The Mutability of Monuments

Calling something a monument adds a certain air of permanence to it, a sense of historic untouchability. After all, nobody suggests adding a revolving rooftop restaurant to the Washington Monument, do they? But the five monuments of cycling – Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Paris-Roubaix, Ronde Van Vlaanderen, Milan-San Remo, and the Giro di Lombardia – while formidable, aren’t as permanent as the term might indicate. They’re more like sprightly senior citizens than stone monoliths, closer to the quirky great aunt who somehow remains stylish than to sterile historical sites with interpretive audio tours.

Over the years, these races have subtly remade themselves as both cycling and the world around them have changed, retaining their history while preserving their contemporary relevance. Take Milan-San Remo. The Cipressa climb, now such a natural a part of the San Remo finale, was only added in 1982 when organizers saw that the Poggio no longer provided enough of a challenge to break up the modern peloton before the finish. When the Cipressa was no longer enough to consistently split things up, the organizers added the Le Manie climb this year.

The mighty Ronde Van Vlaanderen, too, shifts a bit each year, sometimes nipping westward from Brugge through Johan Museeuw’s hometown of Gistel and out toward the coast. Other times it drops almost straight down into the hill zone in the Flemish Ardennes. What’s more, the flexible “Tour of Flanders” name doesn’t even anchor the race to a set start and finish. It's finished in Meerbeke recently, but not always. Same story with Italy's Giro di Lombardia, which has even started in Mendrisio, Switzerland.

And Paris-Roubaix -- flat, 46-tooth inner chainring Paris-Roubaix -- once had a hill. It was (and is) at Doullens, situated some 150 kilometers north of Paris, and about 100 kilometers south of Roubaix. As recently as the Sean Kelly years, Paris-Roubaix didn’t even always finish in the iconic municipal velodrome, but rather on the street outside La Redoute’s corporate headquarters on several occasions. It’s also easy to forget that Peter Post’s remarkable record speed of 45.129 kph in 1964 was posted in the edition that boasted fewer kilometers of cobblestones than any before or since, an aberration that jumpstarted the effort by locals and the organizers to preserve and sometimes exhume the cobbled roads of northern France. Indeed, it has taken substantial yearly effort to keep Paris-Roubaix such a barbaric anachronism.

And yet, few complain about the renovations beyond the initial recoiling at the thought of change. Soon after, the public forgives and even embraces the yearly eccentricities of the monuments – a privilege afforded to few things besides old men and old races. That the public does so speaks to the skill of the organizers in integrating changes without tearing the delicate fabric of these historic icons. There are no doubt many who would try to preserve some “classic” version of these races for posterity, picking a single year’s course as some sort of zenith, bolting the course markers permanently to the signposts, and simply inflating the one-kilometer-to-go banner each year.

It would be easy that way, but the effect would be predictable racing on courses preserved under glass. Instead, the organizers of the monuments have managed to remain forward-thinking, despite the weight of history they carry on their shoulders. The positive effect of progressive race planning was evident in Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where the new Côte de la Roche aux Faucons climb with 20 kilometers remaining jumpstarted the final selection and led to a three-rider showdown between winner Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), and Frank Schleck (CSC).

This year wasn’t the first time Liege organizer ASO has taken action to ensure that the race doesn’t become just a longer version of Fleche Wallonne, another race to be decided on a frenzied final ascent. Faced with larger and larger groups of riders arriving together at the foot of the final Côte de Saint Nicolas climb to sprint it out on the final stretch up to Ans, ASO resurrected the "terrible triple" in 2005. The sharp, closely spaced climbs of the Côte de Wanne, Côte de Stockeau, and the Côte de La Haute Levée, icons of the Merckx era, are too far from the finish to make a final selection, but they do take their toll on the peloton. The year of their introduction, Alexander Vinokourov (then T-Mobile) outsprinted Jens Voigt (CSC) for the win after the reintroduced climbs reshaped the race.

But, just a year later, the terrible triple had been assimilated into various team strategies, and the group sprinting for the win ballooned to 12 riders, with Valverde emerging the winner. Another year on, in 2007, the group on the Saint Nicholas had grown still larger, with Danilo DiLuca taking the sprint, and so the new Roche aux Faucons was placed into the finale for 2008.

That Valverde won Liege-Bastogne-Liege again this year under different circumstances speaks to the Spaniard’s adaptability. But the fact that he won it from a group of three rather than a group of 12 speaks to La Doyenne’s adaptability as well. After 118 years, she’s still stylish.