Without a doubt the best time of the year, the spring Classics are amazing to watch and gruelling to ride. Here is everything you need to know about the races, the monuments and cobbled classics.
When do the Spring Classics begin?
The spring classics kick off in late February with the Belgian double header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Billed together as ‘Opening Weekend’ these curtain raisers provide an early hit-out for the spring classics specialists who have specifically trained over the winter to peak for the weeks and months ahead.
The 'Classics' in cycling... what are they?
Held mostly in Northern Europe (particularly in Belgium), the Spring Classics are a set of iconic one-day races in the cycling race calendar. These races are old in history, have shaped legends of professional cycling, and have provided some of the most memorable moments the sport has ever seen.
There is often debate to whether a race can be stated as a Classic or not, the term ‘spring classic’ can be broad, with different criteria applied to both the exact start of the classics campaign and what merits a race to be labelled as part of the collection.
We, at Belgian Crew, feel safe to say that pretty much any race ridden in between March/April that brings together the Classics specialists and adds crappy/cold weather, cheering fans, unpaved roads in any form and beer can be classified as a Classic.
Spring Classics vs Grand Tours
The spring Classics are often more entertaining than any stage race (including Grand Tours) as big teams can’t kill off the excitement or viewing pleasure by over-controlling the race and those with ambitions for the win sit back, limit their losses and make up for it the following day.
One-day races are always raced at Full Gas, you have one chance, all or nothing. No plans, just big balls (Tom Booneen).
Different types of Spring Classics...
There are 3 major categories of Spring Classics races: the Monuments, the Cobbled Classics and The Ardennes Classics. All unique in their own ways but all just as big and exciting. You win any of these races and you are no longer a boy, you grow into a man, as Merckx once said: "I won I won, I don't have to go to school anymore". This is where heroes are born. It is not coincidence that all the legends of cycling have won 1 or more monuments and/or classics.
This is what it takes to win a monument race
The (5) monuments of cycling
There are 5 officially recognized monuments of cycling, and these are the five biggest one-day races on the calendar.
They take place in three different countries, over cobbles, up and down climbs and often in the foulest of weather conditions. Alone of the five is Il Lombardia, which takes place in the autumn and after all three of cycling’s Grand Tours.
- Milan-San Remo (Italy, the first one and longest)
- Tour of Flanders (Belgium, the symbol of Belgium and best one for fans)
- Paris-Roubaix (France, cobbles and more cobbles)
- Liegè-Bastogne-Liegè (Belgium, the oldest in history)
- Il Lombardia (Italy, the only one held in autumn)
Milan-Sanremo is the first Monument of the year and is most noted for its length as riders cover around 300km. Some short, sharp climbs towards the end including the ascents of the Cipressa and Poggio make this one for the puncheurs and the punchier sprinters, but it still carries the nickname The Sprinters’ Classic.
The Tour of Flanders (Dutch: Ronde van Vlaanderen) takes riders over the cobbles and bergs of Belgium’s Flemish north. One for the all-out Classics specialists, De Ronde is a huge draw for fans wanting to see the best riders giving it their all on the hellingen on their way to the finish line.
Paris-Roubaix, means cobbles and more cobbles, sometime blood, add some mud and you got the perfect day for it. Rightly named the Queen of the Classics or the Hell of the North (for its toughest in any weather conditions), is a truly gruelling day out for the riders but an incredible spectacle for fans – both on the side of the road or watching at home on the television.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the oldest of the five races as it was first run in 1892, and has been named La Doyenne (‘The Old Lady’) to reflect this. The event comes after the cobbled races and is better suited to a tactically astute stage racer who’s brought their climbing legs.
Il Lombardia , is a bit of an outsider, since it is the only event raced in autumn. For this reason it is also known as the 'Race of the falling leaves'. Often used to close the season for the best riders. About 250km long , it is one of the oldest classics, first raced in 1905 for nearly 70 years the race was called "il Mondiale d'Autunno" in Italy ("the World Championship of Autumn").
