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2016 Spring Classics Preview: The Cobblestone Monuments

photo by Gruber Images

If we were to compete in any of the spring classics, we’d prefer the likes of Milan San-Remo or the Ardennes to the Flanders/Roubaix double. We see it as a choice between the relatively straightforward velocide of walls like the Côte de La Redoute, dragging—then desperately throttling —the brakes while dropping down the far side of a rainy Poggio at race speeds, or the impossible punishment of the stones.

But we’re not competing in them; we’re just watching. The only walls we’ll encounter this spring will be those that we pound in frustration as Etixx-Quick-Step (probably) throws away another classics season, and the only tenaciously gripped objects will be glasses of Westmalle Triple and Duvel as we descend at race speeds into a glorious race-day drunk. Since we’re shielded from the hardships of racing by the TV screen, we prefer the bergs and stones of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix to the climbs of the Ardennes and the springtime chaos of La Classicissima.

The routes of Flanders and Roubaix have both experienced tinkering over the past century, but their basic premises have survived. The Tour of Flanders combines the injury of a series of hellingen with the insult of Flemish stones; Paris-Roubaix presents a series of secteurs pavés that often date to Napoleonic times and are referred to in frank shorthand as “hell.”

De Ronde

The Tour of Flanders is defined by its final 60km, which may be the most interesting example of that distance on the cycling calendar. For 2016, the curtain raises with the first ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, which is followed in the space of 10km by the relatively short Paterberg and the venerable Koppenberg. Given the literal translation of their names, the Paterberg (Father Mountain) and Koppenberg (Heads Mountain, a reference to cobblestones being referred to colloquially as “baby heads” [kinderkoppen] by the irreverently poetic Dutch), it’s appropriate that these two cobbled climbs birth a gauntlet of eight grueling hellingen that finally deposit the survivors on flat tarmac with just over 12km to go.

The route’s only regrettable lack is the picturesque Kapelmuur, which continues an absence begun when the finish migrated from Meerbeke to Oudenaarde in 2012. Ever since 1988, when it became featured in De Ronde’s finale, the Kapelmuur had been one of the defining moments of so many of our first Sundays in April. The riders approaching the chapel at its summit, the steep walls lining it, that one kid who seems to always be screaming at the cyclists from the same spot on the inner apex of the final bend — all of it gone. (We suppose the Kapelmuur’s omission is appropriate considering that our fondest memory of this climb — when Fabian Cancellara gapped Tom Boonen in 2010 — is also one of the highlights of a rivalry whose decade-long hegemony in the race appears to be in its twilight.) As we’ve seen since the race was drastically altered in 2012, though, the Flemish hills are still potent enough for a spectacular race without the Kapelmuur — especially with the Paterberg now placed just 13km from the finish.

To put these “hills” into perspective, the Mur de Huy closes out La Flèche with an average grade of 9.3%, a max of 26%, and a length of 1,300m. Compare this to the Koppenberg, which at 11.6%, 22%, and 600m, respectively, is just as steep, half as long, and paved with “baby heads” instead of smooth tarmac that’s been heavily painted with “Huy” and various riders’ names. Though the Mur de Huy is climbed three times in La Flèche, it isn’t properly raced until the final ascent to the finish line, so it signals the end of competition. The Koppenberg, on the other hand, effectively announces the initiation of Flemish hostilities. Instead of crowning a winner, it’s just one in a series of subsequent obstacles that each serve to identify more losers, and those who don’t attack its intimidating slope with a mind toward winning the race typically become the first kernels of the autobus.

If your appetite needs any further whetting, check out the video recap of the 2015 Tour.

L’Enfer du Nord

Paris-Roubaix is the single greatest day of racing on the cycling calendar. This isn’t our opinion. It’s a fact. And it’s etched in the granite cobblestones of farm roads lacing the northern, coal mining region of France. Many of the roads are hundreds of years old, and a society of dedicated stewards maintains the, err, “pristine” condition of the stones. Certain towns and villages have even been prevented from effacing the pavé with modern pavement in order to preserve the race’s unique flavor. With the exception of one token hill reintroduced this year (which, we’re not really sure what in the hell of the north ASO is thinking here), the route to Roubaix is just as flat as it’s always been, and the deciding factor will be those vindictive handmaidens to the Queen of the Classics, the stones.

The Queen’s chief attendant is the Arenberg Forest, which exhibits some thematic similarities with de Ronde’s Koppenberg. It’s the most readily identifiable landmark on the course, comes relatively early in the race, and typically marks the beginnings of the real action. Images captured there on race day describe a metonymic narrative of the race’s general history — a montage of unpleasantly spectacular crashes, spare wheels waving like some peculiar flora native to Northern Europe’s most hellish stones, and the faces of cycling’s hardest hardmen reduced to just trying to survive.

Our memories of the race’s progress through Arenberg might also serve as the canvas of the cobbled classics’ recent roster of winners. For the past decade, as the peloton has extruded to a single-file lance across the forest’s most reasonable, central line, one of two riders has typically been on point: Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara. These two champions have undeniably dominated both The Hell of the North and de Ronde since Boonen completed the double in 2005, combining to win seven and six, respectively, of the last 11 editions of either race.

