The Spring Classics 2017: beer, frites and cobbles

The Monuments, the oldest, hardest and most prestigious one-day events of the Classics start tomorrow with La Primavera, the epic race from Milan to San Remo.  Here’s Ride Velo’s guide to those one day races to look forward to, not just this weekend, but over the next few weeks.

Mud, sweat and gears...and cobbles

Mud, sweat and gears...and cobbles

Think of the Spring Classics and you think of frites, ridiculously strong beer brewed by monks, cobbles and the likes of Sean Kelly spattered in mud and relishing the brutality of it all. These are the longest races of the calendar and spring sunshine can turn to rain, sleet or even snow, turning rough roads and cobbles into a slippery mess the more delicate riders dread.

These are races for the hard men of the cycling world. They also have their own terminology which you’ll need to get the hang of to impress your mates on the Sunday club run. We all know that ‘pavé’ refers to the cobbled sections of the road that some riders seem to float over, while others skid off into the ditch. ‘Berg’ is the Belgian word for a climb, hence Koppenberg or Paterberg. But it’s a ‘mur’ you need to really watch out for. “Mur’ means wall. Ever cycled up one of those? The Mur de Huy is a pretty decisive climb to be overcome in La Fleche Wallone.

Meanwhile a ‘puncheur’ is a type of rider who loves rolling terrain and short sharp climbs, or ‘murs’ to inflict punishment on his rivals and competitors. But the Monuments get going further south in the land of espresso, rather than beer, and it’s pasta and pizza rather than chips slathered in mayonnaise that’ll be on the menu for the first one.

Milan – San Remo Saturday March 19th

The first Monument of the season, it’s known as La Primavera, The Spring, and is the longest one-day race in the calendar with a gruelling 291km route. Often viewed as one for the sprinters, although for sprinters who don’t back off when presented with a bit of a climb, previous winners have included Mark Cavendish.

The accepted wisdom is that you have to be at, or near the front, when you get to the top of the Poggio, before plummeting down the other side for the 3km dash to the finish.   This one of the most unpredictable races of the year and numerous favourites have fallen short over the years. Quick-Step’s directeur sportif, Davide Bramati, said last week, “This race is like a Jack-in-the-box. It can always spring a surprise.”

Last year it was won by Andre Demare, after a crash just before the finish caused several of the front runners to lose momentum. Demare was the first Frenchman to win a monument since Laurent’s Jalabert’s 1997 victory at the Lombardia.

This year everyone seems to be backing Peter Sagan who has had an impressive start to the season with two stage wins at Tirreno and a first at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne the day after a second place at Omloop. Fernando Gaviria, the Colombian tipped as the next Mark Cavendish because of a similar sprinting style, is second in the bookies favourites. He was one of the unfortunates to crash out on the Via Roma last year.

After that, look out for Jon Degenkolb, Demare and Alexander Kristoff. As a former winner, Mark Cavendish can never be written off either. Catch Sean Kelly’s crazy and fearless descent of the Poggio in 1992, back in the days when the pros didn’t bother with girly things like helmets.

Tour of Flanders April 1st

Almost a national day of pride and celebration of all things Belgian, spectators stand five or six deep to cheer on their heroes up the climbs. Expect much Leffe, Delirium Tremens (yes, really, 9%!) and Chimay to be consumed as well as the odd fried potato.

Gareth Llewhellin's  Flanders limited edition print is available form the  Ride Velo shop

Gareth Llewhellin's Flanders limited edition print is available form the Ride Velo shop

A series of short, sharp cobbled climbs in the second half of the route mean that only the hardest survive. Last year was an exciting race with our old friend and World Champion Peter Sagan winning his first monument with a solo attack on the final climb.

The first half of the race was punctuated by several mass crashes in the peloton that claimed the scalps of many of the pre race favourites. Always exciting, it’ll be a great way to celebrate April Fool’s Day this year.  

Paris – Roubaix April 9th

How can a race be known as ‘The Queen of The Classics’, ‘The Hell of The North’ and, ‘A Sunday in Hell’ (also the title of the famous film of the 1976 edition) all at the same time? Theo de Rooij famously commented, “It’s bollocks, this race” before going on to admit that it’s “the most beautiful race in the world.”

Loathed, feared and loved at the same time, it’s really known for its famed cobbled sectors that can make the end result a lottery as scores of riders fall victim to mechanical failure, punctures and crashes.

The race finishes in the velodrome at Roubaix, the scene of many an epic sprint finish as exhausted riders draw on their last reserves of strength, grit and determination after hundreds of kilometers of agony.

Gareth Llewhellin's  Roubaix limited edition print is available form the  Ride Velo shop

Gareth Llewhellin's Roubaix limited edition print is available form the Ride Velo shop

Last year an emotional Mathew Hayman burst into tears when he realised he’d out sprinted some big guns in Tom Boonen, Ian Stannard and Sep Vanmarcke at the velodrome. For the 2017 edition they’ve introduced two more stretches of cobblestones not seen for 30 years.

Liege – Bastogne – Liege April 23rd

This has become a bit of a favourite for the unstoppable and veteran Spaniard, Alejandre Valverde, who has won this 3 times now, most recently in 2015. This is the last of the northern European spring classics, held in the Ardennes region of Belgium.

Known as ‘La Doyenne’ it has a great heritage, the first edition taking place in 1892. Exciting for spectators, the route offers about 12 climbs, giving ample opportunities for riders to attack, and it’s widely regarded as one of the toughest classics because of the length and severity of the climbs.

Spectators - watch out!

Spectators - watch out!

As Moreno Argentin once said, “Riders who win in Liege are what we call 'fondisti' – men with a superior level of stamina.” Watch out for the Mur de Huy and the Cote de La Redoute with some sections at over 20% gradient.

Wout Poels is title holder. Last year, the Dutchman outsprinted a select group with Michael Albasini, Rui Costa and Samuel Sánchez, bringing the first Monument ever to Team Sky.

Other highlights of the spring classics calendar include La Fleche Wallonne on April 19th, and the Amstel Gold Race on April 16th. So, make sure you have that subscription to Eurosport sorted, get down to your posh off licence for some Belgian beer, and get the deep fat fryer on. The cycling season has started!