Milan-Sanremo stretches along the italian cost before reaching the final two climbs of the day.
The Cobbled Classics
While most would associate the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix among the only cobbled Classics, there are many more pavé-strewn races.
In fact, many of the smaller Belgian races (some known as semi-classics) go over many of the same roads from race to race, including those used in De Ronde.
The four ‘cobbled classics’ are: E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Only Tom Boonen in the men’s peloton holds the title of being the first, and only, rider to win all four races in one season (2012).
Like ice when wet and almost as slippery when dusty, cobbles can be hard to negotiate at the best of times let alone in a fast-moving pack of jostling riders.
Tour of Flanders is considered to be one of the best races for the fans.
The Ardennes Classics
There are three Ardennes Classics, although one of them is actually in the Dutch Limburg region. The Dutch event comes first in the shape of the Amstel Gold Race, followed by La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a Monument.
The three races now take place over an eight day period and tend to fall later in April, after the Cobbled Classics. Due to the hilly terrain covered by the three races, previous victors include Tour de France overall winners, puncheurs and top domestiques.
As of 2017, the women’s peloton also has their trio of races for the Ardennes Classics. That same year, Anna van der Breggan became the first women rider to win all three in one season.
The famous Mur de Huy, the final and most iconic climb of La Flèche Wallonne.
Worth a mention
An outsider that is quickly raising its status to Classic is Strade Bianche. First held in 2007, despite its short history, the Strade Bianche has quickly gained prestige, and instigated a renewed interest in road racing on gravel and dirt roads as a specific skill and discipline.
The name Strade Bianche (Italian for White Roads) stems from the historic white gravel roads in the Crete Senesi, which are a defining feature of the race. One third of the total race distance is raced on dirt roads, covering 63 km of strade bianche, spread over 11 sectors.
Strade Bianche, is never easy, you either eat dust or mud, depending on the weather.
The major spring classics races
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, formerly known at Omloop Het Volk, tends to contain a number of the Flemish climbs that are typically associated with the Tour of Flanders but unlike mammoth challenge of Flanders, the Omloop course roughly settles at a more manageable 200km of racing.
Best places to watch Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
The final two climbs in 2023 will be the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg, while the finish in Ninove is likely to produce an entertaining finale.
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne takes place the day after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and teams often replenish their rosters with Kuurne’s race profile often lending itself to a reduced bunch sprint due to the lack of climbs in the second half of the race. Both races offer an early indication of form ahead of the rest of the spring classics but with so much racing between ‘Opening Weekend’ and the biggest one day races there’s time for riders to improve their condition before the most important spring classics come into view.
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is most famous for it's trophy, a stuffed donkey plush.
Best places to watch Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
Kuurne produces a lively race start with beer on tap and passionate Belgian fans in high attendance.
After the early forays in Belgium the spring classics head to Italy and a relatively new classic, Strade Bianche. The event, which contains both a women’s and men’s race, held its inaugural edition in 2007, but despite its lack of heritage the race has quickly established itself as a key event within the sport.
The picture postcard setting and the dirt roads of the Tuscan landscape provide one of the most iconic backdrops within the sport. Strade Bianche may be the new kid on the classics block but it has already established itself as a must-watch event for all cycling fans.
Best place to watch Strade Bianche
You have to experience riding the dirt roads if you can, but when it comes to attending the race, there’s no place better than the last steep climb into Siena (Santa Caterina), make sure to get there early enough to get a spot, it is very limited and fills up faster than your glass of beer! Alternatively, the finish in Piazza del Campo in Siena, is always full of excitement, bars and fans and never disappoints.
With Strade Bianche in the rearview mirror the attention turns to the first Monument of the season, Milan-San Remo. Also known as La Classicissima, the race is held in late March, tops out at nearly 300 kilometres, and has provided cycling fans with some of the most emphatic and exciting moments since the race’s inception in 1907.
