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“Half a wheel, half a wheel/ Half a wheel onward, / Into the Via of Roma / Rode the three heroes. / ‘Forward, the Bike Brigade! / Charge for the line!’ they said. / Into the Via of Roma / Rode the three heroes.” —with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”
The brilliantly staged breakaway—initiated by world champion Peter Sagan a kilometer before the top of the Poggio and strengthened by fellow young bucks Julian Alaphilippe and Michal Kwiatkowski—lit up the finale of Milan–San Remo on March 18. After Sagan acrobatically led the other two through the seven tight switchbacks down to San Remo, and after the other two intermittently supported him along the Via Aurelia, past the once-glamorous town’s faded villas and palm trees, the audacious trio entered the Via Roma a quarter-minute clear of a pursuing bunch of 50. With almost 300 kilometers and seven hours of racing in their legs, Sagan confidently (or was it foolishly?) accelerated from the front with 300 meters to go, slightly uphill into a breeze. The three racers then fanned across the most famous street in cycling before the rider in black, Team Sky’s Kwiatkowski, dramatically propelled his Pinarello between the other two to cross the line half a wheel ahead of the man in the rainbow jersey.
One more name had been added to the previous 107 winners of the classic the Italians call the Classicissima (“the classic of classics”), the first monument of the young season. Rightly, the fans and pundits praised the audacity and athleticism of the three young men, especially Sagan, who produced such a thrilling charge toward a finish line where previous generations of champions, including Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly, had been hailed by the Italian tifosi.
Milan–San Remo is the first of five annual classics that have been elevated to monument status, along with the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris–Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Giro di Lombardia. Many wonder why just these five classics are called monuments, whereas other notable races, including Ghent–Wevelgem, the Amstel Gold Race and Strade Bianche, are not. The reason is complicated—a combination of the races’ history, their date on the calendar, the difficulty of the course, the quality of the field and the interest they generate—the buzz. While the Tour de France remains the showpiece of professional cycling, the monuments held during the intense period of competition from mid-March to late-April produce some of the most-anticipated racing of the year. Only champions in the best-organized teams win these events.
It’s true that the five monuments are among the oldest classics—all founded in the years between 1894 (Liège) and 1912 (Flanders)—but there are similarly well-established races, including Milan–Turin (1876), Paris–Tours (1896), the recently modified Paris–Brussels (1904) and the Scheldeprijs (1907), that never made it to the UCI WorldTour, let alone monument status. Why is that?
Well, Milan–Turin was always a domestic classic held just before Milan–San Remo before it moved three decades ago to an end-of-season date preceding Il Lombardia, so it never gained traction. Paris–Tours was regarded as the second most important classic in France, but that too moved from spring to autumn, and a flat course favorable to sprinters didn’t produce dramatic racing. As for the two Belgian races, Paris-Brussels also was considered a major classic when it was held in April, usually a week after Paris–Roubaix, but congestion in the calendar caused by the elevation of the Netherlands’ Amstel Gold Race saw it move to the fall and change its name to the Brussels Classic in 2013. Meanwhile, the Scheldeprijs is another flat, sprinters’ race, which has a midweek date between Flanders and Roubaix.
Much younger classics—Ghent–Wevelgem (first held as an amateur race in 1934), Amstel Gold Race (established in 1966) and Strade Bianche (2007)—have grown in stature in recent years, but their calendar date and/or field strength are a handicap. Until 2009, Wevelgem was held midweek on the current Scheldeprijs date, and is only now gaining traction as a Sunday race the week before Flanders over a distance increased from around 200 to the current 249 kilometers. The Amstel has a 50-year history, but it’s still more regarded as a prelude to the two Ardennes classics, the Flèche Wallonne and Liège, held the following week.
As for Strade Bianche, although well regarded by the racers and fans, it doesn’t have the best field, because it takes place the same weekend as Paris–Nice—which, in 2017, attracted top classics riders Nacer Bouhanni, John Degenkolb, Arnaud Démare, Philippe Gilbert, André Greipel, Dylan Groenewegen, Alexander Kristoff, Michael Matthews and Luke Rowe. And a race that doesn’t include the very best classics men can’t be considered a monument.
So what has made those other five races rise to the top of the barrel?
