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Flanders Friday: A Classics Apology Tour

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This is literally the story of the classics. Literally.

Leeds Library Celebrates 250 years Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

It’s time to talk frankly about the Classics.

What? No, not the bike races. I’m going to let you in on the Podium Cafe’s dirtiest little secret. For years we have insisted on writing story after story about the “classics” and the “monuments”, knowing full well that the majority of people finding these stories through Google searches are in fact looking for information about the literary classics or a list of famous structures. For every Tom Boonen-obsessive coming directly to the Cafe for a serving of cycling red meat, we register at least three clicks from people who thought they were getting a story about the Taj Mahal or Moby Dick. Most of them go away confused about what just happened, and maybe a little bit angry, but by then the click has been registered and another five cents goes into the pockets of SBNation shareholders.

And not all of them go away, if you know how to set the hook you so cleverly baited for them. If you weren’t sure why Andrew was comparing people snickering at Chris Froome’s gangly cycling style to the lowly treatment of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, or why Conor analogized Tour de France podium results to the three famous plays of Sean O’Casey, let’s just say we know a thing or two about retaining our unique blend of readers. Just sprinkle in enough references to any long-dead writer you were forced to read in high school, and if they weren’t cycling fans when they accidentally wandered in off the street, you can bet they would be before they left.

We have dined out on this confusion for most of a decade, and it’s been a great business plan. But now that I’m semi-retired I can admit that I have carried around a wee bit of guilt about this angle, and I’d like to put my mind at ease. So in tribute to these gullible, well-meaning and erudite converted cycling fans, I give you The Classics, explained by The Classics.

[By the way, I won’t be doing any such treatment of the Monuments. The monuments people are mostly seasoned travelers who have been subjected to a lot of scams and hoaxes, and don’t take kindly to them. Frankly, they have said a lot of hurtful things to me over the years. Which reminds me, to Rob in San Diego, the joke’s on you because my mother is still alive. Anyway, I will not be comparing de Ronde to the Dome of the Rock or the Great Wall of China for their benefit. All I can say is thanks for the clicks, monuments people. Now go fall off a Mayan pyramid.]

Chichen Itza
AFP/Getty Images

OK, let’s get on with this.

Omloop Het Neuwsblad

What is it? A 200km cobblefest at the end of February.

What’s its defining quality? The Omloop stands out in one way, as a fatal siren call to overeager cobbles-hunters. You might say that riders who indulge their obsession with the cobbles will find themselves led astray, because the winner of the Omloop is almost certain to not win de Ronde van Vlaanderen some six weeks later.

Literary pairing: Moby-Dick. A story of obsession leading to misery. Ahab’s success as a whaling captain leaves him unsatisfied short of landing the White Whale who took off part of his leg. Obviously the Tour of Flanders is the White Whale of cycling, and it has torn off many a leg in its time.

Key moment: Ahab addresses the severed head of a whale captured before the encounter with the white beast, asking the whale head to reveal the secrets of the sea. But like the Omloop, this conquered whale has no advice to offer Ahab regarding his ultimate prey.

Johan Museeuw
Bettmann Archive

Strade Bianche

What is it? A 200km stroll around the vineyards of Tuscany in early March.

What’s its defining quality? Since it’s in Italy, it is roundly celebrated for its beauty. But beneath it all there is a wonderful bike race.

Literary pairing: Pride and Prejudice. For all the pretensions of fortune and status, there is a higher purpose to life for those who insist on it: real love. The Strade Bianche may not have all the status of some older events, but people who know it best appreciate its evolution into something much more substantive than its tourist billing.

Key moment: The end, where the battle between superficial and meaningful boils over, revealing in the last kilometer the importance of truth and meaning and the ability for the purest of heart to make it to that last corner before anyone else.

2015 Milan-Sanremo Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Milano-Sanremo

What is it? A 300km slog from dreary Milan to sunny Sanremo.

What’s its defining quality? Ugh, the hours. The patience, the willingness to endure, and the capricious conclusion.