Starting in the Piazza del Duomo in the center of Milan, the race traces along the Ligurian Coast before hitting a series of ascents, before hitting the often race-defining climbs of the Cipressa and Poggio. These two climbs may not be particularly steep, or long, with the Cipressa 5.6km in length and Poggio 3.7km, but with both obstacles coming inside the final 20km they have often acted as the launchpad for famous attacks and daredevil descents. The race is so finely balanced between the climbers, sprinters and one-day specialists that the finale is often too close to call, and while Milan-San Remo is often a slow-burn of a race the thrilling finishes will have you at the edge of your seat.
Best place to watch Milan-San Remo
Milan offers a beautiful location for the race start and there are a number of scenic spots along the coastline from which to watch the race. The finish on the Via Roma is a must on every diehard fan’s bucket list.
Most wins: Eddy Merckx... 7! That's right.
Saxo Classic and Gent-Wevelgem
In late March the spring classics return to the heartland of Belgium with E3 Saxo Classic and then Gent-Wevelgem raising the curtain on a series of cobbled races. Gent-Wevelgem, the most famous of the two races, is not quite on the same level as one of cycling’s Monuments but it remains one of the most prestigious one-day races in the calendar with its roots dating back to the 1930s.
Often dubbed as a race suited to the sprinters, the parcours contains three ascents of the lung-busting Kemmelberg, as well often harsh weather and echelons typically splintering the peloton before the finish. Reduced bunch sprints or small breakaways tend to contest for the victory, while since 2012 a women’s race has been added to the calendar, with Kirsten Wild the only rider to win the race on more than one occasion.
Best places to watch E3 Saxo Classic and Gent-Wevelgem
Both races run entirely different and varied routes. When it comes to E3, the start in Harelbeke is always stacked with energy and atmosphere, while there are plenty of climbs along the route that offer the chance to see the race at full throttle. For Gent-Wevelgem, the start in Ypres is a special moment, and there’s a huge amount of history and culture on offer. The Kemmelberg is the obvious mid-point in the race from which to watch the action, with the race organisers providing tickets and packages to fans.
Tour of Flanders
A week after Gent-Wevelgem the cycling world turns its attention towards the Tour of Flanders, (Ronde van Vlaanderen) and Belgium’s most important and illustrious one-day race on the sporting calendar. The men’s race dates all the way back to 1913 and is the second Monument of the season, while the women’s event was established in 2004. The routes for both races have been modified over the years with starts and finishes both being switched out on several occasions. The early editions of the men’s race began and finished in Ghent but over time the route has evolved and the latest incarnation of the men’s events sees the peloton roll out in Antwerp and finish in the town of Oudenaarde.
There are so many climbs within the race, and so many decisive factors, that the outcome of the Tour of Flanders - in both the men’s and women’s race - could be decided at any point. It is without doubt the most tactically difficult race to win, with brains just as important as brawn over the 270-plus kilometers of racing.
Best place to watch the Tour of Flanders
From the start in the centre of Bruges, to the iconic climbs, and the finish in Oudenaarde, the Tour of Flanders has no shortage of places to check-off on your list. Luckily the race organisers provide tickets for several key vantage points, including the key climbs, while the start in the centre of Bruges is one of the best cycling atmospheres you’ll ever experience with thousands of fans, a full-stage presentation of the riders. If you are unsure, just pick a place next to a beer booth, there is never shortage of that in Belgium.
The final classic and Monument of the cobbled campaign comes in the form of Paris-Roubaix, arguably the most famous one-day race in the cycling world. Dating back to 1896, the race is held in northern France, and has earned the nickname of ‘The Hell of the North’ due to its arduous nature and the back-breaking sectors of pavè that litter the race route. Originally created by textile manufactures hailing from Roubaix, the race is steeped in history and has provided some of the most legendary moments in cycling’s past, from the first finish on the famous Roubaix velodrome in the 1940s, Dirk Demol’s all-day break in 1988, Mapei’s 1-2-3 domination from 1996, to Tom Boonen equalling Roger De Vlaeminck’s record of four wins back in 2012.
