Essay: On Spring Classics
(2016) It’s the most anticipated time of year for cyclists worldwide: The one-day classics centered mostly on Belgium and northern France. The conglomerate of these single effort races’ popularity can be summed up by several reasons; the tradition and history, the identifiable nature of the specialists, the equipment and weather, the uniqueness of the one-day events, and the ultimate demarcation of the year’s cycling calendar commencement are all factors in why cyclists become giddy at the sight of a Flandrian flag.
I’ve yet to meet a cyclist who cannot discuss cycling’s Spring Classics tradition without aplomb or alacrity. There are casual velocipedists who can name at least one spring classic as well as one classics specialist when pressed. The die-hard riders can fire off rapid key attacks by riders and by year as a badge of honor. The races, the routes, and the riders all make up the package that makes the Classics Season so beautiful. Add to the fact that clubs protect the cobbles and bergs of many routes and the impact of each race stretches beyond its weekend status. Thousands of cyclosportif riders willingly rumble over cobbled French farm roads or up steep Belgian bergs prior to the pro race. The average citizen humbly wants to add his or her name to the long list of riders who have been shaken for hours on end over the decades.
Because regular citizens are inspired to conquer the cobbles and bergs, people identify more easily with the Classics riders. As in the winter sport of luge, Spring Classics riders must carry extra weight for the “jiggle factor.” Television coverage loves to focus in on the elasticity of riders’ biceps while assailing over ancient roads. Furthermore many of the specialists are tall. A climber’s physique would be ground amongst the pestle that is the cobbles of the Classics. Tall and heavy? That’s a bit more realistic than short, skinny climbing specialists flying up mountains in the Grand Tours. Citizens ride the sportifs because they believe they are not far from the Spring specialist’s stockiness.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the classics’ approachability is the weather and equipment. Those who live near the course route are used to the spring weather in northern Europe. Cold and wet is a romanticized race condition. Spectators secretly will quintessential weather for future tales. “I was standing alongside Arenberg ankle-deep in mud the year it poured,” is a sentence thousands of cycling fans would love to say to compatriots. People want to witness a proper suffering, a true bludgeoning to prove who is the ultimate hardman in the peloton.
With awful weather and archaic road conditions comes the intriguing world of the Spring Classics technology. The word ‘technology’ is a loose term here. Despite the fast turnover of cycling technology, the cobbles still demand traditional respect. That means it’s quite remarkable to see teams with official sponsorships using re-badged equipment. Cotton walls that are event-specific are glued up. Those who witnessed the RockShox experiments still chuckle over their forks. Watching endless replays of slow-motion chain jiggle pulls viewers closer to their televisions. And the year George Hincapie’s steerer tube snapped leaving him at the mercy of a broken bike in motion over cobbles is a sobering reminder of just how tough the equipment needs to be. I get excited thinking of the secret chain lube mechanics apply sloppily over chains prior to each one-day.
Because the one-day riders are of a certain breed, they see each other often over the first few months of the season. The tradition of chasing monuments leads to a trait that has been watered down in other sports, the one of true rivalries. Since these riders see each other often, they actually form palatable opinions of each other. Fans try to identify the next up-and-coming specialist while others prefer predictability and expect the old guard to win race after race. Multiple major contenders who make the old guard happy as well as the contemporary fans excited can identify a great Spring Classics seasons. It then becomes a proper historical race when experts can’t nail down a clear favorite for each race. Seeing them approaching the finish as a group makes these one-day races all the more exciting; there is no next day as in a Grand Tour.
If the Spring Classics are being talked about it must mean the road season has commenced. This is one of the most wonderful feelings a cyclist can experience. The possibilities of a favorite to rise again are restarted. The hope for a new rider to produce history is debated. The wish for a fruitful and entertaining season of racing is recycled and sweated over. Another year of traditional bike racing will be added to the century plus of those who have gone prior.
It’s all to the possibility that the Spring Classics can happen to anyone. The poker faces of professional riders are thrown aside for the glory of having his name added to the showers at the old Roubaix velodrome or to the pave sectors of the Strade Bianche. Those who are paid to suffer and make others suffer endure the foul weather suffered by the everyman rider. Being able to positively identify re-badged gear can make the casual cyclists feel that his or her bike is just as reasonable as it was years ago. When a Spring Classic event like the Paris-Roubaix has basic description of “All want to win it, but none want to ride it” gives an insight that the spring races aren’t just a test on a rider’s moxie; it’s a full exam of ride cunning, equipment dependency, attrition, tradition, but most of all it requires dumb luck. The Spring Classics are here, and so is the 2016 pro cycling season.