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How to plan your perfect trip to the Classics

When to go, what to watch, where to ride and more

For many, a trip to the Spring Classics is a pilgrimage. A visit to cycling’s heartland during the height of the biggest one-day races in the world is definitely one we think should be on your bucket list.

It’s a party atmosphere like no other and whether you go for the racing, the chance to ride the same roads the pros do, the beer, or even the chips and mayonnaise (or all of the above), the infectious enthusiasm of the famously fanatical classics fans are sure to make the trip a memorable one.

There are plenty of ways you can get over to northern Europe to see your heroes battle it out on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and the bergs of the Tour of Flanders, and even have a go yourself. We’ve listed some of the things you might want to think about, as well as point out some key highlights that will help you plan your perfect spring classics trip.

A trip to the Classics is a must for cycling fans (pic: Sirotti)

What’s on

The pro races are, of course, the focal point of the Classics season, while there’s also a whole host of sportives to ride, linked to the main event.

We’ll take a look in more detail further on, but here are the key events to look out for…

Races

Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege make up four of the five Monument races (along with Il Lombardia in the autumn).

These are the biggest, most prestigious and some of the oldest one-day races on the calendar.

Sportives

Watching the peloton ride the white gravel roads of Tuscany, or tackle the cobbled bergs of Flanders or the Paris-Roubaix pave evoke heroic images of the pros.

And you can get a taste of what it’s all about yourself by riding the same courses on sportives on the same weekend.  Many tour operators offer trips to take on the sportive, stay over night and then watch the pros show you how it should be done the following day.

We Ride Flanders, the Paris-Roubaix Challenge, Liege-Bastogne-Liege Challenge, Gent-Wevelgem Cyclo and Dwars door Vlaanderen Cyclo are all must-ride events.

When should you go?

While a two-month trip to take in every race is unlikely to be practical, the races are grouped to ensure a long weekend, or week-long trip, will still allow you to pack plenty in.

  • The traditional opening weekend of the Belgian Classics features Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on the last Saturday in February, followed by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on the Sunday. The Omloop received a bump up to WorldTour status for 2017, with a women’s elite race held on the same day, while classics specialists tend to then race K-B-K the following day, giving them a second chance at glory in a 1.HC category race.
  • After the season’s monuments have been opened by Milan-San Remo in Italy, it’s back to Belgium for Dwars Door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem each held two days apart from each other. All are WorldTour races, so you’re guaranteed so see some of the big boys come out to play.
  • The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are held one week apart from each other, and if two of the world’s biggest one-day races are not quite enough for you, there’s also the 1.HC-classified Schelderpijs in Antwerp in between.
  • If the Ardennes Classics, suited to puncheurs, are your favoured kind of racing, then it’s traditional to place flagship races La Fleche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège within a few days of each other too. Even better, each has a Women’s WorldTour equivalent held on the same day as the men’s races, meaning you can see four races in the space of five days.
Fancy a trip to Flanders? Make it a week and you can enjoy some of the best racing of the season (Pic: Sirotti)

The races – Cobbled Classics

Paris-Roubaix

Paris-Roubaix is known simultaneously as the Queen of the Classics and the Hell of the North, indicative of its difficulty and prestige.

Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard lead the British charge at Paris-Roubaix (pic: Sirotti)

Starting on the outskirts of Paris, the route winds its way to the famous old velodrome in Roubaix, and takes in sectors of cobbles each marked out on the route – categorised with stars in a similar way to the categorisation of climbs.

The most famous of these is the Arenberg Trench, which is 2.4km long, has some of the harshest cobbles in the race, and often signifies the start of hostilities between the riders.

2017 date: Sunday April 9

Key locations: The Arenberg Trench, Carrefour de l’Arbre, Roubaix Velodrome

Tour of Flanders

The Tour of Flanders is the other classic on a par with Paris-Roubaix for sheer prestige, hence why it’s coveted as much as its French counterpart by classics specialists.

World champion Peter Sagan rides to victory at last year’s Tour of Flanders (Pic: Sirotti)

De Ronde is the culmination of the classics season in Flanders and is characterised by short, sharp cobbled climbs known as ‘bergs’ that separate the contenders from the also-rans.

The race also features several loops, so spectators can get to see their heroes more than once on the course as the race unfolds.

2017 date: Sunday April 2

Key locations: Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, Muur van Geraardsbergen

Dwars Door Vlaanderen

Known as a semi-classic, 2017 marks the first year of its inclusion on the UCI WorldTour. Before that, though, it’s the opener of the Flemish Cycling Week.

