As a Yorkshireman, I have an inbuilt resistance to paying an extra £7 a month, just to get one paltry tv channel. For years I’ve resisted on principle. But, this year, I finally spent £7 a month to upgrade my BT package to include Eurosport. Actually, I didn’t just get Eurosport, but about 30 other useless channels so If I ever have to spend a month off the bike, I can at least spend 24 hours a day watching documentaries about ancient Egypt, Atlantis, and an exotic mix of shopping channels.
My main motivation for buying Eurosport was to watch professional cycling. I’ve never watched the classic season before, and so far I’ve really enjoyed watching the big classics.
Firstly, I really love the names of the great classics. Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo. They are wonderfully evocative and capture the imagination of every bike enthusiast. When I ride over a cobbled road, like a mantra ‘Paris-Roubaix’ often comes into my mind. Liege-Bastogne-Liege could sound like a subplot from a Second World War movie. It’s that part of the world which has endlessly been fought over, now this area is fought over by 220 lycra clad cyclists barging their way up the Redoute, Mur de Huy, Oude Kwaremont, and the Paterberg.
There is a real class about the names of the race, steeped in history.
- Liege Bastogne Liege or the F.A. Cup brought to you by Budweiser – which sounds the better name for a classic sporting event? The only exception to this rule, is the E3 Harelbeke in Belgium. How can the land of Eddy Merckx make such a schoolboy error as to name a classic cycle race after a motorway? Even if the E3 was 200 years old, and won by every great cycle rider, it wouldn’t be on the same pedestal as Milan San Remo because how can you get excited about a motorway? If you really have to name a race after a motorway, they might, at least, have copied the Cycling Time Trials and given it a proper course code like the E3/175b – now that would have been really cool.
Britain is often accused of being an insular country, nothing gets Mr White Van Driver’s back up more than EU directives about British sausages and bendy bananas. But, when it comes to cycling, European is unashamedly cool. If we can slip French cycling terms into our conversation, it is on a par, to turning up to a ride with shaved legs and a new Cervelo P3. Europe is cool, but especially, Flanders, Italy, the Ardennes, Holland and France. True, Britain is catching up in procycling, but the Leeds classic, the Milk Race, the Surrey Classic, will never have the ring or history of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. At best we can hope to join the European club.
Anyway, the name alone doesn’t make a sporting occasion. What about the racing? Firstly, the racing is much more exciting and interesting than a stage in the Tour de France. If you’ve only ever watched the Tour de France, you might think cycling is dominated by a strong team of nine, pulling at the front to set up a sprinter or put their team leader in yellow. Rarely do the best cyclists in the Tour actually show themselves at the front. The beauty of the classics is that, although team tactics play a huge role, at the end of the day, if you want to win you have to get over the finish line first. You have to have tactical nous and strength over the whole 270km. You can win the Tour without winning a stage. In the classics, defensive tactics aren’t enough.
Classics are much tougher than a stage. It is rarely dominated by one team (at least so long as Gewiss isn’t being prepared by Michele Ferrari) The nature of the race means it’s often hard for the favourite to win. The winner could come from many different sources. Though if you have an engine like Cancellara, it does put you in a good position. But, even his win in Paris-Roubaix was pretty exciting. And if two fellow escapees hadn’t been knocked off by spectators, he may well not have won.
That’s one thing about the classics – there is great unpredictability. Can you imagine Manchester United on course to win the Premier League only to fall in the last game of the season, because Wayne Rooney gets knocked over by a spectator wandering onto the pitch. (and to think Premier league managers get annoyed for implementation of offside rules) Classics must be really tough for the riders, a mistime puncture or crash and it’s all over.
In particular, I keep a look out for Sky riders. I really enjoyed seeing Ian Stannard attack in Milan San Remo, he ended up finishing 6th, but it seemed a very honourable 6th place. In sport, they often say it’s first or nothing, but in the classics I’m sure it’s not like that. Even just finishing must be a great achievement. Sky are very professional team, but have struggled in the classics. Even a great stage racer can’t necessarily win the classics.
I caught the Tour of Flanders at the best moment. Cancellara attacked, only Sagan could respond. Then, Cancellara attacked again, and Sagan couldn’t quite match the pace. The action may all happen towards the end, but it’s gripping stuff. All or nothing.
My biggest disappointment of the classic season was recording Liege Bastogne Liege on Sunday when I was out racing. I watched 2.5 hours from km 100 to 3km to go. A break of 5-6 riders was flying up the cote du Saint-Nicolas, then the recording stopped 5 mins before the finish! The race had gone over time, and I missed the last 3km. So much for paying £7 a month to Eurosport!
The Five ‘monuments’ – biggest classics.
- Milan – San Remo (Italy) – the first true Classic of the year, its Italian name is La Primavera (the spring), this race is held in late March. First run in 1907.
- Tour of Flanders (Belgium) – also known as the Tour of Flanders, the first of the ‘Spring Classics’, is raced in early April. First held in 1913.
- Paris–Roubaix (France) – the “Queen of the Classics” or l’Enfer du Nord (“Hell of the North”) is traditionally one week after the Tour of Flanders, and was first raced in 1896.
- Liège–Bastogne–Liège (Belgium) – late April. La Doyenne, the oldest Classic, was first held in 1892 as an amateur event; a professional edition following in 1894.
- Giro di Lombardia (Italy) – also known as the “Race of the Falling Leaves”, was held in October. Initially called the Milano–Milano in 1905, it became the Giro di Lombardia in 1907 and Il Lombardia in 2012 along with a new, earlier date at the end of September.