The spring Classics are a set of major one-day races that take place across Northern Europe. With some of the sport’s oldest and most iconic events among their number, they are deeply enshrined in cycling history and heritage.
They kick off in late February with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne before turning towards Milan-San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix, with several other less prestigious races nestled among them. After a brief lull the focus shifts to a set of spring Classics that are collectively known as the Ardennes Classics. These comprise of Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Each race has its own charm and characteristics with the pavé or cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and the bergs of Flanders defining elements for two of the most significant races. Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège have Monument status – a tag of dedicated to the most prestigious cycling one-day races. The fifth and final Monument in cycling is ll Lombardia, which takes place in the autumn.
This weekend sees the start of the Spring campaign with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne raising the curtain with what is traditionally known as the ‘Opening Weekend’. Cyclingnews will have complete live coverage from both races, along with news, reports and race analysis as well as ‘how to watch’ guides.
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Date: February 27
For die-hard fans, Opening Weekend, and especially Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, signifies the true start to the racing season. The race used to be named Omloop Het Volk, after the newspaper, but when that title merged with another publication, Het Nieuwsblad, a new title was created for its 64th running.
The event has been part of the WorldTour since 2017 and riders such as Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, and Johan Museeuw have all tasted victory in the race that dates all the way back to 1945. Since 2006 a women’s race has also been run on the same day.
The Belgian race comes just 24 hours before Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and is arguably the tougher encounter, with more climbing and generally a more aggressive approach as teams look to break the race up on the series of short but sharp climbs that come before the finish. In total there are 13 climbs, or bergs as they’re known, and 14 cobbled sectors, meaning plenty of terrain for teams to split the peloton. Both this race and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne provide baptisms of cold, wind, and rain but rarely disappoint.
If Greg Van Avermaet wins this year he’ll become just the fourth rider to win three titles and equal the record that’s shared by Peter Van Petegem, Joseph Bruyere, and Ernest Sterckx.
What happened in 2020?
Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) proved that his 2016 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne win was no fluke with a convincing win over Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in a two-man sprint. The pair had been part of a winning move that formed with over 70km remaining before the duo broke away on the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen with only Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) able to follow.
The Dane was dropped before the finish but managed to hold onto third place, despite a valiant chase from Matteo Trentin. Stuyven was too quick and too canny for Lampaert in the finishing straight and it looked as though Trek-Segafredo finally had the one-two punch they were looking for with Stuyven and the then World champion Mads Pedersen.
Ian Stannard’s single-handed demolition of a QuickStep trio of Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, and Stijn Vandenbergh in 2015 remains one of the best David versus Goliath stories of the last decade but Omloop, or Het Volk as the purists still refer to it, has always had a special aura about it with a genuine feeling – within Belgium at least – that the Opening Weekend marks the true start to the cycling season. It’s always cold, and frosty but the harsh elements are balanced by the warm affection displayed by the passionate fans.
Date: February 28
Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne typically favours the sprinters and teams often switch around their line-ups after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to reflect this. There are still climbs during the race but they tend to ebb away with around 50 kilometres to go, which gives the sprinters’ teams plenty of road and time to nullify attacks and chase down groups.
Starting in Kuurne, the race winds east with the Oude Kwaremont and Kluisberg climbs both featuring along the route. In the last few years, the sprinters have seen their chances of victory reduced, thanks in part to some last-ditch attacks and brave solo moves.
Tom Boonen is the only rider in history to have won this race more than twice, with three wins to his name. The only rider in the current peloton who could possibly threaten that in the next couple of years is Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep), who has won the race twice, but isn’t set to start this year’s event. Opening Weekend is followed up by the smaller one-day race, Le Samyn, on March 2.
What happened in 2020?
Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) defied the odds and a rampaging peloton to score the biggest win of his career and make up for his team’s shortcomings the previous day. The Dane made contact with the day’s early break with 29 kilometres remaining before ending their hopes by jumping clear inside the final 15 kilometres.
The charging peloton, headed by Lotto Soudal, Ineos, and Sunweb, brought the lone leader to within just eight seconds but Asgreen found a new lease of life and bravely hung on to win ahead of Giacomo Nizzolo and Alexander Kristoff.
Kuurne has often been seen as a sprinters’ race but in truth it’s much more and is certainly less predictable than people give it credit for. The most dramatic edition I’ve reported on came in 2010 when Bobbie Traksel outsprinted Rick Flens and a young Ian Stannard to the line. The race was decimated by cyclone Xynthia, and concluded just 26 finishers in total from 198 starters.
The elements were so bad that riders like Jeremy Hunt, who had been in the break all day, simply pulled over to the side of the road and threw in the towel. Norwegian hardman Thor Hushovd and a galley of other riders cracked in the conditions, while Traksel turned the cyclone into his own perfect storm. He never won another race again but when you win so dramatically it probably doesn’t matter.
