TCI Book Club – The Monuments by Peter Cossins

I like the Grand Tours. But I love the Monuments. Tours are epic novels, the plot unfolding day after day. They’re a fireworks show, the individual bursts culminating in a grand crescendo—the finale!

By contrast, each Monument is a stick of dynamite. 

It really comes down to what excites you. Because if it doesn’t move you, what’s the point? And there are plenty of throw-away days on The Tour. On every tour. Which is why, for me, the Spring Classics are the peak of the season (with Il Lombardia the operatic encore). The ground is literally thawing, the riders are fresh off their Winter training blocs. The air is electric. And the finish line is actually the finish line—there’s no need to save a little for tomorrow

TCI is sponsored by Shimano North America.

That’s racing—a human at full tilt for as long as they can sustain it, mentally and physically. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other. And for much of the race, it’s both. You don’t get that on most stages of a tour, the unyielding intensity of multiple strategies from various teams overlapping and defusing each other, inspiring ever more attacks and reaction from the bunch. With the exception of the first chunk of Milan-San Remo (okay—most of it), there’s never a dull moment. 

It’s the purest of bike racing (if “pure” can be an attribute of bike racing), and the greatest of victories. With three grand tours each year, racers have 63 opportunities to win (plus the odd prologue), and many of the stages are uncontested by riders who are “keeping their powder dry” for subsequent stages. Meanwhile, there are only five Monuments. 

To watch these races is to see the ambitions of grand tour domestiques burn bright or be suddenly extinguished by poor positioning or an untimely puncture. Those who prevail enjoy a confluence of form, fitness, strategy, and luck, especially luck, which is another way of saying God’s will. All else being equal, the first over the line in a Monument exudes an aura of holy inspiration, as their win was, in part, through Divine intervention. I don’t know how else to describe Mat Hayman’s 2016 Paris-Roubaix win, which came after two months of rehabilitation on an indoor trainer and at the tail end of a 17-year career as a domestique. That was God’s hand drawing Mat’s wheel ahead of four-time Paris-Roubaix winner Tom Boonen. Even Boonen, who would have tied the great Roger DeVlaeminck with a fifth win, acknowledged Hayman was the rightful victor because Boonen recognized the circumstance. Because Boonen had been there, just not on that day. 

That edition predates the 2014 publication of Peter Cossins’ The Monuments, but it flows from the very same fountain of strength and grit of its predecessors—the world’s greatest races, whose highlights are captured in this volume. Cossins links these historic moments into a quilt of names, dates, triumphs, and treachery. 

Each of the Monument struggled at different points in their histories, the way their riders have struggled through each of their parcours. Most of them nearly disappeared before attaining their modern status as unrivaled anchors of the competitive calendar. The races themselves resemble the heroic profiles of their greatest riders, like Tour Of Flanders legend Briek Schotte: 

“His racing philosophy was simple: “Geer woorden, maar deden.’ No words, just deeds. Crouched down over his bike, his cloth hat pulled down tight on his head, the peak pointing in the same direction as his unwavering gaze, Schotte never knew when to yield. Although some claim he produced his best performance when finishing runner-up in the 1948 Tour De France even though he was by no means a climber, he is inextricably associated with the Tour of Flanders. He rode it 20 times, won it twice and finished on the podium eight times.”

The Monuments describes the nuanced character of each race, revealing why certain riders dominated one and not another. It decodes the riddle of the route, and how each race evolved through the decades to arrive at its current status. Reading it, you will never watch Liege-Baston-Liege, Paris-Roubaix, Lombardia, Milan-San Remo, or Flanders the same way again. They’ll mean even more than they did. Every action and reaction in the bunch, every kilometer marker, every Col will take on greater meaning as you link them to historic efforts by the legendary names on those same roads, like the route of Paris Roubaix when it first resumed after World War I: 

“The roads had disappeared into the mud, from which only the blackened stumps of trees stood out. The air reeked of decay and death, the stink of raw sewage combining with the odor of rotting livestock.”

Cossins provides the insight that makes you feel less like a reader and more like a participant. Not as in a racing participant—we mortals will never know that feeling—but perhaps as a tifosi or an Arenberg coal miner, there, roadside, and part of the energy that is the race. Because a bike race isn’t a bike race without the fans, whose exuberance pulls riders up those Bergs and Cols, like the hand of God pulling the eventual winner over the line. 

In fact, exactly like the hand of God, because we could be doing a lot more tangibly productive things than staring and screaming at our laptop and its janky VPN Sporza feed at 5 AM (here in California, anyway). But we’re not. We’re inspired, and we instinctively and unquestioningly attend to this ritual that has occurred year after year for a century or more. And if we wake up our respective households with this seeming nonsense, we have nothing to apologize for. We are witness to the Divine. And if that’s a problem, they can take it up with God. 

Good luck with that. 

Relive the greatest moments in the history of Spring Classic racing. Find The Monuments by Peter Cossins at your local book seller, or order from either the publisher (Bloomsbury) or (if you must) Amazon.

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