Cyclists who reach the last stage of the Tour de France ride along the Champs-Élysées.
Photo: Bruce Hildenbrand
Those who follow the European racing scene have two major seasons, spring and summer.
The Union Cycliste International (UCI), which governs the sport of cycling, has been trying hard to get everyone to pay attention in the fall, but it is really the Classics in April and the Tour de France in July which sends the tifosi (that's Italian for fans) into a feeding frenzy.
One question worth asking is which is better racing? Are the Classics, with the mud, sweat and gears, more riveting than the Tour de France, where the overall contenders soar towards the sky in the big mountains as if on wings?
One Day to Give It Everything They've Got
During the Classics, we see hard men suffering in conditions that more times than not can be described in one word: epic. If it isn't snowing, then a chilling rain creates gooey mud and incredibly slippery conditions—making the racing hard for all involved. And it makes the racing even harder if you are trying to play catch up.
I remember in 2002 when three-time USPRO champion Freddie Rodriguez was having a dream season at the Classics. He was third at Milan-San Remo and led the peloton over the Patersberg in the Tour of Flanders. At Paris-Roubaix he was clearly a contender, but a crash in the rain dropped him from the front group. In pressing to get back up to the leaders he crashed at least three more times. He finally arrived at the velodrome in Roubaix in tears, five minutes down on the winner.
2002 was also the year that George Hincapie was on his way to yet another podium finish at Roubaix, only to plummet down a ditch in an untimely crash that was also caused by the wet cobblestones. His breakaway companion and teammate, Tom Boonen, went on to reach his first podium. He has since won the race three times.
Undoubtedly, the most famous spring classic story of survival was the 1980 Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where a freak snowstorm decimated the field. Five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault attacked at the height of the storm and went on to win by nearly 10 minutes. To this day, he maintains that his hands are still affected by the cold he experienced during that race.
Designed for the All-Around Cyclists
While the Classics seem to showcase hard men in epic conditions, the Tour de France is more like a greyhound race. To climb in the big mountains, it is your strength-to-weight ratio that matters, which favors the diminutive riders. But because time trials also play a very critical role, if you are too small, then on the flat races against the clock you might not have enough power to produce a competitive effort.
Not so long ago, riders like Eddy Merckx, Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinualt were able to win or at least be very competitive in both the Tour and the Classics in the same season. But in modern times, while some Tour contenders will ride a hilly race like Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the cast of characters usually changes when summer arrives.
What draws many of fans to the Tour is the drama in the high mountains. The snow-covered Alps and Pyrenees provide the perfect backdrop for the battles which shape the Tour. Not only do we see riders like Alberto Contador float up the climbs as if on a motor bike, but just as riveting are the scenes of the hopefuls who have blown up and ride as if their tires are glued to the roadway.
While luck plays a big part in the Classics, the Tour's time trials are the race of truth. You either have it or you don't, and a rider's fate is left solely in his own hands...well, actually, his legs.
While some contend that the Classics are king and others maintain that the Tour is the only race that matters, true cycling fan will get sweaty palms at a Big Wheel race for three-year-olds. We can applaud the efforts of the mudmen who hope that their strength and lady luck will allow them to shine. We can also applaud the efforts of the angels of the mountains who hope that over a three-week period they can ride at consistent enough level to put them on the podium in Paris. Hey, it's all bike racing.