Literary pairing: Ulysses, by James Joyce. The only thing better than a Homerian epic is one recast as a day in Dublin by Joyce and his disjointed, modernist prose. It goes on forever but leaves anyone who finishes the book satisfied for having stuck it out to the end. But it’s not without its critics too.

Key moment: The Ithaca chapter, including the 309 questions and answers, a final test for the characters before the conclusion can take place. 50 questions for each capo and 159 left over for the Poggio descent.

E3 Prijs Vlaanderen

What is it? The return to the cobbles and the real start to the Belgian phase of the classics.

What’s its defining quality? Its apparent legitimacy, forever seemingly fought for by punching up at the Flanders Classics organization committed to its demise.

Literary pairing: The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Maybe not a perfect pairing but their ability to evade the Sheriff of Belgian Cycling and strike a blow for little old Harelbeke’s place in the sport is impressive, if not always admirable.

Side Note: And Lysistrata for the marketing department, so that they might withhold advertising female sexuality long enough to realize that they already won the war.

Gent-Wevelgem

What is it? The nearly-monumental gilded lily of West Flanders cycling.

What’s its defining quality? The Kemmelberg, the Plugstreets, but really the Menen Gate in Ypres and the various WWI battlefield cemeteries along the route. This isn’t the vacation-hunter’s Flemish Ardennes. This is another side of Flanders entirely.

Literary pairing: The May 27 entry of Dino Buzzati’s Giro d’Italia. In this moment the Giro d’Italia is passing through the bombed-out rubble of Monte Cassino four years after the end of WW2, and the ghosts that haunt the battlefield are made to reckon with the race’s arrival. No race has more ghosts by the roadside than Gent-Wevelgem, although the first half of Paris-Roubaix and the occasional Tour stage can lay their claims too. Anyway, forget the Plugstreets, this race is about preserving the memories of a lost generation.

Key moment: It’s a short chapter but the embarrassment of the ghosts about the state of their surroundings finds a sequel in Gent-Wevelgem, where equally devastated Ypres has been put back together again. Maybe they still don’t wish to be awakened by the sounds of the race, but in 1949 it was all too soon and the wounds of war still stung in a way they don’t now.

Dwars door Vlaanderen

What is it? I honestly don’t know anymore. Something something cobbles something. But I like it anyway.

What’s its defining quality? Pointless fun. Prior to this year it was pointy fun, since the Dwars winner might start looking like a Flanders winner, but being four days before the big event, that’s not really true anymore.

Literary pairing: The Importance of Being Earnest. An utterly pointless and satirical exploration of class, centered around the idea that people can and should identify singular objectives and stick to them (in this case, marrying someone named Earnest). Ultimately the play is the story of a bunch of ridiculous people acting ridiculously but having it all work out in the end. Not unlike a day in the Flemish Ardennes with no real objectives at stake.

Key moment: The discourse on “Bunburying,” one of literature’s greatest moments in sandbagging. In the story Algernon ducks out on social engagements by claiming he has to go visit his sick friend Bunbury. Not unlike Philippe Gilbert claiming he can’t finish Dwars due to his own illness. When in fact, like Algernon, he is simply disguising his plans to go visit his true love, the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

2015 ronde van vlaanderen

Ronde van Vlaanderen

What is it? A tour of Flanders. Ring any bells?

What’s its defining quality? The race of races, in that it includes so many diverse features that only a true all-around cyclist can master the event. Also, unlike some more contrived races, these features — the cobbles, the climbs, the skinny roads, the constant twists and turns — organically occur because that’s what Flanders is, and this is its race.

Literary pairing: War and Peace. Only a novel which has been called the standard for so many aspects of literature, a singular tour of all the elements of great fiction, could be compared to the Ronde van Vlaanderen. For all other novels, it is the Way of the Cross.