As the earliest and most challenging classics in their respective countries, Italy’s San Remo and Lombardia and France’s Roubaix always attracted international fields, whereas the two Belgian classics have taken much longer to become monuments. Despite its early founding (1894), Liège didn’t become a fully pro race until 1919, and over the next 30 years every podium spot was taken by a Belgian, except for a single German winner in 1930. Its purely domestic status didn’t change until after World War II, making its breakthrough in 1951, when it was added to the elite Desgrange-Colombo calendar (equivalent to today’s WorldTour) and won by Swiss star Ferdi Kübler. And even though its prestige increased following victories by Tour de France champions Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, the race was close to financial extinction until the local organizer Pesant Club Liègeois was first partnered by Tour organizer ASO in 1990.
As for the youngest monument, the Tour of Flanders also started out as a purely domestic race. Of the first 30 editions, 29 of them were won by Belgians, and it wasn’t until the Italian Fiorenzo Magni came to the race in 1949 and took the victory three years in a row that non-Belgian teams began to see it as classic they should add to their schedules. The turning point, which truly established the Ronde as one of the very top classics, came in 1955.
That year, the key breakaway was made on the old Mur de Grammont (not today’s Muur), 60 kilometers from the finish, by four established stars: two-time winner Rik Van Steenbergen of Belgium, 1951 Tour winner Hugo Koblet of Switzerland, reigning Tour and world champion Louison Bobet of France, and Bobet’s French teammate Bernard Gauthier. The home fans were sure their Rik, the fastest sprinter, would take the victory in Wetteren. But Bobet told his teammate to attack on the short rise before the finish, which forced the other two to chase before Bobet came through to handily take the sprint from Koblet and Van Steenbergen. Victories by defending world champions were repeated in 1962 by Rik Van Looy, 1975 by Eddy Merckx, 2006 by Tom Boonen and 2016 by Sagan—results that have cemented the Ronde as a true monument.
Just as the Tour de France attracts the best stage-race riders at the top of their form and by far the biggest media presence of any bike race so the monuments are season goals for the best classics riders along with the largest crowds—which help create the all-important buzz. Media coverage is an important element. Belgian cycling reporters fill multiple pages before the monuments. When, say, the country’s megastar Tom Boonen has poor results in the lead-up to Flanders and Roubaix, the journalists create various theories to explain an impending national disaster.
They were critical of Merckx before the 1969 Tour of Flanders when Het Nieuwsblad wrote that Merckx didn’t have what was needed to win the Belgian monument, because he’d placed only third and ninth in his first rides at the Ronde. On seeing this scathing forecast, Merckx said, “We shall see…as long as the weather is right.” After the Kwaremont and Muur, heavy rain began to fall on the 11-man breakaway. British hope Barry Hoban later said: “Merckx didn’t really attack, he just rode away from us when he went to the front for his spell of pace-making—with more than 70 kilometers left.” The Belgian’s directeur sportif, Guillaume Driessens, furious that his rider had gone away so early, drove up alongside him. “He asked me if I’d gone completely mad,” Merckx said. “‘Go screw yourself,’ is what I screamed back.” By the finish, Merckx was five-and-a-half minutes ahead of runner-up Felice Gimondi. The reporters wouldn’t be so critical again!
All the monuments take six or seven hours to complete, a fact that distinguishes them from, say, Strade Bianche or E3 Harelbeke, which are shorter than five hours. Another fact that defines the monuments is that they keep similar courses, if not the same exact route, every year. And each one has its own dynamic, molded by the roads and the men that race on them. Here are five snapshots to show why these classics become monuments….
1970 MILAN–SAN REMO From 7:30 on race-day morning scores of vehicles arrive within the high, tawny brick walls of Milan’s 15th-century Sforzesco Castle. Team cars and race officials are directed to the right, press cars to the left. After making their way between the interior’s lawns and flowerbeds the cars line up facing each other in the shadow of the tall Filarete Tower. An announcer makes a roll call of the 248 men on the roster as they line up in the slanting March sunshine. Polizia di Stato officers on Ducati motorcycles usher the stream of press cars across the castle’s drawbridge. We follow them along the Via Dante and Via Orefici, passing white-helmeted city police at intersections and the neo-Gothic spires of Milan Cathedral. It is St. Joseph’s Day, a national holiday, and thousands of Milanese have lined the stone-paved streets to see the great race head south on its way toward San Remo.
