Three Weeks

For many cycling fans, they are simply the best three weeks in competitive cycling. During this annual frenzy, the top riders take part in the most demanding days of racing, and a solitary victory here can make even the most benign career notable. Fans line the roadsides to eat, drink, wave flags, and cheer in a staccato chorus of French, Flemish, English, Dutch, German, Italian, and a host of other tongues. Podium girls are kissed, champagne sprayed, bad Euro-pop played, and the hands of mayors and minor administrators shaken. And it’s still three months until July.

The world at large may not come to dinner until the grandest of the grand tours, but for those who feed on the sport year round, the classics are the sacred feast. Milan-San Remo in March is the appetizer that whets the appetite for the main course, the northern classics. In the space of three glorious weeks, from the Ronde Van Vlaanderen on April 4 through Liege-Bastogne-Liege on April 27, the hardmen of the peloton do battle in the six legendary contests that ply the back roads of northern France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Then, with plates cleared, the fans sit, sipping wine and chatting with friends through the summer and the grand tours, before finally enjoying dessert, la dolce, at the Giro di Lombardia in the fall.

The stage races, the grand tours in particular, hold their sway over the casual fan for a reason. They provide viewers with a running, constantly reiterated back-story and steady, reliable entertainment for weeks. They are engaging in a “tune in tomorrow” way, fitting for a format created by a newspaperman. But they’re also prone to being mind-numbingly predictable and convoluted at the same time. The overall winner can be clear a week in advance of the finish, leaving viewers to watch as the tactical maneuverings to secure stage wins, minor GC placings, various jerseys, team classifications, and other semi-prestigious bric-a-brac become so complex and contradictory that even the teams, it can seem, get confused as to what exactly is going on.

But while the stage races are the soap operas of cycling, the classics are its cinema. Both sweepingly epic and beautifully compact, their plots are compressed into a six hour crucible, where only the strongest can bear the heat and pressure long enough to secure a coveted win. The story each classic weaves is told in virtual isolation – it begins at a single start line, and concludes when the finish is crossed. All that must be told is told within a single day. And while the modern races are captured in vivid color, there remains an air of black-and-white about them.

In the classics, there are no synergistic goals among competitors. There are no unspoken compromises to create mutually beneficial alliances, leaving one rider working for the GC and the other the stage win. There are no pantomime sprints for the cameras. In a classic, there is only one winner.

In the classics, there are no days when everyone is tired, and nobody cares to race. There are no lazy days after a mountaintop finish, no restful tempo after the long time trial. Wins are not given away to pass responsibility to another team. The break, at least any one that seems likely to go the distance, is never just allowed to go up the road so the peloton can relax.

In the classics, there are no slow-motion haymakers from the mountains, but there are the constant, wearing jabs of the bergs, cotes, and cobbles.

In the classics, yesterday’s margin of victory has no bearing, and last week’s plotlines do not affect today’s racing.

In the classics, bad weather does not temper aggression.

In the classics, the winner does not always come from the list of favorites.

In the classics, nobody disputes whether the winner is deserving.

In the classics, there is no yesterday and no tomorrow.

In the classics, there are no moral dilemmas.

In the classics, if you win, you’re right.

The Schedule
Ronde Van Vlaanderen: April 6
Gent-Wevelgem: April 9
Paris-Roubaix: April 13
Amstel Gold Race: April 20
Fleche Wallonne: April 23
Liege-Bastogne-Liege: April 27