What elevates Paris-Roubaix to Monument and effectively legendary status, however, are the cobbles. The Trouée d'Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle, and Carrefour de l'Arbre are some of the most feared and celebrated sectors of pavè in cycling and have provided some of the most electrifying racing of all time. Whether it’s a wet or dry Paris-Roubaix, every edition of the race provides blockbuster entertainment.
In 2021 a women’s version of the race was finally added to the race calendar by organisers ASO. Though the race has only had a short lived history it already has all the hallmarks of becoming one of the most respected and treasured events in the calendar.
Best place to watch Paris-Roubaix
The start in Compiègne is always special, and the teams’ presentation at the same place the day before is always a worthwhile experience too. The route speaks for itself and it’s entirely possible to try and see the race at several points, including the Carrefour de l’Arbre, and the Arenberg Forest if you plan ahead. Just remember that unlike most of the races on this list, the women’s and men’s Paris-Roubaix races take place on different days. Of course, the velodrome finish can’t be ignored, with tickets available in advance.
- Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands
- La Flèche Wallonne in Belgium
- Liège-Bastogne-Liège in Belgium
All three events have men’s and women’s races, respectively, with Amstel - the youngest of the trio - kicking off proceedings a week after Paris-Roubaix. The Dutch race is synonymous with the Cauberg climb but in fact has 30 short bergs throughout the men’s route. The finish has been modified several times over the last couple of decades but the Cauberg remains the final ascent before the finish and often sparks the decisive attacks. In 2019 van der Poel took his first classics win at Amstel Gold Race when he helped reel in a last-minute three-man break before the line before winning a breathtaking sprint to the line.
While Amstel Gold Race is associated with Cauberg there is no doubting the importance of the Mur de Huy climb with La Fleche Wallonne. The ‘Walloon Arrow’, as it’s known in English, finishes atop the brutally tough climb with pitches of 26 per cent almost always determining the outcome of both the men’s and women’s races. Race organisers ASO have modified the finish several times over the last few years in a bid to provide riders with new terrain on which to attack and stretch the race but only once in the last few decades has the race not seen the winning move form on the final climb.
Recently retired Alejandro Valverde holds the record for the most wins with five victories, while the women’s race, which was founded in 1998, has been dominated by two riders in particular with Anna van der Breggen and Marianne Vos winning seven and five titles, respectively.
The final spring classic and the only Ardennes race to hold Monument status is Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Also known as the La Doyenne or ‘The Old Lady’, the race dates all the way back to 1892, with the women’s race added to the calendar as recently as 2017. It’s the oldest Monument on the calendar, and like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, is considered one of the hardest one-day races in the world.
Just like the Tour of Flanders, the race is punctuated with a series of short but brutally tough climbs, and while the route has been modified at several points over the years, the most iconic ascents of the Côte de La Redoute, Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons and Côte de Saint-Nicolas has been remained intact and tantamount to the race.
Eddy Merckx holds the record for the most Liège wins with five in total, while Italian legend Moreno Argentin and Alejandro Valverde are both tied on four victories apiece. Only two riders have ever won all three Ardennes races in the same year, the late Davide Rebellin in 2004 and Philippe Gilbert in 2011.
The women’s race is roughly half the distance but also contains a number of the key climbs before the finish in Liège.
Best place to watch the Ardennes races
Amstel Gold Race: The best locations are the start in Maastricht, the Cauberg, and the finish in Valkenburg.
La Fleche Wallonne: The best place to watch is from the finish on the Mur de Huy.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège: La Redoute and Saint Nicolas provide great vantage points and often major action in the race.