‘A lot can happen

The Tour de France is undoubtedly the biggest event on the road cycling calendar but, when it comes to epic races, the season does not begin and end in July.

For many aficionados, racing proper starts on Sunday with the Milan-San Remo one-day classic. For those new to the sport, it is a perfect example of the excitement to be found if you look beyond Alpe D’Huez or the Champs Elysees.

The near-300km race in Italy is the first of five ‘monument’ races and heralds the start of the spring classics which run through the latter half of March and into April, pitting riders against uneven roads and unpredictable weather.

Geraint Thomas is one of the riders leading the Team Sky challenge in the classics, having switched his attention to the road after

winning a second Olympic gold on the track

in the team pursuit at London 2012.

Geraint’s glory

Geraint Thomas

On the track:

Double gold medallist in the team pursuit at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics

On the road:

National road-race champion in 2010, and claimed his first pro win in the five-day Bayern-Rundfahrt race in 2011. Thomas also won the prologue of the 2012 Tour de Romandie and stage two of the 2013 Tour Down Under, finishing third overall.

“The history of these races and the passion of the fans in Italy, Belgium and France help make them so special,” the 26-year-old Welshman told BBC Sport.

“I grew up watching them. There are so many stories involving legends of the sport and old pictures show riders racing on the same roads with the same finishes.

“And obviously, at this time of the year, the weather can be bad and all sorts of things can go on.

“While stage races can be controlled and get into a rhythm, in these sort of races a lot can happen, and very quickly too.

“There are definitely certain places on the route where you know you have to be at the front, but everyone else knows that too, so there are big races into those sections.

“That is maybe something people back home don’t necessarily see. They just see the finish but a lot of work is involved to get into a position where you can win.”

Milan-San Remo – Sunday, 17 March

Team Sky’s first test comes on Sunday. First raced in 1907, la classica di Primavera (the spring classic) has grown into the longest one-day cycling race at 298km and takes more than six hours to complete. Cycling legend Eddy Merckx has the most wins with seven.

It is a predominantly flat race, which tends to favour the sprinters – although the short climb up the Poggio di Sanremo inside the last 10km, which has a maximum gradient of 8%, can scupper the fastest men in the peloton.

Mark Cavendish sprinted to victory in the 2009 race

to become the second British rider to win the race after Tom Simpson’s triumph in 1964.

Britwatch:

Cavendish will be competing for his Omega Pharma Quick-Step team, Thomas and Ian Stannard for Team Sky, and David Millar for Garmin in a 200-strong field.

Look out for: Peter Sagan

– Slovakian sprinter who has shown he has the legs for the Poggio.

Thomas says:

“It is a bit of a cliche but anything can happen on Sunday. It could be a bunch sprint where people like Andre Greipel and Cav are in there. If that happens Eddy [Edvald Boasson Hagen] will be our leader and it will be hard for him to do anything against the top-flight sprinters.

“But attacks will be going on before then and, if they can stay away and Eddy and I are both up there, then hopefully we can bounce off each other and try to use that to our advantage.”

Gent-Wevelgem – Sunday, 24 March

The first of the spring ‘cobbled classics’, Gent-Wevelgem was first contested by juniors in 1934. When racing began again after the Second World War, professionals were allowed to compete.

Tom Boonen

Boonen excels on the cobblestones in his home country

Another predominantly flat race, the approximately 200km route is famed for the cobbled Kemmelberg, which can be treacherous in wet conditions and is climbed and descended twice.

Britain’s solitary winner is Barry Hoban in 1974, although Lizzie Armitstead became the first winner of the women’s version of the race in 2012.

Britwatch:

British quartet Luke Rowe, Ben Swift, Stannard and Thomas are in Team Sky’s squad. Cavendish and Millar are also scheduled to race.

Look out for: Tom Boonen

– Belgian bidding to become the first rider to win three times on the trot, which would give him five in total.

Thomas says:

“Timing is everything in races like this one. You have to make the moment count and there’s no second chances, that’s for sure, especially for riders like me anyway. ”

“To use an analogy, you’ve only got a few bullets in a race and you’ve only got a few times where you can fire those bullets. The better riders have more of both so they can make a mistake but when you are limited you only have one or two big efforts in you.

