The Ardennes classics, which kick off this year with the Amstel Gold on Sunday,* are the third stage in understanding professional road cycling.
The grand tours, and the Tour de France in particular, are cycling’s window dressing, the defacto gateways to the sport.** They're what makes the papers and sometimes TV, even in those non-traditional cycling countries the UCI's always making eyes at. From those first Tour experiences, those seeking deeper cycling fandom tend to reach toward the cobbled classics, a sort of sensory antidote to the near-unbearable beauty and sunshine of the grand tour Alpine idyll. Often cold, tinged with grey, always brutal, and run on roads that have sometimes been un-paved rather than re-paved in anticipation, they introduce many of the sport’s rougher truths, not least that of lost time that must be reclaimed immediately, not in tomorrow’s mountains or next week’s time trial. There is an appealing coarseness and urgency that comes with the cobbles, and with it a sense of appreciating beauty in something ugly and subtle that most people don’t understand. I imagine it is something like what boxing fans feel.
But appreciating the Ardennes classics? That comes later, if at all. At least over here. La Doyenne though she may be, Liege-Bastogne-Liege probably hasn’t been the lure that hooked many new cycling fans, at least not those who didn’t spend their childhoods in the wooded hills of Limburg or Wallonia. The optics, as they say, just aren’t as good as the grand tours or the stones. There’s no readily apparent sense of violence in the Ardennes, and no serialized drama to replace it. No special or one-off equipment, few behind-the-scenes photo galleries or Scandinavian documentaries to be had. No carefully orchestrated new product releases. No win-a-bike-and-a-trip sweepstakes, no co-branded bike shop promotions. Just bike racing. No tricks, no frills, no gimmicks.
But for those who stay long enough to embrace them, the Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege (along with the less conveniently packaged Milan-San Remo, Giro di Lombardia, and Paris-Tours) have a lot to teach. After mapping the grand tours and cobbled classics, the tarmac classics are the crucial third point in the triangulation needed to navigate the world of bicycle road racing. They defy the generalizations and dispel the misconceptions the cobbles and tours create and which, left undisturbed, could easily decompose into accepted fact.
They teach that Belgian classics don’t all have cobbles, and that Flemish and Belgian aren’t synonyms, even in bike racing. That the classics and the northern classics aren’t interchangeable. That classics specialist doesn’t necessarily mean cobbled classics specialist. That general classification riders are capable of riding races that only last a day. That they can even win them. That there is a whole breed of classics specialist that Tour fans probably only know as stage hunters. That what it takes to ride 260k of shorter cobbled hills can take something different than riding 260k of longer paved hills. But not always. That climbers can win classics. So can sprinters. So can rouleurs. That Michele Bartoli and Paolo Bettini and Claude Criquielion are mentioned among the greats for a reason. That former eastern bloc riders do have a specialty if you look hard enough. That you don’t need bad roads or mountains to create tension and excitement.
The list goes on, so pay attention this week, even as you try to shake off the Holy Week hangover. The Ardennes races and the other tarmac classics (yes, even San Sebastian) give us the beautiful rebukes to all the sport’s oversimplifications. They provide a disproportionate number of cycling's excepts and buts and thoughs – he was only ever a GC rider but...a cobbled specialist except…couldn’t climb, though… – and knowing them is, somewhat paradoxically, the key to both winning trivia contests and understanding the sport more deeply.
* Yes, I’m using “Ardennes classics” to cover Amstel Gold, too, even though the traditional “Ardennes week” was only Fleche and Liege. Let’s not get technical.
**In a way (specifically, in a way that conveniently excludes consideration of money, influence, and promotion), it’s surprising that people come to the sport through the grand tours, because they’re about the most complex interpretation of road racing imaginable. And frankly, they lead a lot of new fans to overthink everything they see in the sport from then on.