Spring classics: A beginners' guide to Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and cycling's other one-day races
By Matt Westby
Last Updated: 24/04/16 6:45pm
The spring classics are among the most prestigious, challenging and absorbing races in cycling.
But what exactly are they and what makes them so special?
Here, with the help of Team Sky rider Ian Stannard, we explain everything there is to know…
In a nutshell
Whereas the Tour de France is raced over three weeks, the classics are all one-day races, taking place mainly in Belgium and northern France from the end of February to the end of April. There are a handful of classics later on in the summer and autumn, but the core of the classics season takes place in the early spring.
Some classics are more high profile than others, and the five most prestigious are known as the 'Monuments'. In date order, they are: Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia.
Types of classics
The classics can be roughly separated into two groups: the cobbled classics and the Ardennes classics. However, there is the odd race that fits into neither and has its own unique characteristics.
The cobbled classics are raced over a combination of asphalt and cobblestones, frequently on tight and winding rural lanes. Some of the cobbled classics are mainly flat, such as Paris-Roubaix and Scheldeprijs, but others include a barrage of short and sharp hills, such as the Tour of Flanders and E3 Harelbeke. They are traditionally won by powerful riders who are expert bike-handlers on the cobbles, such as Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen.
The Ardennes classics are hilly races that all take place in the Ardennes region of Belgium and the Netherlands. They have as much as 4,500m of vertical ascent and a race-deciding climb close to the finish. There are three Ardennes classics, all of which take place within the space of a week in April: Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They are usually won by pure climbers, such as Alejandro Valverde or Joaquim Rodriguez, or riders who can power their way up short and sharp climbs, such as Philippe Gilbert or Simon Gerrans.
The most notable race not to fit into any of the above categories is Milan-San Remo, which contains late climbs but is usually seen as a Classic for sprinters such as Mark Cavendish, who won the race in 2009. Another exception is Strade Bianche in Italy, which takes place over a combination of asphalt and gravel and includes a decisive late climb.
What's unique about them?
Aside from the terrain, the first thing to say about the classics is that they are the longest races in cycling. While the longest stage of this year's Tour de France is 232km, Milan-San Remo is more than 290km, Paris-Roubaix is more than 250km and both the Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are more than 260km.
The other factor to take into account is the weather. Due to their place on the calendar, the classics can be battered by rain, wind, sleet and snow. For example, the 2013 edition of Milan-San Remo had to be stopped mid-race and re-started 50km further down the road due to snow. On wet days, riders will reach the finish line covered head to foot in mud.
In short, the classics are races for cycling's hard men.
The classics come with some specialist terminology that will be useful to get your head around. Here are the main phrases you need to know…
- Pavé: The French word for cobblestones. Cobbles are a defining feature of races such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.
- Berg: The Belgian word for a climb. The names of climbs in the Belgian classics almost always end in "…berg", famous examples being the Koppenberg, the Paterberg and Taaienberg.
- Mur: Climbs that aren't known as "bergs" tend to be referred to as "Mur", which is the Dutch word for wall. These are usually short and very steep. An example is the Mur de Huy, which is the decisive climb of La Fleche Wallonne.
- Puncheur: A rider who flourishes on rolling terrain, and particularly short, sharp climbs.
The 2016 schedule
Ian Stannard talks through each of the spring classics…
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Saturday, February 27)
Race type: Cobbled Classic. Country: Belgium. Distance: 200.8km.
Stannard says: "Nieuwsblad kicks off the classics. Everyone has been racing in Australia and Qatar in warmer weather, but this is where the business starts. Because it's still only late February, this race is generally a lot colder than the rest of the classics, and that can be a challenge in itself. Rain and even snow can play a big part."
Winner: Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) | Report
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (Sunday, February 28)
Race type: Sprinters' cobbled Classic. Country: Belgium.
Stannard says: "Kuurne is the second part of the opening weekend of the classics and although it is different to Nieuwsblad in terms of the profile and terrain, it is once again a tough battle that is frequently played out in difficult weather conditions."
Winner: Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) | Report
Strade Bianche (Saturday, March 5)
Race type: Rolling, with gravel sections. Country: Italy. Distance: 176km.
Stannard says: "This is a totally different race to the northern European classics. You haven't got the cobblestones, but the white dirt and gravel roads are very tricky to ride on and can be very slippy. If they are wet, they are a nightmare. On the plus side, it's in Italy, so the weather is usually warmer."
Winner: Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) | Report
Milan-San Remo (Saturday, March 19)
Race type: Sprinters' Classic. Country: Italy. Distance: 295km.
