I could never understand the Spring Classic bike races. I thought they were the preserve of ‘proper’, dedicated cycle enthusiasts. They seemed shrouded in mystery, with deep historical roots and traditions difficult to unpick. It turns out I was wrong, the Classics are really rather easy to understand and today we look at what they are and why you should be watching them.
As a series of races the Spring Classics are some of the most thrilling and challenging events on the pro cycling calendar. They are held annually in Northern Europe, typically between late February and early May and herald the start of a long season that stretches all the way to October. The races are characterised by their long distances, tough terrain and unpredictable weather conditions. Each has its own unique landscape and set of challenges that have become baked into the fabric of cycling history.
So, what else characterises these races? For starters they are all one-day races. Unlike stage races (ie. the Tour de France) which last for several days, this one-day format means the racing almost always has an edge and real sense of urgency, each one a condensed test of a cyclist's endurance, strength, and tactical ability. There is little room for error, riders must be on top of their game from the gun, as a single mistake or mechanical problem can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Cobbles and Gravel
Next, let’s look at the unique terrain, which is a major factor in their difficulty. The races are divided into sections or ‘sectors’ and often feature cobbles (aka pave), gravel roads, steep climbs (aka bergs), and narrow lanes that can be treacherous at the best of times. Add in wet and windy conditions and dust turns into mud, coddles become dangerously slick and the whole affair looks more like a battlefield than a bike race – great entertainment!
Don’t Forget the Weather
Did we mention the weather? The Spring Classics always endure unpredictable weather. The races are mostly held in early spring, and the weather can be highly variable, with rain, wind, and even snow all possible. Riders must be prepared for any eventuality and with some races stretching over 250 kilometres, they are truly a test of mind and body (and all-the-more thrilling for it!).
Teamwork is Key
The races are highly tactical, with teams and individual riders often working to attack or counter-attack at key points in the race. Riders will also need to carefully manage their efforts throughout the race to save enough energy for the final sprint or climb to the finish. No one rider can win a race alone, with teams working together to try and ensure victory for their leader. Teams will often have several ‘domestiques’ who are tasked with supporting their leader by providing a draft, fetching water bottles or food, and even sacrificing their own chances for the team's greater success.
Which races actually qualify as Spring Classics is a debated topic, depending on who you ask, there are at least 11 well established races. What is not up for debate are the 5 OG races, the oldest and most revered tests known as the ‘Monuments’ and considered some of the most prestigious and challenging events in cycling. These races have a long and storied history (some dating back more than a century) and have provided some of the sport’s greatest moments.
Here are the 5 Monuments, if you watch any Classics this year, these are the ones:
1. Milan-San Remo (Italy) – 18th March
The 1st Monument of the year. Started in 1907. Almost 300km and always a thrilling finish.
2.Tour of Flanders (Belgium) – 2nd April
Over a century old. A 270km route littered with punchy cobbled climbs, with icons like Kwaremont and Paterberg tackled multiple times. A true blockbuster.
3. Paris-Roubaix (France) – 8/9th April
The most iconic Monument of them all – so many battles and enduring images have come from the cobbles and mud of Roubaix over the years. If you only watch one, this is it.
4. Liège-Bastogne-Liège (Belgium) – 23rd April
This race pre-dates even Paris-Roubaix. Run since 1892, it is widely regarded as one of the toughest races in bike racing. Fantastic entertainment and finale to the spring races.
5. Il Lombardia (Italy) – 7th October
The Autumn classic. This outlier and final monument takes place right at the end of the UCI calendar. A fitting finale and one that favours climbers with over 4400m to climb for 2023.
Where & When to Watch
Eurosport is the go-to channel for all cycling content and show live and highlight shows of all the Classics races (and more). Here are your key dates:
25th February Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
26th February Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
4th March Strade Bianche
18th March Milan-San Remo
24th March E3 Saxo Classic
26th March Gent-Wevelgem
2nd April Tour of Flanders
8/9th April Paris Roubaix
16th April Amstel Gold
19th April La Flèche Wallonne
23rd April Liège – Bastogne – Liège
7th October Il Lombardia
Get those dates firmly in the diary – we are one weekend in and Strade Bianche takes place in Italy this weekend. This race is a great introduction to classics racing – less than 20 years old, but the white gravel roads of Tuscany are quickly becoming an iconic fixture. Enjoy!