Date: March 20
Milan-San Remo, otherwise known as La Classicissima, is the first of five Monuments in cycling – a title handed to the most iconic and important one-day races in the sporting calendar outside of the World Championships. The Italian race – which runs two weeks after Strade Bianche, the one-day race which is far younger but growing in prestige – is the longest Monument, stretching over 300 kilometres in length, but it’s typically decided in a dramatic finale that includes the climbs of the Poggio and Cipressa or the sprint on the legendary Via Roma.
Eddy Merckx holds the record for the most wins with seven, while no one in the current peloton has won more than once. That backs up the theory that although Milan-San Remo is the easiest Monument to finish, it’s possibly the hardest one to win due to the fact that the finale is open to so many possible outcomes and delicately balances the aspirations of the climbers and the sprinters.
What happened in 2020?
The COVID-19 pandemic meant that the March date was scrapped but when the race finally took place on August 8 it was well worth the wait. The decisive move came on the Poggio, when defending champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) jumped away with 6.5 kilometres to go.
Only Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) could follow and after a breathtaking descent to the Via Roma, it was the Belgian who claimed the first Monument of his career. Alaphilippe would have to make do with second place, while an injured Michael Matthews finished strongly to take the final step on the podium for Sunweb. Peter Sagan’s (Bora-Hansgrohe) run of near misses in the race continued as he took fourth place.
The Tour of Flanders has its bergs, Paris-Roubaix has its cobbles but Milan-San Remo has an underlying beauty that no other race can match. At times the race moves slowly, almost stuck against the coastline without incident or action, but underneath the surface there is life and as the race meanders towards San Remo. The excitement slowly builds before the inevitable action on the Cipressa and the Poggio.
Milan-San Remo has provided so many electric moments over the years. I was lucky enough to see Julian Alaphilippe win a thrilling edition in 2019 from a stellar break but every edition in living memory has thrown up something iconic to savor. A dull Milan-San Remo is an extreme rarity.
Date: March 26
Starting and finishing in Harelbeke, where coincidently the Cyclingnews team once based themselves in a house that had no doors, E3 BinckBank Classic has modified it’s name in recent years but takes it’s name from a local road – which is now called the E17.
That confusion aside, the race is effectively a condensed mini Tour of Flanders and provides the perfect backdrop and terrain for the Classics specialist to test their legs before De Ronde, which takes place just over a week later.
A number of the Tour of Flanders climbs are included in the E3 route and the race is a indicator of who will be a contender in Flanders and who needs to desperately find some form. With the cobbled season ramping up, the race comes two days after the Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, formerly a three-day race but now a one-day classic this year named the Oxyclean Classic Brugge-De Panne.
What happened in 2020?
The race was unfortunately cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and didn’t form part of the rescheduled calendar in the second half of the season.
This is basically a dress rehearsal for Flanders. The condensed route and the close proximity to the second Monument of the season provides the elite Classics specialists with the chance to hone their form and tackle climbs, such as the Paterberg, Tiegemberg and Taaienberg.
Date: March 28
Gent-Wevelgem – In Flanders Fields dates all the way back to the 1930s. It doesn’t quite reach the level of a full-on Monument but is still both revered and respected within the sport. It’s slightly shorter than the likes of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and has forged a reputation as more of a sprinters’ race but there’s much more to Gent-Wevelgem than this.
The race ventures into territory that other Flemish races bypass and the iconic Kemmelberg climb – although far from the finish – is raced three times and provides one of the most famous backdrops in the Classics season. Yet another cobbled one-dayer, the Dwars door Vlaanderen, follows on March 31.
What happened in 2020?
Mads Pedersen’s year in the rainbow jersey was virtually ruined by COVID-19 with the Dane barely able to race in the fabled kit after most of the season was either shifted to late August or cancelled. Therefore it was only fitting that the Trek Segafredo rider was able to pull off one of the most memorable Classics wins of the season.
Pedersen may not have been the strongest rider on the day but he took advantage of the fact that Van der Poel and Van Aert marked each other out of the race and then expertly made his way over to a late attack that included Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First), Matteo Trentin (Team CCC) and Florian Sénéchal (Deceuninck-QuickStep), before seeing them off in the sprint.
The race changed from its typical mid-week slot a few years, but even though it doesn’t hold anywhere near the prestige levels as a Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, there’s still a quintessential charm to Gent-Wevelgem. It’s seen as a race for sprinters, but it’s more open than that and often throws up more front-foot racing than some of the bigger races that sit either side of it in the spring programme.
