As a sort of teaser to the arrival of Spring, this past Sunday marked the finish of the 2013 Paris-Nice stage race. The races’ path – from the cold, grey skies of Paris’ suburbs down south to the clear blue French Riviera – has earned it the title, the Race to the Sun. The metaphor is fitting. At a time of year when we’re longing for the sun, the Race to the Sun is a precursor to warmer months ahead and, as any cycling enthusiast knows, the beloved Spring Classics.
The Spring Classics are one-day road races. Each offers a challenging course for professional cyclists. One thing they share is that they’re all subject to the unpredictability of Spring weather which can present its own challenge. The oldest and most prestigious of the classic cycling day races are referred to as the Five Monuments of Cycling.
Milano-San Remo (Italy)
Also known as La Primavera, Italian for “the Spring,” Milano-San Remo is the first true Classic of the year and is one of the Five Monuments. Milano-San Remo was first run in 1907. Despite its length – it is the longest professional one-day race at 298km – it is known as the “sprinter’s classic.” Though it’s not always the best sprinter who wins the race; it’s typically the sprinter who is the most prepared this early in the season.
Race organizers have tried to add more climbs, but they’re too far from the finish to have an impact on the race. Really, the Milan–San Remo comes down to two climbs: the Cipressa and the Poggio. The Cipressa usually splits the race into a few groups but they usually come back together just in time for the final climb of the Poggio. With steep descents and hairpin turns, it offers the last chance for pushing the limits before the finish at the Italian Riviera.
Milano-San Remo is this Sunday, March 17th.
E3 Harelbeke (Belgium)
A mini Tour of Flanders and its 12 hills, the E3 Harelbeke is a prelude to the more prestigious Ronde van Vlaanderen. The race begins and ends in Harelbeke. It gets its name from the motorway (now the A14) connecting Prijs and Hrelbeke. Over 210km, cyclists tackle cobbles, wind and climbs. Belgian cyclist Tom Boonen holds the record for the most wins in the race with five victories.
The E3, which was first raced in 1958, takes place in mid-March and marks the start of Vlaamse Wielerweek, a week of cycling in Belgium. The week continues with the Brabantse Pijl on Sunday and the Driedaagse van De Panne stage race midweek before the Ronde van Vlaanderen classic on the following Sunday. Until 2011, the E3 was held on a Saturday. When the race was upgraded to World Tour status in 2012, the race moved to the Friday to have a day of rest before the Gent-Wevelgem, held on Sunday.
The 2013 E3 Harelbeke is Friday, 22 March.
The race has gone through several changes since 1934 when it began as a junior race. Recently, the race shifted from being held on the Wednesday between de Ronde van Vlaanderen and the Paris-Roubaix to the Sunday before the Ronde. While not officially part of the Vlaamse Wielerweek, it’s considered an unofficial finale to the series of cycling classics in Flanders. In 2010 the fixed date of the race shifted from the Wednesday after the Ronde van Vlaanderen to the Sunday before the Ronde. Another recent change, a women’s race was added in 2012.
Despite its name, the race traditionally begins in Deinze, a city near Gent. The course heads westward towards the Belgian coastal region and then southwards towards the Monteberg and Kemmelberg, near the French border, before heading towards Wevelgem.
Just like the other Spring Classics, the Gent-Wevelgem subjects cyclists to wind, rain and challenging terrain, including two ascents on the cobbled and steep Kemmelberg. Another race considered a “sprinters’ classic” because of its flat finishing terrain.
The 2013 Gent–Wevelgem is Sunday, March 24th.
Ronde van Vlaanderen (Belgium)
The Tour of Flanders, also referred to as “Flander’s finest” or “Flander’s most beautiful,” is one of cycling’s Five Monuments, having been on the racing circuit since 1913. The Ronde caps off a week of racing in Belgium. Bicycling.com describes the excitement around this big day by saying, “The race packs the drama of the Oscars, the excitement of the Tour de France and the hype of the Super Bowl into one day.”
