I started out like most American Cycling fans, following the Tour, hoping for an American win. It was 1985 -- I had seen Paris-Roubaix that spring, and although Marc Madiot's win upset the narrative, it was a sidebar to the Tour, and CBS assured me that the real champions of the sport consisted of apprentice Greg LeMond and the master, Bernard Hinault. LeMond and the Tour was Cycling for me, for about six years or so.
To this day, I love the grand tours, love the drama that builds over days and days for that one big release... the crushing time trial win, the mountain escape, the blown chances for a rival to catch up. The internationalization of the Tour added other dramatic elements... and that's before we account for John Tesh's soundtracks.
But as great as the Tours are, for me Cycling actually has even better to offer -- the Spring Classics.
This is just one blogger's choice, not a manifesto. But somewhere along the way, the Classics became what I love best about the sport.
A great tour stage is as good as any day of Cycling -- see the last Saturday of the 2005 Giro for proof. But for my money, the spring Classics deliver more action, more excitement, more drama, every time. On a good Tour stage, there are a handful of teams in contention, another few looking to take a flyer, and a bunch just getting through the day until a more inviting stage comes along. But there are the in-between days, where the action consists of the lowest placed teams trying to cherry pick a win in a break, or submitting to another bunch sprint. If there's a dominant GC force, as has been the case most years since Indurain made the leap, it can get to where every day's drama is substantially hampered by the previous day's smackdown. In the worst years (le Tour, 2005), the real action is for the lesser jerseys.
Now, I know, the highs in a grand tour are some of the best memories in Cycling. I know, I know, I know!
But the Classics are all out,vollgas challenges, every time. The April classics are not watered down, no long marches to a bunch sprint. Except maybe the midweek Gent Wevelgem, the Classics are all hard enough, selective enough, so that the winners are chosen on brute strength and canny execution. Just about every team is there to win; there is no tomorrow to hold back your strength for, no secondary titles to contest instead of the overall win. Almost nobody is along just for the ride.
People base their entire seasons around the Tour, sure, and that lends a lot to the drama. But so too do people -- a different group, just as talented -- base their entire seasons on winning something in Belgium, France or Holland in April. For these riders, it's two or three days of racing on which their season will largely be judged. For the Belgians among them, the chance to win the Ronde or maybe Liege is all that matters. And it's all settled in a single day, repeated just four times on consecutive weekends.
Then there are the courses. The grand tours have certain traditions -- a particular climb that is usually included, a general overall orientation. But as traditions go, the Classics use roughly the same roads every year, with slight tinkering now and again. The scenes rarely differs at all, other than changes in weather which vary the quantity of mud on the winner's face as he enters the velodrome in Roubaix.
As for the best of the best... Well, we can start by eliminating the mid-week classics, whose participation varies with the needs of riders to rest up. Of the four, each is totally unique... all are hard, all nearly equally prestigious depending on whom you ask. But we can cut out Amstel Gold, the one with the least pedigree, at 40 years as compared to, say, Liege at 114. For me, Paris-Roubaix is a different kind of survival than what I think of as a bike race, which is what makes it such a spectacle but detracts a bit from the meaning of the results. Too many champions derailed by the road surface.
That leaves Liege and de Ronde. The two most beautiful races, with the best, most exciting competition. They differ as much as their contestants, as much as the green and yellow jerseys do. I guess my vote goes to de Ronde, only because most of the protagonists at Liege have their eye on grand tours primarily, whereas the guys going after the win in Flanders, this is their season. But choosing the most beautiful classic is like picking the sweetest donut off Krispy Kreme's shelf.
Four beautiful, glorious, all out days of racing. One each week, starting this Sunday. This is what it's all about.