Stannard says: "This is a monster race, almost 300km. There is a flurry of climbs at the end and although they are not the hardest climbs in the world, after 300km they really sap the legs. If a sprinter has got a good team to help control the race in the final, it is likely to end in a sprint. The final is really exciting."
Winner: Arnaud Demare (FDJ.fr) | Report
Dwars Door Vlaanderen (Wednesday, March 23)
Race type: Cobbled Classic. Country: Belgium. Distance: 199.7km.
Stannard says: "Now back up in Belgium, the weather is starting to warm up a bit but the rain and wind can still be an issue. Dwars takes place on tight roads that are winding and dirty and if you aren't paying attention, you can quite easily come off. It's a real war to be at the front of the race. Concentration is key."
Winner: Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal)
E3 Harelbeke (Friday, March 25)
Race type: Cobbled Classic. Country: Belgium. Distance: 206.4km.
Stannard says: "Like Dwars, E3 uses some of the same climbs as the Tour of Flanders just over a week later. It's one of those races where one little mistake can end your chances, so you really have to think about your strategy."
Winner: Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) | Report
Gent-Wevelgem (Sunday, March 27)
Race type: Sprinters' cobbled Classic. Country: Belgium. Distance: 242.8km.
Stannard says: "Gent-Wevelgem leans towards the sprinters. We do two laps of the Kemmelberg, which is a cobbled climb, but both come quite a long way from the finish so there is time for teams to regroup and bring their sprinters back up to the front."
Winner: Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) | Report
Tour of Flanders (Sunday, April 3)
Race type: Cobbled Classic. Country: Belgium. Distance: 255.9km.
Stannard says: "Flanders is a huge event in Belgium and has a lot of tradition and history behind it. It's almost the national day and everyone comes out to watch it. There are people five and six deep on the climbs drinking beer and it's a really special atmosphere. In some of the smaller classics you can get up the gutters on the cobbled climbs, which are smoother, but at the Tour of Flanders they move the barriers forward and crowd are in the gutter. It makes it a lot harder, but it's still brilliant to race."
Winner: Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) | Report
Scheldeprijs (Wednesday, April 6)
Race type: Sprinters' cobbled Classic. Country: Belgium. Distance: 200km.
Stannard says: "Scheldeprijs sits in between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and although there are some flat cobbled sections, it's a more straightforward and easier race, and for that reason it usually ends up with a sprinter winning it."
Winner: Marcel Kittel (Etixx - Quick-Step | Report
Paris-Roubaix (Sunday, April 10)
Race type: Cobbled Classic. Country: France. Distance: 257.5km.
Stannard says: "Paris-Roubaix is nicknamed the 'Hell of the North' and that's a fitting description. There aren't any climbs, but the cobbles rip your hands and body apart. By the time you get to the finish, it feels like you have been racing for three weeks rather than one day. It ends in the velodrome in Roubaix and just getting there is an achievement. It's a true epic."
Winner: Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge) | Report
Amstel Gold Race (Sunday, April 17)
Race type: Ardennes Classic. Country: Netherlands. Distance: 248.7km.
Stannard says: "I know a little less about the Ardennes classics because they are not my terrain. Amstel kicks off Ardennes classics week and, depending on who you speak to, it's usually regarded as the easiest of the three."
Winner: Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) | Report
La Fleche Wallonne (Wednesday, April 20)
Race type: Ardennes Classic. Country: Belgium. Distance: 196km. 2015 winner: Alejandro Valverde.
Stannard says: "Fleche is difficult because it ends with a climb of the legendary Mur de Huy, which has maximum gradient of about 20 per cent. After 200km, that's a really tough ask. The climbers usually win here."
Winner: Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) | Report
Liege-Bastogne-Liege (Sunday, April 24)
Race type: Ardennes Classic. Country: Belgium. Distance: 248km.
Stannard says: "Liege is the most prestigious of the three Ardennes classics as it's one of the five Monuments. Again, it's one for the climbers and is usually won by the rider who times his attack the best."
Winner: Wout Poels (Team Sky) | Report
Il Lombardia (Saturday, October 1)
Race type: Climbers' Classic. Country: Italy. Distance: TBC. 2015 winner: Vincenzo Nibali.
Stannard says: "Another Classic for the climbers, Lombardia is littered with climbs and, once again, it's all about timing your attack to perfection."
Which Classic are you most looking forward to? Let us know by leaving a comment below or, for app users, by tweeting @SkyCycling.