There are classics and there are Classics... and then there's the Northern Classics Season. Here's a little handy guide to make your viewing plans around for the next coupla months. Note: there are some rather handy races in Spain and Italy around the same time, e.g. MSR, but let's stick to the cobbles and mud for now.
Feb. 28: Omloop Het Volk/Het Nieuwsblad
- Significance: Opening day! And not a bad Tour of Flanders sneak preview.
- Who shows up: You mean besides every race-starved Belgian fan? And old man winter? A pretty fair representation of the Classics stars.
- Who wins: Usually a pretty well-known rider. This is a hotly-contested race, beyond its position on the calendar, though the cream of Flanders-Roubaix week will likely be guarding their form just yet.
- Should I watch? After five months, can you stand not to?
The rest... on the flip:
March 1: Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
- Significance: Classic case of European sports scheduling -- while we have your attention, let's toss in another event. But K-B-K works in tandem with the Omloop, if only because one single race isn't enough to sate most fans after waiting all winter.
- Who shows up: The classics guys who either did poorly or skipped the Omloop, plus others just looking for miles. Generally pretty star-studded.
- Who wins: Whoever wants it most. It's sprinter-friendly, but mid- to late-attacks often succeed.
- Should I watch? Yes, though if picking one per weekend, go with the Omloop.
March 4: Le Samyn
- Significance: Memorial race to Jose Samyn. 190km around the Wallonian region.
- Who shows up: As usual, a pretty decent number of big names -- in spring even a pole race in Blegium will likely draw out a former national or world champion -- but a larger contingent of continental pros and younger guys.
- Who wins: Probably someone you know. Possibly a sprinter. Robbie McEwen has a Samyn to his credit.
- Should I watch? Can you? Not a high priority. Pace yourself.
March 6-8: Dreidaagse van West-Vlaanderen
- Significance: Not great. Three days of exposure to the basic Flemish elements: cobbles, crosswinds, maybe a hill or dale.
- Who shows up: Not an especially star-studded field, overlapping as it does with the start of Paris-Nice.
- Who wins: Sprinters. Even the GC.
- Should I watch? No, too much else happening.
March 7: De Vlaamse Pijl
- Significance: One for the B-list and the kids. Also, the first of the "arrow" (pijl or fleche) races, which in defiance of their name tend to be unmappable zig-zags across Belgium.
- Who shows up: Again, nobody who can be in Paris-Nice, or Tirreno-Adriatico.
- Who wins: Honestly I have no idea.
- Should I watch? I'd love to be able to watch some of the future stars battle it out. But coverage could be hard to come by outside Flanders.
March 18: Nokere-Koerse
- Significance: A stopover race between the southern stage races and Milano-San Remo. Also, along with the Omloop and KBK, another older race started around/after WWII.
- Who shows up: Every classics rider who isn't doing MSR. Unfortunately that eliminates a lot of big names.
- Who wins: Whoever has a good last gallop in them, either alone or in a bunch. It's not overly selective
- Should I watch? Like Vlaamse Pijl, it's a good way to see some top, less-heralded talent have a shot.
March 25: Dwars door Vlaanderen
- Significance: It's business time. "Straight across Flanders" -- see my arrow comment -- is the traditional start of Vlaamse Wielerweek, or Flemish Cycling week, which culminates in the Tour of Flanders. There is a U-23 version known as the GP Waregem, which is where Dwars finishes. It's also an older race on a hard course, featuring over a dozen hellingen, taken from the earlier stages of de Ronde.
- Who shows up: Everyone. Maybe not to win, but if you've come to Belgium for the classics, you should be racing by now.
- Who wins: Potentially a big name (Boonen in 2007) who is nearing his form for the monuments, though anyone up for adventure has a shot. Sylvain Chavanel's lone escape last year was a good example of how to win here.
- Should I watch? Definitely. It won't be a Ronde preview but something fun is bound to happen.
March 28: E3 Prijs Vlaanderen
- Significance: The preferred Tour of Flanders tuneup. It's shorter and omits some of the hills, but the similarity to the middle of de Ronde is no coincidence. Named after the highway (the E3) whose completion it was meant to celebrate back in the 1950s... though of course it doesn't spend much time on the E3.
- Who shows up: Everyone. Seriously, this is the dress rehearsal. If you aren't here, your chances are getting downrated for Flanders.