“It is about making those count and hopefully you get a bit of luck along the way and who knows what can happen.”

Tour of Flanders – Sunday, 31 March

Continue reading the main story

I think I can figure at the finish. I was 10th two years ago and definitely feel I am a lot better now. So, if I can get a bit of luck and ride it well, I have got a good chance

Geraint Thomas

The most important cycling race in the Belgian region of Flanders is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year – although this will be the 97th staging of the race as it was halted for the First World War. Tom Simpson’s 1961 victory remains Britain’s only triumph.

The second of the season’s monument races, this year’s 256km race, which starts on the outskirts of Bruges and heads to Oudenaarde features 17 short climbs and 17 cobbled sections with the notoriously difficult Koppenberg among them.

Britwatch:

Rowe, Stannard, Swift and Thomas are again in the Team Sky squad.

Look out for: Fabian Cancellara

– the Swiss rider loves one-day racing and was

victorious in 2010.

Thomas says:

“This is my favourite race and probably the one classic that is suited to me the best.

“I think I can figure at the finish – I was 10th two years ago and definitely feel I am a lot better now. So, if I can get a bit of luck and ride it well, I have got a good chance.”

Paris-Roubaix – Sunday, 7 April

Known as the Queen of the Classics or the Hell of the North, Paris-Roubaix was first raced in 1896 and is the third monument of the season.

The weather, cobbles and mud often combine to make this one of the toughest one-day races. At 254km long, this year’s race will feature 52.6km of cobbled roads, split into more than 25 sections.

Britwatch:

“The key thing in these races is actually having numbers and being strong in a team and having a few options,” says Thomas.

“Come Roubaix, we will have to see who has got the best legs but I think we have got a strong enough team that we can have a lot of guys left for the last 50km, so that is going to be our strength then.”

Look out for: Tom Boonen

– the Belgian is chasing a record fifth win in nine years.

Thomas says:

“I am definitely looking forward to this one! This is one of those races I have grown up watching on the TV – you see the riders covered in dirt, it is the hard man’s sort of race and I can’t wait for it.”

Amstel Gold – Sunday, 14 April

The first of the season’s Ardennes Classics, the race is run in the Netherlands and has been on the calendar since 1966.

Philippe Gilbert

Gilbert won his first Amstel title in 201 and has won three times on the Cauberg

It is a tough course of around 260km which features up to 31 climbs, many of them tackled more than once and some gradients reaching 20% in places – thus it favours riders who can climb.

Britwatch:

“This race will see a completely different line-up for Team Sky,” says Thomas.

“Maybe one of us will ride Amstel but after Roubaix most of us are having a break for a week or so, where we are completely off the bike before the build-up starts towards the Tour de France.

“The start of the year is more self-orientated but from here on on it sort of turns towards the Tour and, if I am involved, I will be purely riding for the team then.”

Rider to watch: Philippe Gilbert

– won in 2010 and 2011 and in 2012 won the world road race title which finished, like the Amstel, atop the Cauberg.

La Fleche Wallone – Wednesday, 17 April

Usually held midweek, between the Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege races, La Fleche Wallone started life in 1936.

La Fleche Wallone winners

Four riders have won the race three times. Belgians
Marcel Kint

(1943-45) and
Eddy Merckx

(1967, 70, 72) and Italians
Moreno Argentin

(1990, 91, 94) and
Davide Rebellin

(2004, 07, 09)

The current 200km route begins in Charleroi and heads east through Belgium to Huy where three laps of a circuit that contains several climbs have to be negotiated.

Look out for: Samuel Sanchez

– the 2008 Olympic road race champion is an excellent climber and descender and the Spaniard has been close before.

Liege-Bastogne-Liege – Sunday 21 April

The oldest of the one-day races and the fourth and final monument of the spring classics. It began in 1892, like many races of its time, to help promote a newspaper.

The toughest of classics

Snow fell during the 1980 race and conditions were so cold that it took three weeks until winner Bernard Hinault was able to move the index and middle fingers on his right hand.

Often regarded as the toughest of the classics, the race packs the majority of its climbs into the final 100km of its more than 250km route.

Look out for: Thomas Voeckler

– French favourite who finished fourth last year and made a strong showing in several classics.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/cycling/21799815

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