Spring classics: ‘Hell on wheels’

The arrival of spring across Europe heralds the start of the annual series of tough and lengthy one-day ‘Classics’ – races which pit riders against uneven roads and unpredictable weather.

From a near-300km race across northern Italy, to the mud and cobbles of northern France and the oldest of all in Belgium, the Spring Classics are among the hardest races a professional cyclist will face.

Sir Bradley Wiggins is aiming to become the first British rider to win one of the races – Paris-Roubaix – on Sunday, 12 April.

British success

Mark Cavendish

won the 2009 Milan-San Remo race but to find a British winner before him you have to go back to
Barry Hoban,

who won the 1974 Gent-Wevelgem title.

Tom Simpson

has had the most success, having won the 1961 Tour of Flanders and 1964 Milan-San Remo races.

BBC Sport columnist and Team Sky rider
Geraint Thomas

loves these races. He won junior Paris-Roubaix in 2004 and was seventh in the race last year. Here he talks us through the eight races, which are part of the UCI World Tour, and the types of riders who excel in each.

Milan-San Remo – Sunday, 22 March

The race

The race hugs the Mediterranean coastline after moving south from Milan

Defending champion:

Norway’s Alexander Kristoff

Most wins:

7 – Belgium’s Eddy Merckx

Did you know?

In 2004, four-time winner Erik Zabel celebrated too early and was beaten to the line by Oscar Freire

The race in a nutshell:

La classicissima di Primavera – the Spring Classic – is the longest of all at nearly 300km (186 miles). It takes around seven hours but favours the sprinters.

Geraint’s thoughts:

This is the first big one-day race of the season. It’s not difficult in terms of the climbing involved but the length of it wears you down, particularly when the weather is bad, as it has been for the last couple of years.

The Cipressa and Poggio climbs in the final 30km are the ones where the race will be decided. Punchier riders will attack on the Cipressa, hoping to distance the sprinters. It will be full gas from then to the Poggio, with the sprinters hoping to hang on to contest the finish.

This race suits:

Mark Cavendish – he won in 2009 and when he puts his mind to something, as he has done this year, never bet against him. My team-mate and fellow Brit Ben Swift was third last year and I’m hoping to help him better that finish.

E3 Harelbeke – Friday, 27 March

Peter Sagan riding the E3 Harelbeke in 2014

Peter Sagan won the 2014 E3 Harelbeke riding for Cannondale. He now races for Tinkoff-Saxo

Defending champion:

Slovakia’s Peter Sagan

Most wins:

5 – Belgium’s Tom Boonen

Did you know?

The race took its name from the nearby E3 motorway in Belgium

In a nutshell:

The first half of the 210km race through Flanders is relatively flat, although there are cobbled sections. The second half features a dozen climbs, some of which are cobbled, like the short, but sharp Paterberg which has an average gradient of 12.5% over 500m.

Geraint’s thoughts:

I’ve always enjoyed this race and finished third and fourth in the last two years. It’s like a mini Tour of Flanders and takes in many of the same hills. It is not as long, but once we reach the climbs they come thick and fast and blow the race apart.

There are about seven in a 50km section and the riding is hard and fast into the bottom of the climbs, because if you aren’t up near the front you will always be playing catch-up.

This race suits:

Lars Boom – the Dutchman is a tough rider and a classics specialist, but he’s yet to win one. Could 2015 be his year?

Gent-Wevelgem – Sunday, 29 March

Rider crashing in Gent-Wevelgem

The descent of the Kemmelberg is more dangerous than the ascent

Defending champion:

Germany’s John Degenkolb

Most wins:

3 – Belgium’s Robert Van Eenaeme, Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Tom Boonen and Mario Cipollini of Italy

Did you know?

Since 2004, the race has not started in Gent, but in the market square of nearby Deinze

In a nutshell:

The cobbled road over the Kemmelberg hill, which is not long but has a 22% gradient in places, must be ascended twice. It is just as notorious for its descent and is often the decisive factor in the 240km race around the west Flanders area of Belgium.

Geraint’s thoughts:

It is more of a sprinters’ classic despite the tough ascent of the Kemmelberg because the finish is flatter. There are narrow roads to negotiate though and again you need good position going into the bottom of the climbs because the race becomes congested as riders slow down.

If you are not looking after an out-and-out sprinter in your team then you try to make a nuisance of yourself. You try to get in the break and make other teams work hard.

This race suits:

John Degenkolb. He’s the defending champion and can sprint fast as well as getting over hills of this size.

Tour of Flanders – Sunday, 5 April

Riders tackle the Paterberg

Legend has it a jealous farmer created the Paterberg climb to make sure the race went close to his home

Defending champion:

Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara

Most wins:

3 – Belgium’s Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen, Fiorenzo Magni of Italy and Cancellara

Did you know?

Britain’s Tom Simpson won the 1961 race after confusion at the finish line. He was clear with Nino Defilippis but high winds had blown down the banner marking the end of the race. Defilippis, thinking he had won began freewheeling but Simpson caught him. When protests fell on deaf ears, Defilippis asked Simpson to agree to a tie, saying no Italian had won a classic since 1953. Simpson retorted that “an Englishman had not won one since 1896″.

In a nutshell:

The most important cycling race in Flanders. The legendary cobbled climbs of Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg and Koppenberg are among 17 ascents that define this race.