Over the last few years, we’ve begun to see some parity; the two great gods of the cobbles are, like Tennyson’s aged Ulysses, not now that strength which in old days lorded it unchallenged over the stones. We’ll miss seeing Boonen mash through a secteur and then sit up, drift to the rear, stretch his back, and survey the damage done to the surviving group — an emperor admiring the breadth of his domain. We’ll also miss the constant threat that Cancellara may get a bike’s length off of the front on an asphalt section and then disappear into the distance for the remainder of the race. Still, the remaining journeymen and promising young usurpers produced a convincing body of work in April 2015 after Tommeke and Spartacus were both sidelined with injuries.

From weeks out, the favorite for Flanders and Roubaix has been the Norwegian who brought the country its first de Ronde win, Alexander Kristoff, who has mirrored Boonen’s typical preparation by winning sprints in the desert during the first months of the year. Considering the way he absolutely controlled Flanders last year and the fact that, even without Paolini, Katusha is still bringing some firepower to control the race until Kristoff gets the selection he wants, we think that early season form doesn’t bode well for the competition.

We also fully expect BMC, Tinkoff, Etixx, and Trek-Segafredo to play a strong hand at Flanders and Roubaix. Though BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet and Trek’s Cancellara have largely owned the early season, Tinkoff’s irrepressible world champion, Peter Sagan, will likely be the race’s chief animator. Simply put, the man needs to open a monuments account, and seeing the rainbow stripes atop the podium in Oudenaarde or Roubaix (or both — why the hell not?) would be a fitting way to do so. By the end of his career, Sagan will be in the caveat-laden discussion of who’s the “greatest of all time,” but only if he owns these races.

If past results and present form are any indication, Etixx’s Zdeněk Štybar will also be one of the race’s key protagonists. Throughout the convoluted course of its sponsorship changes, no team has been as dominant on the stones as Etixx, which traces its lineage back to the legendary Mapei outfit of the 1990s. Headlines would have you believe that the big news for Patrick Lefevere’s squad this year is the appearance of Tony Martin on the stones.

But they’re wrong. The only cyclist on EQS’s roster with the ability to win Flanders or Roubaix is Stybar (no way does Niki Terpstra sneak away without a top-form Boonen anchoring the pursuit), but it’ll take all of Lefevere’s cunning and the effective application of the team’s considerable firepower to engineer the kind of late solo move the Czech needs to win. If he comes to the finish with the likes of Kristoff, Van Avermaet, or Sagan, then he’s toast.

If there’s one thing that the cycling hype machine has taught us over the years, it’s that Anglophone media outlets are obligated to mention at least one English-speaking cyclist who doesn’t actually have a chance of winning. This year, it’s Tyler Farrar. Despite disguising himself with Luca Paolini’s beard during the offseason, Farrar’s declaration that a classics win may be in Dimension Data’s cards this year (one wonders, as always, how this pronouncement was met in the non-Anglophone cycling media — or even if it was met at all) is only remotely plausible if the win comes from an apparently resurgent Edvald Boasson Hagen. The Norwegian swept through the pre-European season with some impressive legs, and if the form he showed while dominating the short ITT in Qatar is a sign of the genius he once promised rather than a mere fluke, he may be the one to treat us to Norway’s second win in Flanders.

Of course, either race is chaotic enough that, once they roll out of neutral, anything can happen. The usurper is ever present in the North. For all the excitement that Jasper Stuyven’s exciting Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne win has stirred up, our iconoclastic dark horse for Flanders and Roubaix is Tiesj Benoot. Since he failed to repeat the double in 2006, the Belgian press has annually rifled through the crop of neo-pros in search of the next Tommeke. Maybe one of these unproven youths will proof equal to those expectations.

Finally, we’d be remiss not to mention the ill-fated John Degenkolb. Paris-Roubaix was one of our favorite races last year because of the masterful (dare we say, “Boonen-esque”?) art with which the mustachioed German bridged from group to group until he’d created the selection he liked. We’re glad he’s recovering from the gruesome injuries suffered when he and his team were involved in a head-on collision with an inattentive motorist, but he’ll be missed on the stones this year. Gute Besserung, Herr Degenkolb.

How to Tune In

With the demise of Universal Sports, the list of races broadcast in North America has gotten thinner than The Chicken at race weight. We don’t condone illegal streaming, but finding a legitimate way to watch races live can feel like grinding up a steep hill. TV often falls short of meeting our needs, and when the choice is between pirating a sketchy live feed or waiting for a truncated recap that often broadcasts as much as a week later, even the most by-the-rules cycling fan can feel the pull of their inner Pantani.

We had an amazing experience watching Milan-San Remo on YouTube (no dying feeds, no repetitive auto parts ads), but we don’t know if that trend will continue with the Northern Classics. If you do take to the high seas in search of a live feed, we find that maximizing the window of some streams eliminates the pop-up ads. This makes for a less cluttered (but often grainier) viewing experience, and it reduces the chances of clicking on a decoy “X” while trying to close fake Flash Player updates.

Highlights of the 2016 Spring Classics Season

March 19: Milano-San Remo, ITALY
March 25: E3 Harelbeke, BELGIUM
March 27: Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields, BELGIUM
April 3: Ronde van Vlaanderen/Tour des Flandres, BELGIUM
April 10: Paris-Roubaix, FRANCE
April 17: Amstel Gold Race, NETHERLANDS
April 20: La Flèche Wallonne, BELGIUM
April 24: Liège-Bastogne-Liège, BELGIUM


2016 Spring Classics Preview: Milan-San Remo
Our Predictions for the 2015 Tour