While the Ronde starts off in the relatively flat Flanders countryside, it manages to find many sharp hills. The route turns and twists to cover as many of those hills as possible. The famous cobbles of the Koppenberg are featured. The Koppenberg has been dropped in some years because of its danger and difficulty. It is hard for riders to take all the climb while still riding; in 1984 only two riders ascended without having to walk their bikes.
The 2013 Ronde van Vlaanderen is Sunday, March 31st.
The Paris-Roubaix, or “La Reine,” “The Queen of the Classics,” dates back to 1896. The rough terrain it covers in the north of France, near the Belgium border, has earned the Paris-Roubaix the nicknames “l’Enfer du Nord,” “the Hell of the North,” and “A Sunday in Hell.” It is the third of The Five Monuments of Cycling.
The last time the race began in Paris was in 1967. Since then, it’s begun about 60km northeast of Paris in Compiègne. The finish is still in Roubaix.
Paris-Roubaix is famous for its many cobbled roads or pavé. It’s considered to be one of the “cobbbled classics,” along with the Ronde van Vlaanderen and the Gent–Wevelgem. Since 1977, the winner of Paris–Roubaix has received a “sett,” or a cobble stone. The terrain of the race has led to the development of specialized frames, wheels and tires. Punctures and other mechanical problems are common and have often been a deciding factor in the race.
The 2013 Paris-Roubaix is April 7th.
Amstel Gold Race (Netherlands)
As is perhaps obvious from its name, the Amstel Gold Race is the newest to the Spring Classics cycling circuit, only added in 1989 though the race itself dates back to 1966. The name refers to the race sponsor, Amstel Brewing Company (not to the river Amstel, which is, in fact, nowhere near the race).
The race is mostly held in the southern part of the province of Limburg, Netherlands. The course is tough, mostly because of the 31 hills that have to be climbed, including the steep Keutenberg (20% grade). The course winds through many densely populated suburbs and villages with cars parked on the streets becoming obstacles. There are also many obstacles such as speed humps, roudabouts and chicanes. The course can be confusing for first time riders, because the course features a lot of turns, plus some spots are visited more than one time during the race, and the nature of the course can be dangerous, inviting many crashes.
The 2013 Amstel Gold Race is Sunday, April 14th.
For any who are curious about the Netherlands:
La Flèche Wallonne (Belgium)
La Flèche Wallonne is not one of the Five Monuments, but it is one of cycling’s most prestigious races. “The Walloon Arrow” is the first of two Belgian Ardennes classics. It is normally held on a Wednesday, midway between the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Like many cycling races, the course has varied considerably over the years, both in route and length. The event was first run on roads from Tournai to Liège and grew gradually to over 300km. Since 1990, it’s never been longer than 210km. Now race starts in Charleroi and heads east to Huy, where the riders do three laps of a tough circuit which includes Mur de Huy, “the wall of Huy,” climb. The Mur has several sections steeper than 15% and one up to 26%. The finish is at the top of the Mur after the third ascent.
The winner is considered a favorite for Sunday’s race, at Liège-Bastogne-Liège
The 2013 La Flèche Wallonne is Wednesday, April 17th.
This race was first held in 1892 as an amateur event, with a professional edition following in 1894, making it the oldest of the Classics, affectionately called La Doyenne, “the oldest.” It is the fourth of the Five Monuments of Cycling (and the last one that is considered a Spring Classic). It is also part of the Belgian Ardennes Classics series.
The course heads south from Liège toward Bastogne, a town made famous during WWII’s Battle of the Bulge before turning back north toward the Liège suburb of Ans. Most cyclists will save themselves for the majority of climbs they will face on the return. Unlike the earlier Classics, Liege’s long, grueling climbs tend to suit true climbers, especially those able to follow sharp, uphill accelerations.
Cycling Weekly said: “In purely physical terms, this is probably the toughest classic: the climbs are long, most of them are pretty steep as well, and they come up with depressing frequency in the final kilometers.”
The 2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liège is Sunday, April 21st.
The Spring Classics then give way to summer Tours. See? Warmer weather isn’t that far off.