One man’s wistful take on the Spring Classics

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Spring is my favourite time of the cycle racing year. Yep, it’s the spring classics and, in particular, the cobbled races in Belgium.

Yes the summer tours are great to look at, with their soaring mountains and sunflowers, but it’s months before we get to all that. I’m talking about Belgium and wet cobbles. Rain, wind and even snow. Narrow lanes with mud on the corners and brutally steep bergs covered in ancient broken cobbles.

These are the races that appeal to me. I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s because the scenery often looks a bit like the lanes and hills of Surrey where I ride most weekends. The roads certainly look as bad. Perhaps it’s the fact that the weather can be so variable from one year to the next. Even one weekend to the next. Maybe as a mountain biker I like the skill of the cobbles.

There is always the chance of a crash or an epic ride. Or an epic fail. Some riders base their whole year on the next few weeks. The build up races which start in February and the final act which is Paris-Roubaix on April 8th this season. The top cobbled classics riders will only really be focused on two races the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Win one of those and you can mostly kick back for the rest of the year. You will also be a hero to cycling fans forever.

Here we will take a look at the season so far and see who is hot and who is grovelling in the gutter ahead of Flanders on Sunday.

The cobbled season for 2018 kicked off on Saturday 24th Feb with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and continued on Sunday 25th Feb with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Two great races with all the required cobbles and hills to set the tone for the following weeks. Omloop is like a mini Tour of Flanders and features a lot of the same roads and climbs as the big one. Kuurne has a flatter profile and often favours the sprinters.

Young Dane Michael Valgren riding for Astana took the win at Omloop with a late attack. A group of 13 had formed after the second last climb the Muur and his team had 3 riders in it. They played it well and when Valgren attacked there was a bit of hesitation from the rest of the break, his team mates did a little bit of blocking and he was gone. In Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the next day the weather was again cold, clear and windy. The race came down to a reduced bunch sprint in the end and Dylan Groenewegen from Lotto NL Jumbo crossed the line first. You may remember he won the sprint up the Champs Elysee at the end of the Tour de France last year.

Then it was on to Le Samyn on the 27th of February. More cobbles and bergs. Again it was a super cold day in Belgium but at least it was dry. This time it was the turn of the Quickstep team to show what a collection of talent they have when it comes to this kind of racing. They pretty much drove the race from the start and ended up with first for Dutchman Niki Terpstra and second for Philippe Gilbert who seems on target to defend his epic Tour of Flanders win from last year.

The classics then take a trip down south to Italy to take in Strade Bianchi on March 3rd and Milan-San Remo on the 17th. San Remo is a must see for me and I had the pleasure of riding it’s final two climbs, the Cipressa and the Poggio, last year.

Strade Bianchi is a very new addition to the spring classic season having only been a pro race since 2007 and only counting in the UCI world tour since last year. It is a modern classic though with a fantastic route through Tuscany which includes over 50km of dirt roads. It is beyond scenic and the finish in the piazza in Siena is beautiful. This year Tiesj Benoot of theLotto Soudal team soloed to victory. This was the young Belgians first professional win. Way to go Tiesj.

Milan San Remo is the first Monument of the year and also the longest one day race on the pro calendar. A whopping 291 km long in fact. Wily Italian Vincenzo Nibali powered away on the Poggio climb and somehow managed to stay away to the line as the sprinters left it too late to reel him in.

Then it’s back to Belgium for three more races over the bergs and cobbles. E3 Harelbeke on the 23rd March, Ghent-Wevelgem 25th,Dwars door Vlanderen on the 28th. E3 was again a show of collective strength from the Quickstep team with Niki Terpstra getting the win here as well and Philippe Gilbert second again. Ghent Wevelgem is a really big race and world champion Peter Sagan who has had a quiet start to the season finally got a big win under his belt. He was simply unmatched in the reduced bunch sprint.

Next up it’s the big one. The Tour of Flanders is my favourite race of the year. April the 1st will see most of Belgium either lining the route or watching the race in a bar with frites and beer. It’s a combination of the history, the route and the importance the riders attach to this race that frequently makes it an epic. Last years 50km solo break by Philipe Gilbert fits into that category. It’s nice to see that the Muur climb is back as well.

Then it’s the Schelderprijs on the 4th and on to Paris-Roubaix on April 8th. The hell of the north is obviously in France but it does finish pretty close to the Belgian border and it brings the curtain down on the cobbled classics.

There are of course more spring classics to follow. Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But these races are different. The climbs are longer the cobbles mostly gone. A different set of riders start to appear on the start line. Skinny climbers that you see at the Tour. The guys who have been pounding the roads since the Omloop start to fade.

I will still watch and enjoy the rest of the cycling year – the tours of Italy, France and Spain; the autumn classics; the World Championships. Really though I’m just waiting for next year’s cobbles.

Doug, 28 March 2018


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