Your primer to some of the most beautiful and dramatic competitions in sports
Grand Tour racing is great. Yes. Absolutely. Who wouldn’t agree with that?
The Tour de France? There’s nothing like it in the whole world. A spectacle unlike any other. Iconic.
But if you’re a hardcore road cycling fan, you’re not alone if you feel that the big three-week men’s stage races seem to suck up a disproportionate amount of oxygen on the racing calendar. And if you’re a casual fan, you may not even realize that there’s more — MUCH more — to the sport.
One-day Classics races start at the end of February and take place throughout the year, though the highest concentration — the so-called “Classics Season” — occurs in the spring. These races are about the same length as a meaty Grand Tour stage, except riders don’t have to worry about resting up to race again the next day.
If you’ve ever felt yourself nodding off during a flat Tour transition stage, the Classics are your antidote. Pick any one-day race — maybe the white gravel roads of Strade Bianche, the teeth-chattering misery of the cobbled Paris-Roubaix, the last-gasp magic of the late-season Il Lombardia — and it’s a safe bet that you’ll be hooked from the opening gun.
The Classics are the simplest expression of racing. There are no days off in the saddle, and no messing around with bonus seconds or points systems. They’re grueling tests in which riders see who can put one pedal in front of the other better than the rest. Each race has its own personality that shapes who can win and how, but they all come down to one thing: Who crosses the line first.
Some might argue that Classics races are the best races of the year. While we’ll take no sides in that debate, we do think they are wonderful and often underappreciated. If you’re new to one-day racing, here’s a primer on what all the hoopla is about.
What are they?
Many of the ongoing Classics were among the first major races in cycling. Liège-Bastogne-Liège, one of the biggest and oldest, began in 1892, 11 years before the first Tour de France.
We’re using the term “Classics” broadly. Some would only apply it to a select handful of the most prestigious races, but you will see the term refer to almost any one-day race involving WorldTour teams like Trek-Segafredo.
Five races are widely considered to be the most important in men’s cycling, however. Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia are known as cycling’s “Monuments.” Win a Monument, and consider yourself made in cycling history.
Tell me about the women's Classics!
The history of women’s Classics isn’t as long as the men’s, but the races have been just as thrilling, and the one-day calendar is expanding every year.
The Tour of Flanders has held a women’s event alongside the men’s since 2004, and a women’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège has been held since 2017. In 2021, women will also compete in their own version of Paris-Roubaix, arguably the crown jewel of the Classics calendar. (Milan-Sanremo held a women’s event starting in 1999, but discontinued it in 2005; Il Lombardia has never held a women’s event.)
Other major women’s Classics include Strade Bianche in Italy, Gent-Wevelgem in Belgium, Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands and Fleche Wallone in Belgium. You can also include La Course, a one-day race hosted by the organizers of the Tour de France, held in the midst of the men’s Grand Tour. (Trek-Segafredo’s Lizzie Deignan won it last year; no big deal.)
Who tends to win?
Yeah, anyone. Sure, some course profiles will rule out some subsets of riders — a pure sprinter will probably never win Il Lombardia, for example — but in general the spectrum of riders who can win a typical one day race is much, much wider than those who can win the general classification of a long stage race (typically climbers who can also time trial well).
And because a race like Milan-Sanremo favors sprinters, a bigger field of missile-y riders will show out for their chance at glory than might enter a Grand Tour for the 3-5 bunch finishes buried within its 21 stages.
What are the types of races?
The Ardennes Classics
The Ardennes region is primarily a reference to southeast Belgium, but it includes parts of Germany, Luxembourg and northwest France. It is hilly and thickly forested, and makes for some incredible, cinematic cycling.
More specifically, the phrase “Ardennes Classics” refers mostly to three races that currently take place within roughly a week of each other in mid-April: Amstel Gold Race (April 18 this year), La Flèche Wallone (April 21) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (April 25).
The races are renowned for their ceaseless climbs that make great setpieces for brave attacks. The 2021 Liège-Bastogne-Liège men’s route features roughly 4,500 meters — nearly 15,000 feet! — of climbing, which rivals some Grand Tour mountain stages.
The Cobbled Classics
Somewhat confusingly, many Cobbled Classics take place in the Flemish Ardennes, which are located in northwest Belgium and are distinct from the area where the Ardennes Classics take place. However, they are defined less by geography and more by a single distinctive feature: bone-rattling cobblestones, a.k.a., pavé.