Geraint’s thoughts:

The Belgians love their cycling and with the narrow roads they are right on top of you. You can smell the burgers and frites and the beer on the breath of the fans as you go up the climbs. They have a unique aura about them.

I grew up watching this race and it suits me better than Paris-Roubaix. The first 150km is all about hiding and saving energy for the climbs. Once again, it’s all about being in the right position and keeping as fresh as you can and hopefully you’ve got the legs for the final 50km.

This race suits:

Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss has won the last two editions, and three in total, proving he has the power over the cobbles.

Paris-Roubaix – Sunday, 12 April

A couple of riders crash in Paris-Roubaix

The Paris-Roubaix cobbles are treacherous enough in the dry

Defending champion:

Dutchman Niki Terpstra

Most wins:

4 – Belgium’s Roger De Vlaeminck and Tom Boonen

Did you know?

Much of the route crosses the trenches from World War One and when organisers went to examine the roads in 1919, they called the bomb-cratered landscape they found the “hell of the north” and thus the race’s nickname was born.

In a nutshell:

Cobbles, cobbles, mud, cobbles and a finish in an open-air velodrome. A crazy, incident-packed race for only the hardiest of riders.

Geraint’s thoughts:

It really is hell on wheels and a lot can go wrong, although if you’re going well it can feel like you’re floating over the cobbles.

There are mini bunch sprints going into every section of cobbles and that makes it harder to avoid crashes because it’s difficult to slow down and change direction. The two decisive sections are usually the Forest of Arenberg, about 100km from the finish and Le Carrefour de I’Arbre.

Ian Stannard and I have similar roles; to get to the final stages and help Bradley Wiggins. We don’t have to ride on the front of the race but we can be up the road, forcing others to waste energy by chasing us down.

If Brad attacks, we can sit back and wait. He will go into the race in the best shape and would prefer to go into the velodrome for the final 750m on his own. He knows how to use the bank from his track cycling days but it’s all about having fresh legs.

The finish is one of the best in cycling. You can feel the history as you enter the velodrome to a huge cheer which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

This race suits:

Bradley Wiggins – when he knuckles down to do something he’s hard to beat. However, he will need a bit of luck on his side because the cobbles can take anyone down.

Amstel Gold – Sunday, 19 April

Riders in the Amstel Gold race

Sometimes the best route to the finish is not on the road

Defending champion:

Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert

Most wins:

5 – Dutchman Jan Raas

Did you know?

The race takes in more than 30 climbs and many sections of the route are visited more than once, which can be confusing for new riders

In a nutshell:

The 260km race is the most important in the Netherlands. The majority of the short ascents are packed into the second half with the finish line a couple of kilometres after the final 1200m climb of the Cauberg.

Geraint’s thoughts:

It’s a similar race to the Tour of Flanders, except the climbs are not cobbled. However, there is lots of street furniture to negotiate, such as parked cars and road islands, and that makes this race dangerous.

The ideal positioning is to be in the top five riders going into the Cauberg and then hang in on the climb and sprint clear from the top.

I once got taken out by a rider stopping for a natural break at the side of the road!

This race suits:

Michal Kwiatkowski. The current world champion is a punchy rider – one who can climb and sprint a bit – and the finish should suit him, but don’t count out Philippe Gilbert, he is a three-time winner and knows the course well.

La Fleche Wallonne – Wednesday, 22 April

Riders on the Mur de Huy

The Mur de Huy is one of the most famous climbs in cycling

Defending champion:

Spain’s Alejandro Valverde

Most wins:

3 – Belgium’s Marcel Kint and Eddy Merckx, and Italy’s Moreno Argentin and Davide Rebellin

Did you know?

The race’s name translates to the Walloon Arrow and it is named after the distinctly shaped profile through the Belgian region

In a nutshell:

It’s all about the Mur de Huy. The 200km or so race starts in Charleroi and heads east to Huy where riders complete three laps of a circuit which features the climb. It is only 1300m long but features a maximum gradient of 26% and average of 9.3%. And riders must climb it three times.

Geraint’s thoughts:

The Mur de Huy is where the race is won and lost. It’s not a long climb, but it is steep.

The race is shorter than other classics, at around 200km, and it is not as demanding overall, but it comes three days after Amstel Gold so you have to judge your effort. It’s easy to run out of legs.

This race suits:

Dan Martin – the Irishman is a small, light rider who climbs well

Liege-Bastogne-Liege – Sunday, 26 April

Riders in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race

Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a big day out for riders and fans alike in Belgium

Defending champion:

Australia’s Simon Gerrans

Most wins:

5 – Belgium’s Eddy Merckx

Did you know?

It is ‘La Doyenne’ – the oldest – of the Classics and was first raced in 1892. Like many bike races, it was started to publicise a newspaper

In a nutshell:

The first third of the race takes the riders south to Bastogne but the majority of the climbs are in the final third as the race winds its way back to the finish in Ans on the outskirts of Liege

Geraint’s thoughts:

The final one-day classic of spring is a big day on the bike and one for aggressive climbers. The hills are the longest of all the races and the altitude gained rivals a Grand Tour stage.

Riders who attack on the ascents can easily pull out a 30-second advantage and that can be hard to get back.

This race suits:

Alejandro Valverde – the Spaniard has won this race twice before (2006 and 2008) and has the experience to add to his tally of four Spring Classics wins

Geraint Thomas was talking to BBC Sport’s Peter Scrivener

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/cycling/31958848

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