One of the key things to note about the biggest one-day professional road cycling races in France, Belgium and Italy is that they are tough.
Even that may be an understatement if you bear in mind Paris-Roubaix Race Director Jaques Goddet’s words: ‘Paris-Roubaix is the last test of madness that the sport of cycling puts before its participants…. A hardship approaching the threshold of cruelty.’
The Spring Classics, otherwise known as the Cobbled Classics, were created to promote the organiser’s products – so delivering testing routes simply meant a better story for the media.
The eldest of the Classics, Liège–Bastogne–Liège was first raced in 1892. Taking place in the southern Ardennes region of Belgium, this 260km race is sometimes referred to as the climber’s classic due to the series of sharp climbs in the second half of the course. It’s certainly no walk (or cycle) in the park for any professional.
The next oldest course, and perhaps the most famous of all the Classics, is Paris-Roubaix in northern France. This generally very flat route is made all the more brutal by sections of cobbled rural roads, which are incredibly testing and energy-sapping for even the world’s most hardy racers. Punctures and crashes are frequent, and the conditions are either very dusty, muddy or worse. It’s not called a ‘Sunday in Hell’ for nothing.
The race ends in the Roubaix Velodrome – the remaining cyclists battling it out in a track sprint before a solo escapee enters victorious. Roaring crowds of fans wait to see who will enter road-racing’s equivalent of the Colosseum (although in reality it’s a rather run-down sports arena holding just over 2,000 people).
Across the border from the Roubaix Velodrome is the Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen in Dutch, the other major cobbled race of the spring season. Although the cobblestones in Flanders are rumoured to be more compact and less ‘gnarled’ than those at Paris-Roubaix, the course at Flanders has more uphill sections, therefore possessing its own unique character. Flanders takes place the weekend before Roubaix with the best riders battling it out to achieve victory before taking on the Hell of the North the following Sunday.
And so on to the big race of the early season – the Milan-San Remo in Italy (this year won by Italian favourite Vincenzo Nibali). And when we say big, we mean an extraordinary distance. Just shy of 300km, it’s the longest one-day race in existence and often presents riders with tough conditions. But, the change in season from winter to spring is glorious as the race finishes on the stunning Ligurian coast, usually with a dramatic sprint determining the victor.
The appeal of the one-day races is the all-or-nothing approach from the racers and their teams. In stage races, tactics are often more defensive and cautious, but in the Classics you only have one shot at glory, making them all the more thrilling. Conditions are also usually more brutal than any other time of year, which adds to the rip-roaring twists and turns on show. No wonder they attract a devoted band of spectators.
Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell, published by VeloPress