Date: April 4
First held in 1913, the Tour of Flanders, also known as De Ronde or Ronde van Vlaanderen, is the second Monument of the season and sees riders take on one of the most iconic and gruelling routes in a one-day race. The race is littered with cobbled climbs, and although the organisers have made several modifications to the course in recent years the race has kept both its heritage and passion. Since 2004 the organisers have also put on a women’s race that features on the same day as the men’s event.
Like Paris-Roubaix, which follows a week later, the Tour of Flanders is often played out in a highly strategic manner with the race into the foot of the steep climbs often just as important and decisive as the hills themselves.
The gruelling route takes in most of the well-known climbs situated in the region, which, packed into the latter half of the race, ensures that only the strongest riders can make the difference but tactical acumen can sometimes win the day, as Nick Nuyens proved to good effect in 2011.
What happened in 2020?
The three most dominant one-day riders of 2020 in Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) broke away on the Taaienberg but the sight of a three-way battle for the crown was pulled under our feet when the Frenchman crashed into a race moto.
That still left two of the most exciting riders in the world going toe-to-toe in the finale with Van der Poel edging out his long-serving rival in a nail-biting sprint.
The Tour of Flanders sits right at the heart of Flemish cycling and any homegrown winner will reach legendary status with victory. As such riders base their entire seasons, if not careers, around success in this race with two-time winner Stijn Devolder a prime example of a rider whose career was almost single handedly built on his back-to-back wins between 2008 and 2009.
Date: April 7
Sandwiched between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix is Flanders’ oldest race, Scheldeprijs. It’s essentially a sprinter-friendly and stripped down version of some of the tougher, more arduous Spring Classcis, and since 2010 the race has held this mid-week spot.
Cobbles are few and far between within the race, with the Monument stars from Flanders and Roubaix often using this race as a final chance to fine tune their engines before the build up to Roubaix. Marcel Kittel holds the most wins with five victories, while Mark Cavendish sits on three.
What happened in 2020?
As with most of the Spring Classics, this race was bumped from its normal early-season date and shifted to October. That didn’t stop the sprinters from having their day in the late autumnal sun with Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) bursting from the pack to win on his Classics debut. Niccolò Bonifazio (Total Direct Energie) and Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept) completed the podium.
The race result, though, were somewhat overshadowed by Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), who burst from the pack, caused a crashed and was later relegated after initially finishing in second place.
After a string of races designed for the Classics specialists. the sprinters finally have their chance. In many ways Scheldeprijs provides a welcome reprieve from the drama of the major races that came before it and acts as the perfect path towards Paris-Roubaix.
The action with the race typically sees a non-threatening break build up a lead before the sprinters’ teams take charge. Many of the Classics specialists either skip the event or ease up when the true action starts but this race is almost a reward for the pure sprinters.
Date: April 11
Often described as the Queen of the Classics or the Hell of the North, Paris-Roubaix is the third Monument of the cycling season and arguably the most recognisable event in the sport after the Tour de France. The race dates back to 1896 and has taken place 117 times since then, with the last edition in 2019. For the first time ever, race organiser ASO will put on a women’s race in 2021.
The race starts in Compiègne and contains multiple sectors of ‘pavé’ or cobbles that almost always define the race and its outcome. The Trouée d’Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle, and Carrefour de l’Arbre are three of the biggest and toughest sectors in the race but often, as with the Tour of Flanders, team numbers are key as they cover-up for bad luck as riders often see their chances ended by mechanicals or crashes.
The cobbled sectors vary in difficulty and length but are given ratings from one to five stars, with five being the most difficult to navigate. The weather can also play a huge part in the race but the last truly wet Paris-Roubaix came back in 2001. The finish in the old Roubaix velodrome gives the race yet another dynamic, while the famous Roubaix showers provide an edge of nostalgia and history.
Roger De Vlaeminck and Tom Boonen are the only men in history to have won the event four times, while no current rider has triumphed more than once.
What happened in 2020?
The race was first postponed from April to October and then sadly cancelled but in 2021 there’s the exciting prospect of both a men’s and women’s race running on the same day.
There are some editions of Paris-Roubaix that fade into the history books but the combination of such unpredictable terrain and the excitement as the peloton hit the Forest of Arenberg at full tilt ensures that the French Monument has no equal when it comes to drama and dramatic twists. In recent memory, Mathew Hayman pulled off one of the biggest, yet popular, upsets by beating Boonen to the line in 2016.
Date: April 18
With Paris-Roubaix done and dusted all attention in the Spring Classics turns to the Ardennes Classics, which take place in Belgium and the Netherlands. The trio of events includes the Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne, and the fourth Monument of the season, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, while Brabantse Pijl on April 14 serves as something of a warm-up.
Amstel Gold Race is the youngest sibling in the family, dating back to 1966 when Frenchman and former world champion Jean Stablinksi took the win. The course, including the start and finish towns, has changed considerably over the years with the recent format seeing the race start in Maastricht and end in Valkenburg. The Cauberg climb, which for many years was the final ascent of the race, still forms part of the course but no longer has such prominence with the race organisers attempting to encourage less predictable and more exciting outcomes.
