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For almost 30 years, we have been taking cyclists and pro cycling enthusiasts on trips to the amazing Spring Classics events (many of which have a cycle sportive) and for 2019 we now have more Classics events on offer than any other tour operator. This along with the fantastic feedback we always receive from our customers led us to self-proclaim ourselves as the “King of the Classics”. So as the “King” we asked Simon Warren, the Author of the fantastic 100 climbs books (@100Climbs) to explain why we shouldn’t overlook the early classics.
So over to Simon…
To witness the spring classics first hand is witnessing the true beating heart of professional cycling and all the races have their own unique character. Their courses and the challenges within them, whether they are climbs, cobbles or descents have remained much the same for generations, a constant to test each season’s protagonists. Us mortals can but dream of taking part in these races, of holding our arms aloft on Via Roma in San Remo or breaking away to glory on the Paterberg in Flanders, however we can ride their courses and get a front row seat for the action. Even though you may only witness seconds of racing, the anticipation before hand combined with the incredible high of seeing your idols face to face never disappoints, nor does the thrill of tackling the hills that the pros make look oh so easy. Whether you ride the route the day after watching the pro race inspired by what you’ve seen, or the day previous so you fully understand the effort needed to cover the terrain, the mix of spectating at a Spring Classic and riding its respective cyclosportive is a winning formula for any bike racing fan.
Although the focus of the spring classics is in northern Europe, primarily Belgium, they aren’t confined to the famous cobbled Hellingen they also include Milan-San Remo and the new kid in town, the Strade Bianche. Both of which are in Italy, the former has been on the cycling calendar for 112 years, the later just 12, but no race has embedded itself in the imagination of both riders and spectators as quickly as the Strade Bianche. Named after the white gravel roads that criss cross the hills around Siena it has gained its iconic status in a little over ten years due to the perfect mix of the unique terrain and maybe the most beautiful finish to any race in the amazing Piazza del Campo.
On a sunny day the pristine white roads set in the timeless beauty of the rolling Tuscan Hills, capped with lines of Cypress trees that look as if they were plucked straight from a renaissance masterpiece. If the rain falls though, well, they have more in common with Dante’s vision of hell as chalky dust and water instantly turn to clay. Due to the unpredictable weather of early spring you just don’t know what you’re going to get and this is part of the attraction. This race appeals to warriors who love bad weather, to the hard men and women of the classics, it appeals to their strength, bike handling and true grit. And then there’s the finish, after six hours battling the constant undulations, of fighting the chaos of the Strade Bianche there is one final obstacle placed in front of them, the Via Santa Caterina. What was once just another viciously steep street into the heart of beautiful Siena has fast become a legend in the cycling world. This killer finale, these 1200 meters of smooth paving stones set on a 20% gradient have already witnessed some truly heroic scenes and if you’re in any doubt, check this video from the end of the 2018 race: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YA8caLN-9M . So in an ideal world there will be a deluge on the Saturday to make the pro race as epic as possible to treat the spectators to a true spectacle. Then for the Grand Fondo on Sunday perfect blue skies so you can connect with the romance of the Tuscan hills and enjoy the challenge the timeless white roads present without the suffering inclement weather poses.
The next early season Italian Classic is of course Milan-San Remo, the first of the five ‘monuments’ of the cycling calendar. Unlike the cobbled classics in the north, or Strade Bianche that allow spectators the opportunity to catch the race from many vantage points, if you’re heading to see MSR then you must decide where you want to see the action stick to it and these are my three suggestions. First, the climb of the Cipressa to see the early flourishes on its five kilometres of smooth flowing tarmac are where the main contenders start to lay the groundwork for victory. Or secondly the famous slopes of the Poggio in hope of witnessing the decisive attack where a lone raider or a group composed of the world’s best make their move? Or thirdly head to the finish in the centre of San Remo to see the climax, to see if a solo rider appears chased by the pack or will there be a mass gallop? Then the day after, with the race still fresh in your memory there is the chance to take on the two final decisive climbs yourself. At this point in the year though, and with likely fool weather further north the associated sportive wisely starts and finishes in San Remo rather than Milan, sticking close to the azure waters of the Med. Taking in the beautiful coastal scenery and a fair few big climbs it culminates with the Cipressa and then finishes at the top of the Poggio, but will you be in the big ring heading up at over 35kph like the pros?
If you do demand the full MSR experience then return to ride the Grand Fondo Milan-San Remo in June, when the weather will be better and then you can really feel what it’s like to take on these two iconic climbs with close to 300 kilometres in your legs.
Leaving Italy and heading north it’s back to the true home of the spring classics and time for Belgium to take the limelight. The season kicks off here with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne, both great places to see the big stars in action on the cobbled climbs after their long winter break. This year Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will feature the king of the Flanders climbs the Muur de Geraardsbergen where many of the most iconic images of the sport have been captured. Then, following a short Hiatus when the riders all head south to work on their tans the racing returns with Gent Wevelgem. Although classified as a sprinters race, Gent Wevelgem is all about the Kemmelberg, and for us spectators it’s about getting there early, getting a good spot and guarding it with your life. The races passes through twice so you get two bites at the cherry between the copious amounts of frites and beer you can consume.
Cycling offers fewer more rewarding experiences than spending a day at a Belgian cobbled classic. In Belgium the climbs are as famous as the riders, they are household names and each one has its own particular nuance. From the chaos of the random cobbles on the Molemberg to the vicious 20% gradient of the Paterberg to the sheer length of the Oude Kwaremont each one packs its own particular punch. To see the action live, even for the briefest of moments, to see the race evolve and to mix in with the passionate locals is a must-do on all bucket lists. During the event the atmosphere builds, from polite rows of spectators drinking coffee to raucous drunken hordes as the riders approach. Bus loads of Belgians dash from berg to berg, more inebriated at each one and increasing the volume of their awful Euro Techno as the race progresses. Spectating a Belgian Classic is part of the fabric of the nation and standing on the Kemmelberg, Koppenberg or the Taaienberg can easily match the atmosphere of a packed football stadium on derby day.
Ready to ride and witness a classic? Travel with us the “King of the Classics” in 2019 and enjoy a perfect cycling weekend. See all of our Classics trips by clicking here.
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