The arrival of daffodils means one thing in the cycling calendar - the Spring Classics. Steeped in cycling history, these prestigious one-day races are spectacular to watch but grueling to ride. An ‘all or nothing’ test, conquered only by the hardest of men and women, the Spring Classics are known for pitting riders against leg-pulverising climbs and teeth-chattering cobbles. Add in northern Europe’s worst conditions – driving rain and sleet, snow, streams of mud, walls of dust and some crazy distances (Milan-San-Remo is 291 km, or 185 miles) – and you’ll see why these races are notorious.
The Spring Classics can be roughly separated into two groups: the cobbled Classics and the Ardennes Classics, with the addition of two Italian races – Milan-San-Remo (which dates from 1907) and the relatively new Strade Bianche.
Riding the classics
Riding a Classic demands a superhuman effort based on stamina and top-end power. The pace is high for many hours and negotiating the short-sharp bergs, murs and perilous pavé requires the peloton to put in max effort, after max effort.
Most Spring Classics are World Tour races as well but they can often be far more entertaining than the back-to-back days of The Tour – there’s no tomorrow to make up for a bad day, and it’s common for single riders to outwit even the biggest and most organised teams.
Former British road race champion Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) won The Tour of Flanders, in 2016. She says, “The demands of a Classic can be very different to a summer race or stage race – you’re battling the weather conditions and narrow roads, as well as other riders and teams. Tactically you have to be flexible and ready to respond fast because the race scenario can change in an instant. It only takes a change in wind direction or road surface to turn things on their head.”
The best Classics riders are the puncheurs, riders who excel on rolling terrain, love short, sharp climbs and have best bike handling skills – take Cancellera, Sagan and Merckx. To win you need experience, luck and great form, in equal measure. One mistake and you can wish the podium goodbye.
Training for a classic
The Classics are seen as test of form. As the pros emerge from their winter hibernation they are generally in great shape. “Winning a Classic is so hard because you have to beat the best, at their best,” says Deignan.
She adds, “Because these races present a unique challenge, the training is very specific. Most of the race winning moves come from an attack, or a short climb, sometimes on cobbles”.
To prepare for these races requires plenty of time spent doing short, intense efforts (of one to five minutes) and working around your threshold. Heart rate and max power are less of a consideration because the purpose of classics training is to push yourself to the limit – they are the ultimate test of strength, power and mental toughness.
Why riders love, or loathe them
“Riding a spring classic is great fun. The racing is always highly pressure and aggressive. I thrive during tough conditions and the spring classics certainly offer that. There are always large enthusiastic crowds, we sometimes miss that in races later in the season,” says Deignan.
“My natural talents are in riding repeated short, intense efforts and being able to recover quickly between them. I love the back to back short climbs in classics. The longer mountain type climbs are less suited to me as they rely on sustained power without recovery.
“My favourite spring classic was the Tour of Flanders in 2016. Every day in training prior to winning, I had dreamt about doing it. The win was especially sweet because I won in the rainbow jersey. Both results felt like pipe dreams at the start of my career. I only won by a couple of centimetres and I was actually having ‘bad’ day but it was sheer will and determination that got me over the line first.”
Pavé: French word for cobblestones. The cobbled sections of races such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders are infamous.
Berg: Belgian word for ‘a climb’. The names of the hill used in Belgian classics almost always end in ‘berg e.g. the Koppenberg, the Paterberg
Mur: Dutch word for wall. These are short and very steep climbs such as the Mur de Huy - the definitive climb of La Flèche Wallonne.