Welcome to the Stinner Race Series: The Myth of the Classics

Photography by Camille McMillan

Photography by Camille McMillan

Prologue: So much of why we ride, the scenarios we imagine as we ride, and the very type of riding we glorify, is an ode to those special European races known as the Classics. Each race is a reflection of social history, the mystique of the Classics has shaped cycling's history. But even that mystique is a combination of community, culture, and history.

We will feature those people capturing the races on film, writing about them, and racing in them. First, Max Leonard provides us with an exploratory piece asking the question, "Why are the Classics classic?" 

Welcome to the Stinner Race Series.

"You’ve got one shot, it’s all or nothing: will it be the golden smile of glory, and your name in the history books, or the bitter ignominy of empty-handed defeat? This is racing about more than just power meters. It is about spirit, endeavour, heart." -- Max Leonard

So, the first salvoes of the season have been fired, racers are getting on with the business of winning and losing, the Tour Down Under and the Tour de San Luis have passed. But they’re mere skirmishes, right? And the upcoming Tours of Oman and Qatar – just legstretchers in the sun.

“It’s pretty mellow, you just kinda ride around and then you race up the final climb,” a WorldTour pro, who shall remain nameless, said to me about one of these far-flung opening races. “And then you come to Europe and you’ve got twisty, narrow roads. Up, down, left, right… and the weather can be OK or it can be really, really bad.”

He’s only confirming what everyone knows: that bike racing doesn’treally start until the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, the Belgian minor Classic, that comes around at the end of February. And behind it, quickly, the Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and then a glut of legendary one-day races in the cold north of Europe: cycling’s Classics. 

The pro continued: “And there’s this slightly ambiguous, nebulous thing in the air, like what, how is a peloton nervous? If you’re in there, you can just feel it! You can’t really explain it, but it’s just there, this tension that you can cut with a knife.”

But why the tension and anticipation from riders and fans alike?

Traditionally, the Classics were the first important one-day races each season for the pros of Belgium, Holland and France, but many of these riders would have been coming from the tail end of another season, straight from the smoky, sweaty, beer-drenched velodromes of the six-day races or the frigid mud of cyclocross.

For the larger public, who had perhaps been following the stars’ exploits in the papers, it was the first chance to see them that year, to measure their form, see the aggression, feel the aura.

The Classics hark back to a more romantic and – it feels at least – a more authentic time, and connect us with history. That’s one thing the Classics all possess: connection –emotional as much as geographical – with their audience. Connection to the old heartlands of cycling, to where the passion is strongest, and to the roads – and cobbles –where legends have been made. Even now, the roadside support is as large and vociferous as the biggest days on any of the Grand Tours, and it is that as much as the riders that propel these races into the realm of myth. They’ve long been, and continue to be, the yardsticks by which we measure our champions, our years, our cycling lives by.

Each race is a history of champions: of good men and strong, sons of miners and labourers, butchers and soldiers; a history of the desperate and the wily, of cheating allies and honorable enemies; resistance fighters and sympathisers, the heathen and the righteous, profane and holy.

Men (and it is, unfortunately, almost always men) like ‘The Cannibal’ Eddy Merckx, who for years would win multiple races in succession, steamrollering the opposition. Men like Roger de Vlaeminck and the Riks Van Looy and Van Steenbergen – three flahutes (northern hardmen) par excellence. Or men like Firenzo Magni, the Italian rider who would later break his collarbone during the Giro d’Italia and, his left arm being useless, tie an inner tube to the handlebars and hold it in his mouth to keep the handlebars steering straight.. Look, even, at those who have dominated the Classics in more recent years – Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Pete Van Petegem, the ‘Lion of Flanders’ Johann Museuww – and they have an air of old-style heroes. Hard and capable, bred to endure crosswinds, mud, fierce rain and jarring pavé, and to prevail.

Because in a Classic anything can happen. In the sound and fury of the race dreams can be made or fall apart in an instant. Form counts for a lot but mechanicals, unpredictable conditions, alliances and complots all can make the best-laid plans go awry. Teams that dominate Grand Tours with impressive displays of calculated efforts over three weeks find the brevity and the finality of a one-day race are less easy to control. And for some riders, some entire teams, this two-month period in the spring carries the burden of the whole season’s success. You’ve got one shot, it’s all or nothing: will it be the golden smile of glory, and your name in the history books, or the bitter ignominy of empty-handed defeat? This is racing about more than just power meters. It is about spirit, endeavour, heart.

Mostly, I think, we love the Classics because they are hard, hard races. Milano-Sanremo, the opening Monument – one of the five greatest Classics – at just a shade under 300km is the longest race in the calendar and only three years ago subjected its competitors to ice storms. Some call Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a 270-kilometre trawl through the dark, steep forests of the Ardennes, the most difficult race of their professional lives. The Amstel Gold is known as the ‘race of the 33 hills’ – which should say it all – while the cobbled climbs of Flanders and the cobbled hell of Roubaix need no explaining here.

We love the Classics because this is a hard sport, one that is at its best when it is pushing people – competitors, spectators, everyone – to their limits. And besides, what’s the point in doing something if it’s easy?