1984 PARIS–ROUBAIX One sentence from one man cuts a laser through the muddied confusion of Paris–Roubaix: “At Wallers, half of my riders were on their backs, and the other half were flat on their faces.” It’s spoken by Cyrille Guimard, coach of the powerful French team, Renault-Elf, whose riders meet their fate on the cobblestones of Wallers-Arenberg. This dead-straight 3 kilometers of pavé that penetrates a thick forest is the same today, if a little more battered, as it was two centuries ago. Many of the pinkish-gray granite blocks have sunk into the clay more than others, creating dips that have been filled by the week’s rainfall. Sunshine rarely filters between the tall, sinister trees to evaporate the puddles. The entrance to this little hell is an un-gated rail crossing, followed by a 20-meter stretch of muddy shale, before reaching the cobbles. The riders hurtle shoulder-to-shoulder between Arenberg’s redbrick row houses approaching the crossing.
“I was at the front, alongside Sean Kelly,” says world champion Greg LeMond. Next to them are two French riders on the Peugeot team. “I made a mistake,” says Francis Castaing, “by wanting to accelerate too strongly. The result was a crash, a deep cut on my knee, and I was out of the race.” Dominique Lecrocq fares little better. “I was in third place entering the forest,” he says, “but within 10 meters I flatted.” A few frenzied pedal strokes onto the cobblestones, LeMond too comes tumbling down. In trying to avoid him, Kelly is forced into the trees. “I didn’t fall,” says the Irishman, “but I lost lots of time getting my bike back on the cobbles and putting my feet back in the toe clips.” Ahead, Kelly can see other riders picking themselves out of the mud after falling. Prominent are the black-and-white-striped yellow jerseys of Guimard’s men, covered in the black slime deposited on the pavé from an overhead tramway that carries tailings from a coalmine….
1980 LIÈGE–BASTOGNE–LIÈGE A late-spring storm has enveloped the Ardennes, bringing icy rain and wet snow. Half of the 174 starters have already quit and it looks like Hinault, the reigning Tour champion, is going to join them at the feed zone in the granite-built town of Vielsalm. But his Renault teammate Maurice Le Guilloux persuades his leader to continue. Handed a new bike, thick gloves and a red-wool balaclava to cover his hairnet helmet, Hinault works his way to the front of a small chase group. He puts on the pressure on the 12-percent pitches of the narrow, bumpy Mur de Stockeu, catches the leaders, and then leaves them all behind on the long climb up the Côte de Haute-Levée. The Frenchman rides the remaining 80 kilometers alone and wins Liège–Bastogne–Liège by almost 10 minutes from Dutch strongman Hennie Kuiper. Only 21 brave men finish the seven-hour ordeal. On his epic ride through the blizzard, frostbite causes Hinault to lose all feeling in his right thumb and index finger for life.
1968 GIRO DI LOMBARDIA After one or two turns between stucco houses and high stonewalls in Lecco, the leaders begin the 13-kilometer climb on pink cobblestones toward Balisio. The sun is beating down, though the rugged gray mountains that rise up to 8,000 feet in front of us are partly lost in a lateautumn haze. The last 5 kilometers are steeply hair-pinned, where fans are gathered three-deep on the open side of the road, watching the riders toiling toward them. We’re now in the Valsassina, a ski center in winter, where bright wooden chalets compete with new apartment blocks across a grassy plateau. After a short climb to Introbio, Radio Tour comes to life and tells us: “Merckx has attacked on the descent!”
The descent to Bellano is the most dangerous of the day. A wide, smooth road suddenly degenerates. We’re heading down a narrow valley on a dirt road carved from the hillside, plunging through frequent unlit tunnels and skirting a precipitous drop to a tree-lined chasm. After this discese precipitose—as it’s called in the race book—we emerge into bright sunshine and drop to Lake Como’s blue waters via a series of modern, built-out switchbacks that end in a vicious bend across a rail crossing.
1970 MILAN–SAN REMO Progress of Michele Dancelli’s 70-kilometer solo breakaway is relayed to the fans on the Via Roma by loudspeakers strung along the shaded city street. Enormous crowds cheer every announcement…three-and-ahalf minutes clear on the Capo Berta…still two minutes atop the Poggio. Their Michele is winning the Primavera, the first home victory since Loretto Petrucci 17 years ago. The noise is deafening as he coasts toward the finish line, his arms raised in honor and emotion, his rascally face a mass of smiles and tears. Dancelli has won the greatest victory of his life. The spectators mob their new champion, shouting: “Ecco, ecco…here he is, here he is…Dancelli! Dancelli!”
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson