How to Watch The Classics

Fabian Cancellara (black) and Sep Vanmarcke (green) battle it out on the Paterberg, during the 2014 Ronde van Vlaanderen

If you’re a cyclist, this is the most wonderful week of the year. Except for maybe new bike week.

Why? Two words: Cobbled Classics.

That’s right folks, this weekend kicks off what is probably the most exciting and engaging week of racing on the calendar. Starting on Sunday with the Ronde van Vlaanderen (in Flanders, Belgium), going smoothly into Scheldeprijs (also in Flanders) on Wednesday and capping off with the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix on Sunday 4/10 (Northern France), this weekend serves up a weekend of racing spectacle unlike anything else on the calendar.

So what makes the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix so special? Glad you asked!

1.They’re Simple

Unlike the three-week long Grand Tours, the classics are pretty simple and straight forward. They are only one day long, and the strongest and luckiest man wins. That’s it. There are no complicated points and KOM jerseys, no tactical riding for time bonuses. Just one glorious day in the sun for the man with the golden legs.

One day racing: may the strongest man win

Even if you’re not super into racing, they are incredibly fun and engaging races to watch. Plus, if you are lucky enough to go to one of the races in person, there is ample opportunity before the race to catch the riders warming up. And you can even catch the race at multiple spots along the route, if you are quick enough!

2. Cobbles and Bergs

The Ronde and Paris-Roubaix are defined by the rocks they ride on. The cobbles add a legendary layer of difficulty that makes the outcome of the race unpredictable, since even the favored strongmen can get unlucky on the cobbles. We were lucky enough to get a chance to ride the cobbles back in 2014, and let us say that it is unlike anything you will ever experience here in the States. No bad urban roads, no bridge expansions joints or gravel track can compare to the difficulty of riding the cobbles of northern Europe.

View of the famed Koppenberg from afar
View of the famed Koppenberg from afar

What distinguishes the two races part however, is the makeup of the course. The Ronde’s cobbles tend to be fairly uniform, but the course is distinguished by its bergs, the brutally steep cobbled climbs of Flanders, where the race usually blows apart.

Roubaix, on the other hand is relatively flat. But what it lacks in elevation gain, it makes up for in sheer, bone-jarring brutality. The cobbled roads of Northern France were laid down by Napoleon’s army in the 1800’s…and they haven’t really been updated since. The cobbles there are of an entirely different flavor that punishes the weak and the unprepared. Roubaix is a race where truly on the very strong and the very tough survive.

The cobbles and steep hills can take their toll. This unlucky Cofidis rider needed a completely new bike to finish the race.

3. The Unexpected

Unlike the past several editions of the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia, the outcomes of the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix can be completely unexpected. Thanks to the often atrocious weather (though, our prayers for Roubaix Rain have gone unanswered since 2002), the punishment the bikes take, the untimely flat, or sheer luck, often unexpected dark horses can find themselves victorious in a one day race.

4. The Pageantry

These are some of the oldest races still in existence, and harken back to the very roots of the sport. When you watch Paris-Roubaix, you’re watching a race that has been held every year since the late 1800’s (except for the war years).

And then there are the Belgians. Let us be clear about this: Belgians love them some cycling—the mania for it is probably about equal to our love of football (real football, the kind measured in yards and downs), if not more so. On the next two Sundays, the roads of Flanders and Northern France will be lined with Belgian fans who will be going absolutely manic, especially if a hometown favorite is in the lead. And that is quit likely, since the Flemish supermen have traditionally dominated these hard, early season races since the days of Rik van Looy and the legendary Eddy Merckx.

Who to Watch

The list of possible winners is probably longer than at any time in recent history, but here’s a list of riders to keep an eye on.

  1. Fabian Cancellara: He’s won 3 times at Flanders and 3 at Roubaix. He is retiring after this year, but is on the form of his life, and looks set to go out with a bang. If things go his way, he’s our bet for the win in the Ronde.
  2. Tom Boonen: He’s won 3 times in Flanders and 4 times in Roubaix, tying him for the record with Roger de Vlaeminck. A 5th win would be historic. ‘Tornado Tom’ is also retiring this year, but sadly, unlike Cancellara (with whom he’s had a bitter rivalry), Tom’s best years seem to be behind him. Although you never know, he could still surprise us.
  3. Peter Sagan: The current world champion has never won a major Classic, but he seems to certainly be due one. Peter is a hugely popular rider, who lays claim to ample amounts of talent. However he is still maturing as a rider, and his ability to race smart against the likes of Cancellara remains to be seen.
  4. Greg van Avermaet: GvA is one of the most promising riders of his generation, and Belgian to boot. He’s consistently been on the podium for the last few years, and it’s only a matter of time until he lands a major win.
  5. Sep Vanmarcke: Sep is arguably one of the most popular and talented riders out of Belgium these days, but has lacked in consistency over the past few years: sometimes white hot, sometimes ice cold. He has yet to win a major race, but like GvA, it seems to be more a matter of “when” instead of “if”
  6. Teisj Benoot: This young 22 year old Belgian is being hailed as the “next Eddy Merckx”, which often as not is the kiss of death for any promising rider, but Benoot seems to be the real deal. Last year, in his first ever Ronde he placed a remarkable 5th. And the early season racing this season has proved it was no fluke, either.
  7. Zdenek Stybar: A former cyclocross talent, Stybar has already won a host of major races, and a classics win certainly is somewhere on his agenda. His strong finishing kick and amazing endurance and toughness will surely deliver him up a win at either the Ronde or Roubaix soon enough
  8. Alexander Kristoff: The big strong Norwegian sprinter took the Ronde by storm last year…as well as most other races he entered. He’s been a touch off form this season though, but could still be a factor.
  9. Lars Boom: If the weather is bad, this Dutchman will be in his element. In 2014, Boom took a legendary victory in Stage 5 of the Tour de France, which went over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. He’s a dark horse, but if the course is wet, he’ll be looking for his chance.
  10. Niki Terpstra: Niki is a team of Tom Boonen’s, so ostensibly he’ll be racing to support his team leader. But Terpstra is a bona fide contender in his own right, with a win in 2014 at Paris-Roubaix to his name. If Boonen finds himself out of contention, Niki will probably have his eye on victory.

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