Cyclists spring into supreme test of guts
SPRING is in the air and everywhere I look around cyclists are starting to dust off their “best bikes”, wondering when to ditch the leggings and when to start shaving legs again.
Longer ride routes will be planned, after-work training rides will increase as evenings stay lighter for longer and competitors will be firming up which races to take part in over the next few months.
The first of the three Grand Tours starts in May - the Giro d’Italia - and contenders for Le Tour de France will be honing their form, as well as keeping a close eye on their main rivals.
So, for many, the pro-cycling season is just starting to heat up and get interesting, though for others the onset of spring actually marks the climax of the season.
For the fanatical Belgian cycling regions of Flanders and Wallonia the highlight, if not the whole raison d’etre, of the cycling calendar is marked by the riding of the Northern Spring Classics.
These are a series of races held throughout March and April taking place across northern Europe in Belgium and France.
The Classics hold a special place in the hearts of cycling fans for their tough, uncompromising nature, taking place along rough terrain – including some seriously harsh cobbles and severe hills.
Add to this the fact that the weather often dips to near freezing temperatures and it becomes clear it takes a special type of rider to win one of these races.
The early races have already occurred, but these were the opening skirmishes before the main events geared up to take place next month.
Tour of Flanders/Ronde van Vlaanderen
This year the 98th Tour of Flanders will take place on Sunday, April 6 and comes in at a lengthy 260 kilometres.
The distance is merely a softening up process for the closing circuits when the race will tackle a series of cobbled hills, some of which reach an impressive 20 per cent gradient. Swiss strongman Fabian Cancellara took the win in 2013 and will feature again in this year’s edition. He will face strong competition from Belgian favourite Tom Boonen.
If riding the 260km and cobbled climbs on April 6 wasn’t punishment enough, then the following Sunday throws up L’Enfer du Nord (Hell of the North) as Paris-Roubaix is often termed.
The name was originally coined for the devastation around the area caused by shelling in World War One but has been adopted to refer to the harshness of the racing conditions.
The race starts in the northern suburbs of Paris and winds northwards to Roubaix on the Franco- Belgian border and is largely flat.
The difficulty does not come from gradients but from the long sections of cobbles, or ‘pave’ to the locals. These cobbles are huge, uneven and spaced just wide enough apart to swallow a bike wheel.
If it’s wet, the cobbles are treacherously slippery and if the conditions are dry the passing of a hundred bikes throws up a choking dust cloud.
The race ends with a lap of the Roubaix velodrome before the winner (or first survivor) is awarded his prize - one of the cobbles that have just been making his life a nightmare.
As with the Ronde, the 2013 race was won by Cancellara but his big Belgian rival, Boonen, has four victories to his credit and, in 2014, he can become the first rider to amass five titles.
Known as La Doyenne or the oldest, Liege-Bastogne-Liege was first run in 1892, consisted of 33 riders of whom 17 finished - all Belgian.
It took the winner 11 hours to cover the course, but so arduous is the event that the last-placed rider came in some five hours later.
The 2014 edition will run on April 27 and will be the 100th running of the race.
It features a long, flat run out of Liege to Bastogne before embarking on a winding return that features some savage climbs towards the end of the 263km. Last year’s winner, Ireland’s Dan Martin, will be looking to defend his title.
Riders to watch
All the talk is of the duel between a fully fit and in-form Cancellara and Boonen.
If the two are both firing it could be a great Classics season, though cycling is a sport where anything can happen and the big favourites could cancel each other out. If that proves to be the case, then look out for Slovakian Peter Sagan, who combines a strong engine with a quick sprint.
From a British perspective, Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins will be riding, though this may be in support of Welshman Geraint Thomas.
All of the major Classics this season will be broadcast on Eurosport