- Who wins: Tom Boonen. Well, OK, after four wins he might be growing generous, tolerating (or being too cautious to stop) Kurt-Asle Arvesen's win here last year. There is still much potential for shadow-boxing among the biggest names, but if they don't have to kill themselves for the win, you should see a star-studded finale.
- Should I watch? We're safely into Hell Yeah territory here. A great semi-classic.
March 29: Brabantse Pijl
- Significance: The Brabant Arrow, a.k.a. La Flèche Brabançonne, this is a race for people who didn't burn enough matches at the E3. Circles the Flemish Brabant area around Brussels. Less selective than the E3.
- Who shows up: Er, like I said, people who didn't get enough on Saturday. Sprinters rather like this course better.
- Who wins: Well, for three years that would be Oscar Freire, until Chavanel snuck away for another win last year.
- Should I watch? Sure, though the last 20km will do.
Mar 31-Apr 2: Dreidaagse de Panne
- Significance: Last chance to make your case for favorite status in Flanders-Roubaix week. It's three days and four stages of middlin' terrain, short on hills but heavy on exposure as the peloton rides around the balmy Flemish coast. Final day is a short road stage, followed by a short time trial, which usually determines who wins. The race doesn't often herald a Ronde winner, but Alessandro Ballan won in 2007 before his brilliant Flanders coup.
- Who shows up: Not everyone, though close to it. Boonen has been known to avoid contesting the stages, or even step off the bike before the time trial (last year). It's a critical time, but each thoroughbred has his own ideas about how to warm up for Flanders.
- Who wins: A quality rider... the honor roll is pure A-list.
- Should I watch? Yeah, sure. It's not always terribly exciting, and being midweek while waiting for Flanders-Roubaix week to start, you can be forgiven for feeling distracted.
April 5: Ronde van Vlaanderen/Tour of Flanders
- Significance: One of the five Monuments of Cycling. Honestly, you don't need me to do this, do you?
- Who shows up: Everyone. Even Lance can't stay away this year, despite not really being suitable terrain. This is probably the best-attended of the Northern Classics, since Paris-Roubaix is the other monument.
- Who wins: The greatest of the great. Belgians and Italians seem to be swapping turns these days.
- Should I watch? Nobody should ever, ever ask me this question.
April 8: Gent-Wevelgem
- Significance: The ultimate Wednesday race, along with Fleche Wallonne. Also, a very entertaining circuit with the positively beastly Kemmelberg in the middle, though the race is hailed as a "sprinters' classic" nonetheless.
- Who shows up: Pretty much the same field as De Ronde, though the aspirants for Paris-Roubaix might refrain from burning their matches here. And depending on the conditions, they might refrain from risking their necks descending the Kemmelberg.
- Who wins: A pretty fair mix of sprinters and classics hardmen.
- Should I watch? Most certainly yes.
April 12: Paris-Roubaix
- Significance: The Queen of the Classics, the oldest race among the top echelon of races, and a true Cycling Monument. The history and cultural elements are the subject of books, movies, etc.
- Who shows up: The Flanders field, possibly minus a few smaller or more risk-averse guys, i.e. the pure sprinter types. Paris-Roubaix is all about weeding out those who don't like to suffer, and this includes the pre-race lineup too.
- Who wins: A strong, often rather large, and always somewhat lucky man. Usually caked in various natural substances and good karma. The mellower versions cater to pure power riders, but weather often adds several other variables.
- Should I watch? You're kidding, right?
April 13: Rund um Koln
- Significance: As old as the Tour of Flanders, if far less heralded. Germany's longest running show.
- Who shows up: Sprinters, classics guys who haven't quite had enough, people who didn't do Paris-Roubaix. Often vastly reduced in quality from Flanders and Roubaix.
- Who wins: Usual mix of sprinters versus classics hammerheads.
- Should I watch? Probably not. It's Monday, and Germany has outlawed watching cycling.
April 15: Scheldeprijs
- Significance: Kind of a tearful farewell tour for the Classics. Doesn't hurt that it runs through Tom Boonen's home region, though they probably weren't gaming it that way when the race was founded in 1907.
- Who shows up: Tearful classics guys looking for a farewell; sprinters; Tom Boonen and a million of his closest friends.
- Who wins: Ideally? Tom Boonen. Realistically? The fastest finisher.
- Should I watch? Sure. But bring a hankie.
The party continues in the Ardennes, but while they're classics, even great classics, the similarities end there. And so will I.