STOP PRESS. Forget Australia, forget the Middle East, forget the sunshine and tan lines. It's old news and Classics season is finally here. This weekend will see the return of the cobbles in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne as riders swap short sleeves for overshoes and raincoats and head out on training rides up the Berendries, Valkenberg, Eikenberg, Molenberg and What-Ever-Else-Berg. If you have enjoyed the season so far, then buckle up because the pace and drama is about to step up a notch...
For many fans, the two months of March and April provide the best racing spectacle of the year. I appreciate many of you reading this may be new to the sport, perhaps a result of the 2012 Tour de France and cycling boom so let me tell you, if you marvelled at the 2012 Tour de France (it wasn't exactly a vintage year, except for Sir Brad of course) then the Spring classics are going to Blow. Your. Mind. A mixture of hard weather, extra-long hard miles and extremely hard men coupled with the unpredictability of the cobbled terrain make for some of the most exciting, explosive and dramatic racing in the calendar. It's in the classics where stories are written, legends created and only the hardest of hard-men made.
The classics rider is a breed of his own. He must be able to go the distance - well over 200km in instances and this isn't flat, newly laid tarmac - this is deep-set cobble stones, furious steep climbs and in the Ardennes enough climbing to match a Tour de France mountain stage, even the pro's can struggle with the distance here. He must be strong - too small and he's likely to drop off the back when the pace steps up, the classics are famed for cross-winds too so those without rouleur power are likely to be chewed up and spat out by the side-swiping gusts. He needs to be mentally tough - 250km in gales and rain, face plastered in mud and oil, legs aching from the cold, fingers feeling frost-bitten by falling temperatures and the seeping damp - indeed this isn't a race for many, it's merely a contractual obligation. It can frighten riders and many really do dislike the Classics for their sheer brutality but there is a reverse - the winner of these races is likely to be a rider who relishes them, actually 'wants' to ride them, wants to beat his competitors, beat the elements, do the impossible. These races are a test like no other on the calendar, they are hard. Properly hard. Where some riders well-up with tears just at the thought, the winner is likely to be nursing a wicked grin from start to finish.
|The Spring Classics Can Be A Dirty Affair.|
Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Thor Hushovd. These are name's that conjure up a certain image, no? Tom Boonen destroyed the field in the classics last year (attacking with 50km to go and riding solo to victory in Paris-Roubaix), though Cancellara was injured and Hushovd out of form and unwell but all three are of the 'classics' build I have described above. Work Horses, unrelenting power houses. 2013 looks set to be a vintage year. Boonen has had a slow start this time around thanks to an elbow injury, where as Cancellara has shown his face at the front of a race and Thor Hushovd has already achieved a stage victory and a visit to the podium. There's others too: Pippo Pozzato, Greg Van Avermaet, Jurgen Roelandts, Phil Gilbert, Geraint Thomas, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Peter Sagan, The scene is certainly set and what better venue than Belgium.
|Boonen Solo's To Victory In Roubaix|
The classics certainly wouldn't be the classics if they were anywhere other than Belgium. The one true cycling nation, cycling is to Belgium what pork pie is to Melton Mowbray. Though the classics are a group of individual one day races, over the coarse of 6 weeks they share more similarities with a Grand Tour. It's a media circus with TV and newspaper crews descending on Belgium and setting up camp for the duration. Riders will not simply turn up, race and go home, they too will be here for the duration - an almost luxurious period of static existence before the air-miles and hotel changes start to accumulate once again. The drama builds from race to race, a story emerges as allegiances form and battles are fought. Fans and media alike anticipate, speculate, add to the drama. The fans line the streets here like nowhere else - men, women, children, grand-parents, great grand-parents. It's a varied mix but the enjoyment of cycling and the racing present in every sex and generation. And the Belgian cobbles. Of course the cobbles. The picture below will speak far louder than my words.
|Sean Kelly Tackles The Unforgiving Cobbles|
There is no way to talk about the Classics without getting overly excited. It's a passionate time for fans and riders. It signals the start of 'real' racing but also epitomises it. Competing here makes you a hard-man, winning here make you nothing short of a warrior. Strap yourselves in, because it's going to be one hell of a ride...