The race profile, however, is always demanding with strong climbers and all-rounders typically finding success on the twisty, tight roads that are synonymous with the race. Jan Raas holds the title for the most wins with five, while Philippe Gilbert has four to his name (2010, 2011, 2014, and 2017).
What happened in 2020?
Another race to fall by the wayside in 2020 due to COVID-19. It’s back this year though.
Amstel Gold Race is an underrated WorldTour event, and while it lacks the history of the two races in the Belgian Ardennes, it still has its own character and personality. The Dutch fans bring the race to life, while the alterations that have been made in recent years are a clear indication that the organisers want to constantly evolve and improve the event. There’s no denying that Amstel Gold has provided some of the most exhilarating finishes in recent Classics history.
Date: April 21
The second of three Ardennes Classics, Belgium’s La Flèche Wallonne is a mid-week race with a distance of around 200 kilometres. Although shorter than both Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège this mid-week race always throws up a dramatic ending, usually boiling down to the back-breaking ascent of the Mur de Huy.
The climb is around 1,300-metre in length but with pitches over 9 per cent and a maximum gradient of 25 per cent, only the most explosive of climbers even stand a chance of taking the win. That said, timing is key, and the race is typically littered by riders who either make their moves too soon or find themselves boxed in and forced into a forlorn chase.
Race organisers ASO have tried various tactics when it comes to attempting to draw the main action further away from the final climb in a bid to make the race more engaging for the first 190km but nothing has really paid off. Still, La Flèche Wallonne has its place on the WorldTour Calendar and occupies a valuable position between Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
What happened in 2020?
Marc Hirschi, who was racing for Sunweb in 2020, continued his phenomenal season with victory in Huy. The 22-year-old from Switzerland powered clear with around 50 metres to go on the Mur de Huy to beat Benoît Cosnefroy (AG2R La Mondiale) and Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling).
As ever, the race came down to the final slopes of the Mur de Huy, despite an additional climb being added, with Richie Porte (Trek Segafredo) the first potential winner to hit the front with around 1,000m to go but there was no denying Hirschi, who backed up his incredible Tour de France with his first one-day Classic.
La Flèche Wallonne is the most predictable of the Spring Classics. It’s all about the final assault up the murderously steep Mur de Huy and everything that comes before it is almost forgettable. That said, the finale itself and the race as a whole, still provides the Spring Classics programme with something unique and with 300m to go there can still be plenty of late surprises.
Date: April 25
Also known as La Doyenne – ‘the old lady’ – and dating back to 1892, Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the final Ardennes race and the final Spring Classic of the season. Like the Tour of Flanders, this Monument has its own set of prestigious climbs, including La Redoute, Roche aux Faucons and Saint-Nicolas.
The role of honour for this race reads like a who’s who of cycling with Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, and Roger De Vlaeminck among the riders who have been crowned champions, and the race is widely accepted as one of the hardest one-day races on the entire calendar.
The fifth Monument, Il Lombardia, comes almost six months later in the season, running as the last in a series of Italian autumn Classics.
What happened in 2020?
Julian Alaphilippe, fresh from his Worlds win, decided to throw away victory at the line by celebrating his sprint too early and opening the door for Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) to take the win.
It got worse for the Frenchman too when he was relegated for diverting his line and cutting up Marc Hirschi, who probably would have won if Alaphilippe had kept it together. In the end Hirschi had to settle for second, with Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) completing the podium.
The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix have more glamour but Liège-Bastogne-Liège still provides a thorough examination for all those concerned. Its distance, the severity of the climbs, and the conditions make this race a war of attrition. The list of previous winners illustrates just how difficult this race is to win, and with his history and Monument status, it’s the pinnacle of the Ardennes.
2021 Classics calendar
|February 27||Omloop Het Nieuwsblad||WorldTour|
|March 2||Le Samyn||1.1|
|March 6||Strade Bianche||WorldTour|
|March 20||Milan-San Remo||WorldTour, Monument|
|March 24||Oxyclean Classic Brugge-De Panne||WorldTour|
|March 26||E3 Saxo Bank Classic||WorldTour|
|March 28||Gent-Wevelgem – In Flanders Fields||WorldTour|
|March 31||Dwars door Vlaanderen||WorldTour|
|April 4||Tour of Flanders||WorldTour, Monument|
|April 11||Paris-Roubaix||WorldTour, Monument|
|April 14||Brabantse Pijl||1.Pro|
|April 18||Amstel Gold Race||WorldTour|
|April 21||La Flèche Wallonne||WorldTour|
|April 25||Liège-Bastogne-Liège||WorldTour, Monument|