Key moment: Pierre’s encounter with Platon Karataev, the salt-of-the-Earth Russian peasant whose imparting of true wisdom helps Pierre make sense of everything he has experienced upon inserting himself into the battle of Borodino. Pierre, like every good Flandrien-wannabe, has personally experienced the suffering and misery of war, just as one must ride the cobbles of Flanders to truly understand their significance. But like the post-ride beer with friends where everything seems to make perfect sense, so does Pierre’s encounter with the seen-it-all Karataev help Pierre really complete his journey.

Paris-Roubaix

What is it? The bike race that launched a thousand metaphors for suffering (and 2000 books beating those metaphors into the ground).

What’s its defining quality? A journey from the City of Lights (if you go back far enough) to the industrial darkness of the northern French battlefields. A journey so constantly fraught with misery and misfortune that people seem grateful to be able to shower in a concrete stall afterward.

Literary pairing: Heart of Darkness. So many parallels. The Belgians going on an intrepid and somewhat foreign adventure. The constant breakdowns along the way, the endless struggle to make progress. The futility of it all in the end for so many that even Marlowe, who represents the successful outcome here, is shattered by the experience.

Key moment: Call this a cheapie, but how many riders have been left by the side of the road, holding their collarbone or their broken wheel or their dismembered handlebars, muttering insanely as they are hoisted into the team car or ambulance... “the horror.... the horror....”

The Belgian Congo
Getty Images

Amstel Gold Race

What is it? A somewhat lighthearted tour of the beautiful Limburg region of the southern Netherlands.

What’s its defining quality? The national cycling race of the Netherlands is at once a strenuous affair, with its toughly 33 climbs, as well as a picture of loveliness and a day of celebratory drunkenness. It never seems to end well for the local heroes, but we all pretty much go away feeling satisfied nevertheless.

Literary pairing: Great Expectations. The Dickens classic is a tour of rags-to-riches, of love and heartbreak, and of finding one’s way in an increasingly complex and cynical world.

Key moment: Hm, I guess just Pip discovering that the benefactor who pulled him from his blacksmith’s apprenticeship into the “proper world” is nothing more than a convict who’s been banished to Australia. I’m not sure if this lines up perfectly with cycling, since the Australians are largely a positive influence on the sport, but what Rabobank rider of the past three decades didn’t emerge from the local Dutch juniors scene and up the ladder to the Orange Giant only to discover that the DS was a convict who’d been banished to cycling purgatory?

La Flêche Wallonne

What is it? A slightly tense tour of the Namur area of Wallonia which, somewhat formulaic in nature, explodes in drama at the close.

What’s its defining quality? The final, final, final assault on the Mur de Huy, one of the beastliest climbs in all of the Classics.

Literary pairing: A Good Man is Hard to Find. Flannery O’Connor’s most memorable short story fits her signature approach to writing, where a strange mix of characters wander around exploring their angst until the story explodes in violence at its conclusion.

Key moment: The obvious answer would be where the grandmother reaches out to touch the Misfit and his true nature is revealed as he shoots her to death. But I think a better connection is the slow-baking tension as the grandmother sees one family member after another get led away and shot. She knows what is coming, and the sense of reckoning causes her to explore themes of good and evil. But it’s too late. Like 90% of the peloton, who thought they could avoid the suffering of a long escape and try their chances on the Mur. Maybe their DS should have held a proverbial gun to him the entire race.

La Fleche Wallonne 2016 Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Liège-Bastogne-Liège

What is it? The last of the classics, and the curtain-dropping event on this entire subset of the sport.

What’s its defining quality? Not unlike the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but with an emphasis on climbing. L-B-L has morphed over the years into a race for everyone, to one for just the climbers, but is coming back around as one for a broader audience. It’s also a tour of the gritty side of Belgium, ending in the blue-collar suburbs of Liege.

Literary pairing: The Great Gatsby. A story of wealth and flash, and how that intersects with the real world of New York. The heroes aren’t always what you think, and who exactly ends up a hero anyway?

Key moment: I don’t know if this encapsulates the entire story or the bike race, but Dan Martin is a pretty good stand-in for Gatsby and that slippery manhole cover in Ans could definitely be Myrtle wandering in the road in West Egg.