Spring is drawing near, and with it arrives a full calendar of exciting continental cycling events. We take a look at some of the most iconic Classic races.
Whereas the Tour de France takes place over a number of weeks, the Classics are all single-day events that fill the spring calendar. There are two major categories; the cobbled Classics, and the Ardennes Classics.
Cobbles have been a longstanding tradition in cycling because of their prominence across Northern Europe and inspired manufactures to create such products as the cobble-crunching Specialized Roubaix range. The Ardennes Classics are hilly races that wind through the Ardennes region in Belgium and are characterised by sudden, sharp ascents like the legendary Mur de Huy.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
27th February | UCI Europe Tour
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad traditionally takes place on the last Saturday in the month of February, or the first weekend of March. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the opening event for the Belgian cycling calendar and is one of the most popular of the Classics for travelling cycling fans.
Although by no means the oldest of the Classics, having experienced its inaugural year relatively late in 1945, this Belgian race has firmly established its reputation as one of the most prestigious in the early season. Last year saw Team Sky's Ian Stannard take the top spot on the podium for the second year in a row after fending off two Etixx Quick-Step riders all the way to the finish line.
With fearsome climbs, potentially cold weather, and kilometres of cobblestones spread across the 200 kilometre route, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is a battle of attrition.
27th March | UCI World Tour
Gent-Wevelgem is an annually held Flanders Classics road race occurring in late March. Known for it’s flat finish, this race has earned a name for being one of the most gruelling races for sprinters. A savage 241 kilometre odyssey across hills, battling crosswinds and cobbles means this Classic is more than worthy of a place in your calendar this year.
Luca Paolini took the top spot last year. The Italian had a well timed attack six kilometres from the finish that left the chasing riders looking at each other for an impetus to attack. Last year's edition had particularly bad weather including strong winds, which at one point blew Team Sky's Geraint Thomas off his bike.
A sportive precedes the race on the last Saturday of March, followed by the main event the next day. Sportive riders can expect difficult terrain, complete with cobbles, hills and unfavourable winds. Resolute in its history, the Gent-Wevelgem navigates a number of the battlefields from the First World War on its tour of Belgium. Its first incarnation begun in 1934 as a tribute to local hero Gaston Rebry, a native to the town where the race reaches it's conclusion.
If you are looking for a location to stay, Kortrijk offers ideal accommodation. It is located close to the action of the professional race but also conveniently near the start for the sportive - just make sure you book your room early.
The Tour of Flanders
3rd April | UCI World Tour
Otherwise known as Ronde van Vlaanderen, or De Ronde (The Tour), the Tour of Flanders is a one-day Monument organised as a part of the UCI World Tour. Attracting a crowd of approximately 800,000 spectators annually – this race has the ability to draw in just under 8% of the entire population of Belgium, which sits at 11.1 million. Forming one part of the five Monuments of cycling, this race has now been going strong for over a century with this year's event being the 100th edition due to some war-induced hiatuses in the 1910s, 30 and 40s.
The Tour of Flanders sportive runs alongside the Tour – drawing over 15,000 participants. The sportive operates on the first Saturday of April, with the professional race happening the next day. Many spectators spend the whole weekend in the area, making it spring's most popular Belgian cycling festival.
Many saw last year's pro edition of the Ronde as a bit of as damp squib as Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara were forced to sit out of the race due to injury. These two riders have won the Ronde three times each so their absence left an opening for a new champion to be crowned. After going away from the pack over the Kwaremont the Netherlands' Niki Terpstra and Norway's Alexander Kristoff battled it out to the long finishing straight into Oudenaarde. With greater sprinting prowess Kristoff clinched the win with Terpstra and the Belgian BMC rider, Greg Van Avermaet, rounding off the podium.
If you’re thinking of visiting the Tour of Flanders - either as a spectator for the professional race, or as a participant in the sportive - there are a number of things you should be aware of.
Keeping it cool
Bear in mind that weather can vary. Spring can bring with it a variety of hazards such as inclement wind, rain, snow as well as baking sunshine. Riders and spectators should expect the climate to be unpredictable.
Beating the cobbles
Riders tackling the sportive should be aware of the challenging cobble sections. Wider tyres and double wrapping bar tape should ensure you hammer the uneven surface, as opposed to the other way round. Tighten and check all bolts to avoid mid ride disaster, water bottle cages should be snug enough to not let your precious water supply slip out at speed. Also be prepared to alert people to your presence on the steep climbs, as riders will dismount and start walking up the road with little or no warning.
La Fleche Wallonne
20th April | UCI World Tour
La Fleche Wallonne continues to be many riders and fans' favourite Ardenne Classic thanks to its three ascents of the famous Mur de Huy. The Mur is a gruelling 1.3 kilometre climb with an average gradient of 9.3%, but an eye-watering max of 26%. The word "Huy" is written every three metres up the climb, which gives it a memorable look for spectators and acts as nice distance markers for the professional riders.
Taking place on the Wednesday between Amstel Gold and Liege Bastogne Liege, Fleche is a good indicator of form. Alejandro Valverde has dominated the race in recent years, winning atop the Mur de Huy in 2015 and 2014 and the Spanish rider will be looking to replicate last year's Fleche-Liege double this season.
Fleche does have a sportive available the more amateur riders out there, which this year runs on the 7th May. This sportive is a particularly good option for cyclists who want to escape the crowds of British riders that flock to Roubaix and Flanders.
Liege Bastogne Liege
24th April | UCI World Tour
Nicknamed La Doyenne, or ‘the oldest’, Liege Bastogne Liege is well established as the oldest of the Monuments with its first edition taking place back in 1892. Combined with a distance covering 253 kilometres, this race exhibits all of the qualities of a truly prestigious event and acts as a fitting finale to the major Classics season.
Liege Bastogne Liege is characterised by its many challenging hills and over 4500 metres of ascent. This makes it a race for climbers and those who time their attacks well. Eddy Merckx still holds the title for the most Liege Bastogne Liege wins.
Liege is often a race that can go right down to the wire, with multiple riders coming over the final Cote de Saint-Nicolas climb together. Last year's edition did not disappoint with a tight group of over 10 riders cresting the top of the Saint-Nicolas together. Movistar's Alejandro Valverde proved the rider with the most left in the tank in the final 50 metres as he rode to his third Liege title.
This is perhaps the best destination for fans of the Ardennes Classics. For those that want to experience the thrill of the route themselves and climb the iconic Côte de La Redoute, a sportive runs the day before the big race. For tips on how to ride a sportive, check our guide on what to carry when riding a sportive.
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