The only way to truly understand the pain of riding cobbles is to fly to Belgium and do it yourself. If that’s not an option, watching this video of the Trek-Segafredo women doing recon for Paris-Roubaix is the next best thing:
🎥 The hype for the first edition of the @Paris_Roubaix women grows more and more.
Yesterday @lizziedeignan @ElisaLongoB @ellenvdijk @CordonRagot @chloe_hosking and Trixi Worrack explored the 17 sectors of the race… enjoy 😈 pic.twitter.com/48HDp8bdjU
— Trek-Segafredo (@TrekSegafredo) March 1, 2021
Classics season kicked off with two cobbled races in 2021: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne at the end of February. (After a disappointing showing at Omloop, Trek-Segafredo’s Mads Pedersen won a thrilling finale in Kuurne the next day.)
Arguably the three most historically significant cobbled races take place on consecutive weekends, starting with Gent-Wevelgem (March 28 this year), followed by Tour of Flanders (April 4) and Paris-Roubaix (April 11).
Paris-Roubaix deserves special recognition. It is known as the “Hell of the North,” both in reference to its terse terrain and its location in Northern France where many of the bloodiest battles of World War I took place. It is brutally hard with often more than 50 kilometers of cobbled sectors, and features some of the most dramatic imagery in all of cycling.
If you want to know why people get wistful about Classics racing, watch this documentary about the 1976 edition.
Classics for sprinters, climbers and everything in between
Milan-Sanremo (March 20 this year) is the longest one-day race in cycling at nearly 300 kilometers. It features steep climbs before the finish that are meant to winnow the field to an elite group of hearty sprinters. Paris-Tours (Oct. 10) is a more traditional sprint profile that draws out a lot of fast riders who may be burnt out on the Grand Tours.
Strade Bianche (March 6) has fast become a favorite among cycling fans since its first edition in 2007. It could be considered a blend of the Ardennes and Cobbled Classics in profile, with long sections of white gravel among steep climbs, although the Tuscan scenery is just a bit more picturesque than the Ardennes in early Spring.
Il Lombardia (Oct. 9) features the longest climbs of any of the one-day classics, making it a prized race among Grand Tour riders whose big general classification ambitions were foiled. It is preceded by two other late-season Italian races, Milano-Torino (Oct. 6) and Giro del Piemonte (Oct. 7), that often select for the same sort of riders.
I just remembered this is the Trek website. What are you all going to be up to?
Glad you asked!
Trek-Segafredo’s men’s and women’s teams are both Classics-forward. Past Classics winners on the men’s side include Bauke Mollema (2016 Clasica de San Sebastian; 2019 Il Lombardia), Jasper Stuyven (2016 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; 2020 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad) and Mads Pedersen (2020 Gent-Wevelgem; 2021 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; … and 2019 Worlds for good measure). For the women, Lizzie Deignan had a big 2020 on her way to finishing as UCI’s top-ranked rider, winning GP de Plouay, La Course and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In 2019, Ellen van Dijk (Dwars door Vlaanderen) and Audrey Cordon-Ragot (Drentse Acht van Westerveld) both scored big victories, and Elisa Longo Borghini took second in a nail-biting sprint at the Giro dell’Emilia in her home country.
Both teams will enter every one-day race this year with victory in mind. Stuyven and Pedersen lead the way for the men. We already saw how potent the duo can be when Stuyven led out Pedersen’s sprint victory in Kuurne. Fellow veterans Mollema and Edward Theuns also have plenty of cards to play in the one-day races, and they’ll be supported by a host of strong riders like Alex Kirsch, Quinn Simmons and Matteo Moschetti.
The women have the depth and versatility to win on any parcours. Their teamwork played a big part in Deignan’s success last season, especially the efforts of Longo Borghini, UCI’s No. 2 ranked rider last year, who is always hunting for any sliver of opportunity to attack from long range.
Paris-Roubaix will be a big focus for the women this year. They’ll bring riders capable of winning in any situation, from a top-flight sprinter (Amalie Dideriksen), to hard-nosed puncheurs (Lucinda Brand and Ellen van Dijk), to all-arounders (Deignan and Cordon-Ragot), to a go-for-broke attack specialist (Longo Borghini).
Classics racing has never not been thrilling, but now is a particularly good time to become invested in the white-knuckle majesty of the one-day races. Both teams are going up against arguably the deepest fields in their respective sports in many years; every race promises to be an all-killer, no-filler blast.
Sure, you should tune in to the Grand Tours, too. They’re good fun. But just know that the Giro, Tour and Vuelta are only part of why cycling is one of the most captivating sports in the world. The Classics are called “classics” for good reason. There’s nothing else like them.