A TCI Guide to the Spring Classics
First of all, these are not all the spring races, and not even all the spring races that some people consider classics, like E3 Harelbeke for example. This is my list, based on my opinions and preferences. No one has legislated what makes a cycling classic, so you have old and prestigious races like Paris-Roubaix, first raced in 1896, and very new races, like Strade Bianche, born in 2007, both making the list.
Feel free to correct this list and hype another race in the comments.
Also, this isn’t a viewing guide. Some of these races have already happened in 2023. No, this is just a fun little compendium of thoughts and information about what most of us think are the best pro races of the year.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – To me, this race sounds like a breakfast cereal for vampires, although the name seems to change every few years. It used to be Het Volk. Basically, it’s one of cycling’s very many newspaper created races, a promotion stunt that turned out to be more durable than the media property that launched it. I’m not sure it’s a truly great race, but it’s first, and ask AAA Locksmith how important it is to be first. One thing going for it is that the weather in February in Belgium is highly variable, so it can have some of that chaotic magic. Typically, the winner isn’t one of the sport’s leading lights, but rather an opportunist who may or may not go on to bigger things. So that’s fun.
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne – A casserole of corn and Brussel’s sprouts, as pronounced by a Flemish person. This one happens that day after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which gives this late February weekend a lot of gravity for cycling fans. It’s another opportunity for the lesser men to shine. There is not a women’s race for K-B-K, which is bullshit, and why I’m going to stop talking about it now.
Strade Bianche – A great example of a race that was definitely not a classic until it was. Run on the legendary “white roads” of Tuscany, this is basically a gravel race. The pro road calendar needed one, and this is it. It’s a beautiful race to watch, and there is a hugely popular version for civilians that requires the use of retro-equipment. In fact, the amateur event begat the pro race, instead of the other way around. Strade Bianche is like some sort of Harry Potter LARP session for bike nerds. Fabian Cancellara won it three times.
Milan – San Remo – The sprinter’s classic, the longest single day race on the pro road calendar, first run in 1907. The basic deal here is the sprinter’s try to stay with the bunch to the last climb, the Poggio. If they make it up and over with the peloton, they get a shot at the win. Sometimes enterprising rouleurs can bank enough time in a breakaway before that last climb to stay away to the finish. It’s a really boring race, until it isn’t. Watch Sean Kelly win it (at Greg LeMond’s expense) in 1986. Watch Sean Kelly win it again in 1992, commonly held to be the most exciting finish in the race’s history.
Gent – Wevelgem – It is disrespectful to Gent – Wevelgem and its history to call it a tune-up for the Flanders and Roubaix races in the weeks after, but it’s kind of a tune-up race. Like Milan-San Remo it can be one for the sprinters, but it’s got cobbled climbs in it, and so it favors a break away too. Peter Sagan is Gent-Wevelgem’s most successful rider, so you get a sense for the type who succeeds here.
The Tour of Flanders (aka Ronde van Vlaanderen) – The Ronde is a symbol of Flemish nationalism. For those not closely following Belgian history and politics, the country is split between its Flemish half, Flanders, and it’s French-speaking Walloon half, Wallonia. The marriage of the two regions has been fraught, difficult, and so iconic events like the Ronde become vehicles for a low sort of nationalism, IMO, that shouldn’t get confused with the fact that this is a killer race. A long series of frighteningly steep climbs up cobbled “walls,” makes it the sort of bike riding adventure we’d mostly like to watch someone else have. It’s tempting to call the Ronde cycling’s Super Bowl, but it’s followed by Paris-Roubaix, so…maybe they’re two halves of the biggest game in one day racing.
Paris – Roubaix – It’s tempting to say that Paris-Roubaix’s nickname, “The Hell of the North,” succeeded in elevating to the very top of the pro calendar. It’s a NASCAR race, a battle royale, a chess match, a weather event, and a MMA bout all wrapped into one, with long, consecutive sectors of brutal pave’ eventually thinning the peloton to a tapered point. Survivors of the Forest of Arenberg and other cobbled nightmares will eventually enter the velodrome in Roubaix, sprinting (maybe) for the most prestigious win of any rider’s career. I’d wager many would rather win in Roubaix than on the Champs Elysees.
Amstel Gold – Here’s another transitional race. Now we turn away from the brutality of Belgium and Northern France, away from the hardest riders, willing to bleed for wins, to something more like the rest of the road season. Climbers and all-rounders come to the fore. And it’s in the Netherlands! Fun Fact: Jean Stablinski was the first winner of Amstel Gold. He’s the same rider who recommended the Arenberg Forest cobbles be incorporated into Paris-Roubaix. He’d been a miner before turning to cycling and had worked in the Arenberg Forest in a mine, before racing over the cobbles there.
La Fleche Wallone – The first of the Ardennes classics. The Walloons get their day, and the guys who can ride on all the terrains get a chance at the win. Alejandro Valverde, the doping Spaniard who just retired, has the most wins in this race, so boo, but it ends in a town called Huy, which I really love. Lance Armstrong won this in 1986, one of his very few one-day results.
Liege – Bastogne – Liege – LBL is a real sleeper. It’s very long, and the course is painfully hard, and I think if you can win here, you can win anywhere. It’s “le Doyenne,” or the “old lady” of the classics, because it’s the oldest of the “monuments.” Because it’s run in late April, LBL form begins to bleed into the summer season, and that means stage racing time. That’s why grand tour winners show up here, and sometimes win, see Pogacar, Roglic and Fugelsang in recent years. If you were really only ever interested in the Tour de France, and maybe thinking about paying attention to one of the spring classics, this would be the one for you.
Many of these races lack a women’s version, and I think that’s lame. It’s part of the reason women’s racing isn’t on equal footing. You have to be able to see the riders doing the thing in order to want to see the riders doing the thing. If we tell the story of women’s racing, we will be interested in the story of women’s racing. Because it’s interesting.
Having said that, these spring races are the perfect setting for drama and legends. Their history, as much as the history of the Tour, Giro and Vuelta, is the cultural fabric of pro road racing over the last, nearly 150 years. They can be challenging to find on TV or the internet, but each of them is, on some level, very worth the time.