, Thibaut Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali all facing off. They’re sure to be crackers.
- So, why do we love the Cobbled Classics? In as few words as possible, they are the most unpredictable of races. There’s rarely a default game of cat-and-mouse between the peloton; instead, action can start from 150km out, with the race-winning move being made hours before the finish. You never know when an attack will come. The cobbles cause chaos: an untimely puncture or mechanical defect can ruin any rider’s race, while wet and/or windy weather can reduce the field to just dozens.
- The most exciting and best all-round riders in the world thrive in their natural habitat in March and April: Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen, Alexander Kristoff, Niki Terpstra, Ian Stannard – they all love these races and build their seasons around them. They’re at their peak and the rivalry creates sensational racing.
- In recent years, British riders have become very good in these races. Mark Cavendish is a previous winner of Milan San-Remo, and Ben Swift was second in 2016. Geraint Thomas has won E3 Harelbeke and Stannard Omloop Het Nieuwsblad twice – and also came third at Paris-Roubaix. Last year, Luke Rowe was fifth at the Tour of Flanders. There’s yet more chance of British success this year.
- They may not be as long as their Alpine counterparts, but some of the hills in Flanders are just as iconic in the cycling world: Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg, the Muur, the Koppenberg… these hills are where dreams have been made and lost.
- Paris-Roubaix’s cobbles: the Arenberg, Carrefour de l’Arbre, Mons-en-Pévèle – just the mention of these elicit memories of years gone by, and either produce fear in the minds of the riders or excitement at making race-winning moves on them. With 27 cobbled sectors in total, it’s no wonder it’s called ‘The Hell of the North’.
- These Classics are magical: for example, who envisaged Mat Hayman, a self-confessed Roubaix enthusiast – but nonetheless a domestique with no chance to ride for himself – would win the race in 2016? Romance and magic combines in these months.
- Inventive adjustments to bikes are commonplace, which makes for interesting viewing: riders put sandpaper in their bottle cages to stop them from falling victim to the cobbles, while they also double wrap their bar tape to prevent blisters. There’s always intriguing debates around tyre choice, and some, like Team Sky, put suspension on their bikes. A bike geek’s heaven.
- And finally, the close proximity to the UK – Flanders is less than two hours away from Calais, meaning it’s perfect for a weekend trip, whether by car or bike. And nothing beats watching races up, close and personal – especially not these ones.
Can you wait? We can’t.