The Northern Classics: where Cycling finds its soul


The cycling season begins with the usual sequence of classic one-day races that take the cyclists from the mild temperatures of the early Sanremo spring, to the rigid northern climate, where the northern classics take place.

The old cycling aficionados of decades ago, people who had never traveled or knew nothing about what lied far from their small-town, could name precisely those places, as though they were their own: Paris, Roubaix, Liege, Granmont, Huy. They all came to them through the radio that let the enterprises of those cyclists enter their homes, and cheer for something they had never seen.

So different from today’s over broadcasted, over recorded races, in which cameras follow every cyclist in every moment of the race. At the time, a whole sport rested on the capacity of the broadcasters to build a story and deliver it live to people who did not know what was happening, could not imagine the landscapes, the places, the roads.

Road Cycling for a long time was a restricted business: Italy, France, Belgium, Nederland, Germany, Spain, and Luxembourg built a sport of their own, with its own rituals, dates, places, that repeated along the year. Though the globalization of sports brought many more races and athletes from all the continents, some of these pillars stand even today and represent the most important achievements in a cyclist’s career.

The modern cycling organization have set aside a group of competitions called the “monument” classics: Milano-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Tour of Lombardy, the season closing event. Unfortunately, a fascinating classic like the Fleche Valone has been downgraded as a filler between the Paris-Roubaix and the Liege, though the “Mur de Huy” is always one of the most mesmering places in the history of cycling.

This is understandable. The international calendar needed to make room for new classics and new tours, in countries that promise to deliver the highest growth of the sports in the future. Nevertheless, the Northern season remains a key moment of the cycling year, a competition of its own, with a strong character. Each race owns a peculiarity that makes it stand out from the others.

The Tour of Flanders usually begins in Antwerp, Belgium. It is a race full of suffering, characterized by the combination of the “muurs”, short uphill very hard to do, usually paved with cobbles, remnants of the ancient Roman roads. The most famous is the Muur van Geraardsbergen (known also as “muur”, or Granmont Wall from the French name). it comes after about 260 kilometers of a hellish road and is the last hard one to make.

The Geraardsbergen is about 1 km long, and climbs 111 meters, reaching a top gradient of 19,8%. If it rains, the Muur becomes a real wall made of cobbles, mud, water, cold. The most likely candidate to the victory should ideally start here.

The Paris Roubaix crosses a land full of history, north East of the French capital. It is a race without hills, but it’s made difficult for the long “pave” traits, old cobbled roads, that in conditions of rain and cold transform it into a war. The Roubaix is a race of its own. The cyclists are not obliged by their teams to run it, because it is simply too hard. You must feel that you want to run it and often the strongest ones who tried to dominate, were unseated by its peculiar nature.

Strange cyclists win it. Duclos-Lassalle ran it for years and won only in the last two seasons of his career. The same for Franco Ballerini of Italy. Other greats, like Francesco Moser, won it three times, thus sealing their status as champions. Roger De Vlaeminck and Tom Boonen won it 4 times, Merckx only 2.

In 1994 Mussew prepared a special bike for the race, certain of his victory. But constant rain, cold, mud, made that year’s race one of the hardest, from which a Moldavian, Andrej Cmil, emerged with an incredible strength to win.

The Liege-Bastogne-Liege, in comparison, may seem easier due to the absence of cobbles. Nevertheless, its walls, combined with last kilometers in light uphill, make it a subtle race, one that the best minds of the sport won with their tactics.

It’s not a case if Moreno Argentin, one of the strongest Italians of the 80s and 90, won it 4 times, and Merckx 5 times. In the same way in which the Flanders and the Roubaix require big cyclists, heavy, capable of putting their strength on the street, the Liege likes to give itself to different mindset, almost reconciling the debilitated bodies that tried the previous two races, with a milder idea of cycling and making them ready to the long Tours ahead.

These races were born at the end of the XIX century or early XX century. They were tests, experiments of a young sport, that was still looking for its soul. In the USA the track cycling dominated the sports landscape like basketball today, in Europe the lack of structures similar to the Americans made cycling a sport of roads, near to the people, echoing their struggle to go to work and making them identify in men that carried out these incredible competitions, in the same way they faced they jobs.

In the quiet fields of Roubaix and Bastogne, of Flanders and France, World War I saw its most deadly battles, with the use of nervine gas, hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers. The races themselves stand as a sort of memory of those times, in which a young sport like Cycling moved its first steps. Back from the war, maybe it seemed normal to perpetuate an act of life where death had reigned so much.

And even today their warlike character stands. For these 8 hours the cyclists fall in a sort of cycling war, in which only the strongest survives. The teams have limited importance. It all rests on the shoulders and the tactical intelligence of the riders.

Sunday, April 1st, it all begins with the Tour of Flanders.