Every year as flowers begin to bloom and the harsh European winter becomes just a memory, the world's top professionals embark on cycling's biggest, most action-packed season: the Spring Classics. Starting in the heart of Italy and ending on the heights of the Ardennes with detours through Flanders, Northern France and Holland, the Classics challenge the champions and backmarkers alike with epic distances, rough roads, cobblestones, mercilessly steep climbs and the most brutal weather imaginable. These races have hosted some of the sport's most sensational showdowns as perennial challengers become legendary champions.
Milan-San Remo, the longest race in cycling at nearly 180 miles, kicks off the action on March 20th this year. Despite its leg-testing length, MSR is often considered the sprinters' classic as the final climbs aren't tough enough to shed the fastmen who are on top of their game. Typically, 50 riders or so come barreling down the Via Roma after the thrilling ascent and descent of the Poggio, MSR's final climb. Sometimes a punchy attacker or rouleur like former winners Paolo Bettini, Fabian Cancellara and Andrei Tchmil can surprise the sprinters in the race's closing miles and go for glory. The record holder for the most victories in San Remo is the inimitable Eddy Merckx who won La Primavera an astounding 7 times.
Following Milan-San Remo is the semi-classic Gent-Wevelgem which is traditionally held on the Wednesday between the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. Moved to the last Sunday in March this year, race organizers are hoping to enliven the racing and attract more of cycling's superstars to the event. Sort of a miniature Tour of Flanders, the race's list of winners includes a hearty selection of Belgian strongmen and capable sprinters. Any rider who wants to stand atop the podium in Wevelgem must be able to tame the cobbled climbs, particularly the treacherous Kemmelberg — a tough ascent that gets tackled three times en route to the finish.
Up next is the defacto Belgian national championship, the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Practically a national holiday, nearly every citizen of Flanders, the northern region of Belgium, comes out to cheer on their favorite riders. A win or top placing here can turn a normal rider into a lifetime hero of the fiercely loyal, cycling-mad Flemish fans. However, achieving such a feat is no easy task. The remarkably difficult Tour of Flanders route throws every challenge possible at the peloton: crosswinds, inclement weather, steep climbs, cobblestones and, of course, steep climbs with cobblestones! The famous bergs of the Flanders route have been known to dismantle even the strongest of riders. One thing's for sure, if a racer can make it over the cobbled climbs and power across the flats to win solo in Meerbeke, they will forever be remembered as a champion
The Hell of the North, Paris-Roubaix, concludes the triumvirate of cobbled classics. Although devoid of anything resembling a hill, Roubaix is considered the toughest race to win due to its unrelenting sectors of pavé and torturous crosswinds. These obstacles put riders into oxygen debt as easily as any mountain climb but unlike the mountains, stronger, heavier riders excel here because their efforts are not as easily deflected by the wind and pavé. Only one man, Roger de Vlaeminck, has won the Queen of the Classics four times. Going after his record this year is Belgian strongman Tom Boonen whose current total stands at three. With world-class sprint power and graceful bike-handling ability, Boonen is a perennial favorite. If any racer wants to stop him from taking number four in the Roubaix velodrome, they'll have to contend with Mother Nature and the rough cobblestones of Northern France that look to break bikes and wills with every turn of the cranks.
Following Roubaix, the peloton switches gears and a new set of competitors rises to the fore. The Amstel Gold Race trades the rough, windswept cobblestone roads of Belgium and France for the climbs and tight, winding farm lanes of the Netherlands. One of the youngest events of the Classics, and the only one with a corporate sponsor, Amstel Gold challenges riders with a physically demanding route that cruelly finishes atop the Cauberg, one of the hardest climbs in relatively flat Holland. The up-and-down nature of the race means that the victor is generally a powerful climber with a fast finish, like Damiano Cunego or Frank Schleck.
Post-Amstel, racers get just three days to recover before La Flèche-Wallonne. The mid-week classic is notorious for its finishing climb, the relentless and impossibly steep Mur de Huy. Tackled a total of three times, it always has the final say in La Flèche. Breakaways are common, but they nearly always end the same way with a spectacular collapse on the final trip up the Mur. Whether it's a climber who can sprint or rouleur who can climb, you can always be guaranteed of a spectacular and gut-wrenching final few hundred yards of La Flèche.
Rounding out the Spring Classics is none other than Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Littered with tough climbs, narrow roads and cursed with notoriously fickle Belgian weather (Bernard Hinault won the 1980 edition in a driving snowstorm!), La Doyenne is a proving ground for the fittest riders in the peloton. The long list of winners includes Tour de France champions, risk-taking attackers and featherweight climbers. Only the strongest and boldest can tame the multitude of climbs and will-testing false flats that take racers to the finish in Liège. With a long, gradual ascent to the line, no rider is ever guaranteed victory until they take their final pedal stroke.
As the Liège-Bastogne-Liège podium is disassembled and racers depart for all corners of the globe in their team buses, the world of pro cycling takes a deep breath and unwinds after a month of excitement and drama. However, rest for our weary heroes is but fleeting as many of them will be battling it out in the trenches yet again at the upcoming Giro d'Italia and Tour of California in May. Watch for our coverage.