Pavé, bergs, wind and rain: eight brutal races comprise the Northern Classics. Then trees, bigger bergs and narrow roads: Ardennes Week follows immediately afterwards. Many riders will contest either the Northern or Ardennes Classics, while a hardy few will attempt both sets. Just how do these riders cope with such a rigorous early season calendar, and what attributes are required to triumph?
While the Grand Tours of the summer remain the highest profile bike races, for many the Spring Classics are the most important and exciting events in the professional racing calendar. Among the toughest in the sport and all exceptionally long – the Monuments are all over 250km – the lineage of the Classics can be traced back to the very first organised bike races, and most are steeped in history. To win a Classic is a fine addition to any palmares, and the triumphant rider will find his name alongside many of the best ever to have graced the sport.
Although all races are contested over a single day, the Spring Classics can be divided into two distinct series: the Northern Classics and those of Ardennes Week. The demands of the Northern Classics can be typified by the two cobbled Monuments: the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. Although not containing any prolonged ascent, Flanders tackles around 19 bergs along its 264km, rarely staying flat for more than 10km. While Paris-Roubaix is largely flat, the route contains 27 secteurs of brutal pavé. The parcours of the Ardennes Classics place different demands upon the riders. In the Amstel Gold Race for example, or Liège-Bastogne-Liège, long, steep climbs are the dominant feature of routes that pass through many narrow town streets and winding, rural roads.
Riders who have made their presence felt this season in the Northern Classics have included Luca Paolini: the peloton’s master tactician and a consummate 1. Such qualities are essential for his role as road captain at Katusha but also help him to cope with the parcours of the Northern Classics and to read a type of race that places a premium on position and timing. Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) has been racing aggressively throughout the current campaign, taking a much deserved win at E3 Harelbeke. His aptitude for climbing, evidenced in Paris-Nice, has helped him tackle the cobbled bergs where other riders struggle.
The perennial aggressor, BMC Racing’s Daniel Oss, has also been riding with panache: his ability to attack with regularity helps control opposing riders, making races easier to read for his team. Katusha’s in-form Zdenek Stybar rounds off a list of successful Northern Classics contenders; victory on the white roads of the Strade Bianche is among the most signficant of a decorated career on-road and off, despite the Tuscan race being a relatively recent addition to the Spring calendar and beyond the strict definition of ‘Northern Classic’.
The bigger frames of the men who typically excel in the races of Flanders and northern France allow them to cope better with the colder temperatures experienced during races so early in the season. Further, their capacity for prolonged, high power efforts to overcome crosswinds as well as their physical toughness to wrestle their bike over unpredictable pavé make them well-suited to the testing conditions of Flanders or northern France.
Riders best able to traverse the hilly parcours of the Ardennes races tend to be capable climbers, if not, in recent times at least, Grand Tour specialists. These are races for the puncheurs, able to blast up short, steep climbs as synonymous with suffering as any Alpine giant. Svelte, if more powerfully built than the waif-like pure climbers of the Grand Tours, the men of the Ardennes boast a tremendous power-to-weight ratio.
Cannondale-Garmin’s Dan Martin is always a strong contender in the Ardennes, having won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2013 and come within an ace of repeating the feat last season. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Katusha’s Grand Tour leader Joaquim Rodriquez possess similar capabilities, being able to accelerate away from the peloton or crack fellow escapees on near-vertical ramps like the Cauberg or Mur de Huy. Their smaller frames suit the milder weather that typically blesses the Ardennes races, and their excellent bike handling ability is critical when descending bergs or negotiating narrow town streets.
A select group of riders, for example the BMC Racing duo of Greg Van Avermaet and Phillipe Gilbert, or Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE), are competitive regardless of the Classics race profile. Their key advantage is versatility: possessing adequate power to keep pace with Northern Classics racers on flat, windswept sections and the physical toughness to keep control on the cobbles, while being light enough to climb well and cope with the changes in acceleration of the Ardennes races.
For all Classics riders, but in particular those who target both the Northern and Ardennes Classics in a season, achieving sufficient recovery between races is critical if they are to remain competitive. The Classics are among the most ferocious events in the racing calendar and competing in them places an exceptional toll on the bodies of even the most hardened professional.
The decisive factor that allows the elite rider to race in this manner is the non-consecutive nature of the races. At least one ‘rest’ day can be found the programme of Classics races, allowing the riders some respite. Sports massages, nutritious meals and active recovery rides allow battered bodies to recover, ensuring that when the rider is next summoned to battle, he is ready to roll again.
With the Northern Classics season about to reach its zenith, and Ardennes Week less than a fortnight away, the most important part of the season for a large constituency within the peloton has already arrived. The Grand Tour contenders have longer to hone their form, but for the rider seeking to add victory in one of the great one-day races to his palmares, the time is now.