There’s a simple sign that the professional cycle racing season has started in earnest — it’s when the toughest men and women on two wheels head to Europe to compete on some of the most demanding one-day courses ever devised. These are the Spring Classics — and here is all you need to know.
Milan-San Remo — Italy — March 23rd
Think of the Spring Classics and the first image that comes to mind is of filthy riders taking on the cobbled roads of France and Belgium. However, the season actually kicks off with the suitably nicknamed ‘La Primavera’ — ‘The Spring’ — Milan-San Remo race in north-west Italy. But what a way to start: with a race distance of almost 300 kilometres (185 miles), Milan San Remo is the longest professional one-day race in modern cycling. The legend Eddy Merckx has most wins at seven, although homeboy Costante Girardengo racked up six victories between 1918 and 1928. And even Britain can boast a couple of champions, with Tommy Simpson in 1964 and Mark Cavendish winning in 2009.
E3 Harelbeke — Belgium — March 29th
Neither a tribute act to U2, nor a Continental phone network, the first of the North European Classics gets its ‘E3’ moniker from the highway that links Harelbeke with Antwerp. The route itself is an out-and-back design, starting and finishing in Harelbeke, and visiting anything between 12 and 17 lung-busting cobbled climbs. The most famous of these are the Paterberg — a 300m climb at a gradient of 12.5% — and the Oude Kwaremont, which features 1.5 kilometres of cobbles. Adding another Classic to Britain’s tally, Welshman Geraint Thomas won the race in 2015.
Gent-Wevelgem — Belgium — March 31st
If the E3 Harelbeke is a tough start to the hard world of cobbled Classics, Gent-Wevelgem is something of a change in approach, with the route heading away from the hills of the Flemish Ardennes to focus more around West Flanders and Northern France. Because of this slightly flatter terrain it’s known as being a ‘sprinters’ classic’ and the roll call of victors supports this notion with fastmen such as Tom Steels, Thor Hushovd and Mario Cipollini all taking the win. Britain’s own Barry Hoban won the race back in 1974, and Lizzie Armistead won the women’s event in 2012. However, it’s no flat and fast challenge: two climbs of the fearsomely steep and fully cobbled Kemmelberg climb are highlights for spectators.
Tour of Flanders — Belgium — April 7th
When you hear the name ‘Tour of something’ you instantly think of a multi-day stage race, but the Tour of Flanders manages to cram all the excitement of cycling’s biggest event in bike-mad Flanders into just one day. With a huge number of hard cobbled climbs — including the Oude Kwaremont, Molenberg, Peterberg and Koppenberg — on which to launch attacks, ‘Flanders’ is known as something of a tactical race. And sometimes the unexpected moves don’t even end when the race is finished. At the 2013 edition of the Tour of Flanders, runner-up Peter Sagan infamously pinched the bottom of one of the podium girls at the after-race ceremony and had to issue a grovelling video apology. Again, the UK has some past winners: Tommy Simpson took the honours in 1961 while the women’s race has been won by two Brits: Nicolle Cooke in 2007 and Lizzie Armitstead in 2016.
Paris-Roubaix — France — April 14th
Other races have their fans and devotees, but when it comes to the drama and atmosphere of one-day Classic racing, nothing can compare with ‘Hell of the North’, Paris-Roubaix. With more than 50 kilometres of dusty, muddy, bike-breaking cobbles and an evocative finish on the concrete track of Roubaix Velodrome, Paris-Roubaix is a succession of legendary scenes and images. How important is it to the wider world of cycling? There’s a reason why bike manufacturers are so keen to highlight the face their bikes have been used at Paris-Roubaix — if they can cope with the demands of pro riders under the harshest conditions, they can cope with a 100-mile sportive round Dorset. No Brit has ever won Paris-Roubaix, but Irishman Sean Kelly was victorious in 1984 and 1986.
Amstel Gold Race — Netherlands — April 21st
Amstel Gold Race is the only one-day Classic held in the Netherlands and it really couldn’t get more Dutch in any way: a Dutch beer brewer is sponsor and Dutchman Jan Raas holds the record with five wins. The Amstel Gold Race will continue to have a women’s event this year (following a long absence between 2004 – 2016). It accompanies Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège as the Spring Classics with races for male and female riders.
Flèche Wallonne — Belgium — April 24th
La Flèche Wallonne — or ‘Walloon Arrow’ — is a rarity among Classic races in that it is held midweek, between the Amstel and Liège. Like all great bike races it was created to promote a newspaper (think Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Paris-Nice, Dauphiné Libéré, etc), and in terms of the cycling challenge involved it can match pretty much anything on the calendar. Its difficulty is down to its three laps of a tough circuit that features the awesomely steep Mur de Huy — which literally translates as ‘the Wall of Huy’. Surely calling a road a ‘wall’ is over-egging things, right? Don’t you believe it: several sections of the climb are steeper than 15% and it even hits 26% at one point. No Brit has ever won Flèche, but interestingly this is one event where a victory by cycling’s über-baddy Lance Armstrong still stands, as it happened in 1996 before he started cheating.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège — Belgium — April 28th
The final event of the Spring Classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège wraps things off with true class. It’s known as ‘La Doyenne’ meaning ‘Old Lady’ because it was first held in 1892. It features a 250-260 kilometre (155-160 mile) course with some of the most arduous climbs, particularly in the return to Liège. And it has seen some of the greatest cycling performances of all time, probably capped by Bernard Hinault’s heroic 1980 ride, where he attacked with 50 miles to go in freezing conditions and with snow all around. Hinault took victory nearly 10 minutes ahead of the next finisher in a race that saw only 21 of the original 174 starters complete the distance. Liège-Bastogne-Liège has held a women’s event since 2017 which at half the distance of the men’s event is technically Bastogne-Liège but still features four categorized climbs.
Now that you’re au fait with the Spring Classic’s most important historic facts and figures, why not check out the tech that will be utilised there this year?