Dwars door Vlaanderen is a great warm-up for the Ronde (pic: Sirotti)

It features some of the punchy cobbled climbs seen centre stage at the Tour of Flanders, so represents a great warm-up for the big guns aiming for De Ronde.

2017 date: Wednesday March 22

Key locations: Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Holstraat, Nokereberg

E3 Harelbeke

The privately-organised E3 Harelbeke is another race the pros use as a tune-up for the Tour of Flanders, and has even been dubbed The Little Tour of Flanders.

E3 Harelbeke is another chance to check riders’ form ahead of Flanders week (Pic: Martin Cox)

Its winners list is a who’s who of cobbled classic racing, including names like Vanderaerden, Planckaert, Museeuw, Boonen, Cancellara and Sagan.

2017 date: Friday March 24

Key locations: Kruisberg, Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont

Gent-Wevelgem

Traditionally held on the last Sunday before De Ronde, Gent-Wevelgem differs from many of the other one-day races in that it tends to be flatter and favour strong riders that pack a mean sprint – there’s a reason why Mario Cipollini holds the joint record number of wins with three, with other wins coming from the likes of Thor Hushovd, Oscar Freire and John Degenkolb in recent years.

Gent-Wevelgem is flatter in profile, and so more suited to the faster-finishing Classics riders (pic: Sirotti)

The Women’s WorldTour also gets in on the action with it’s own race, as is also the case with the Tour of Flanders and the Ardennes Classics.

2017 date: Sunday March 26

Key locations: Kasselberg, Kemmelberg, Baneberg, Monteberg

The races – Ardennes Classics

Amstel Gold Race

The Dutch race stands out on its own a little, but can still be accessed in northern Europe relatively easily and marks the start of the Ardennes classics season proper.

Philippe Gilbert digs deep on the Cauberg (pic: Sirotti)

It’s defined by its tarmacked climbs – the pick of which is the Cauberg – that are more prevalent than the cobbled ascents you’ll find at the likes of the Tour of Flanders, E3 and Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and you’ll spot riders targeting it that are generally more suited to stage racing and climbing.

2017 date: Sunday April 16

Key locations: Cauberg, Geulhemmerweg, Keutenberg

La Flèche Wallonne

As if to underline the challenging nature of the Ardennes climbs, Grand Tour rider Alejandro Valverde is the record holder of the number of wins in this event, with four, and has won it three years running from 2014-2016.

Alejandro Valverde has become the modern king of the Mur de Huy (pic: Sirotti)

The race is today characterised by its three laps of the region around the finish town of Huy, with the signature climb of the Mur de Huy that can reach a one in four gradient providing the final selection in what is a summit finish.

Spectators can also catch the Flèche Wallonne Féminine held earlier the same day.

2017 date: Wednesday April 19

Key locations: Mur de Huy

Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Liège-Bastogne-Liège is known as La Doyenne, or “The Old Lady” of the classics because it’s the longest running of the five monument races, having had its first race in 1892.

Since then, the likes of Ferdinand Kübler, Jacques Anquetil, Roger De Vlaeminck, Bernard Hinault and Sean Kelly all populate the winners list.

Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the fourth Monument of the season (pic: Sirotti)

Eddy Merckx holds the record number of wins with five, and the most successful current rider is that man Valverde again, with three.

Severe snowfall was a feature in 2016, which highlights just how unpredictable the weather gods can be during April in the Ardennes, while 2017 also sees a Women’s WorldTour race held on the same day.

2017 date: Sunday April 23

Key locations: Stockeu, Haute-Levée, La Redoute, Saint-Nicolas

Other notable races

The major Belgian races are also permeated by some other slightly smaller, but no less important races for the pros targeting the biggest crowns.

These include Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne which open the season and still represent a chance to catch the big favourites of the cobbled classics going toe-to-toe as they search for form.

Strade Bianche’s white gravel roads make for some enthralling racing (pic – Sirotti)

There are also two spring Italian one-day races worthy of note, although by their very location it’s likely that you’ll need to take a specific trip to see them. Milan-San Remo is the first Monument of the season (followed by the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the autumnal Il Lombardia), and Strade Bianche is growing in popularity year on year.

Milan-San Remo is known as the pure sprinters classic race, with key action points on the Cipressa and Poggio climbs that give potential escapees just enough hope to animate the race.

Strade Bianche, meanwhile, is characterised by its white gravel roads of Tuscany and in a relatively short space of time (it first ran in 2007) has become one of the most prestigious races to win during the spring season, and finishes in the stunning Piazza de Palio.

Preparation for spectating

Some of you may wish to simply take in as much racing as possible – and this in itself takes planning. The handy thing is, most Classics routes – particularly those in the Flanders region – tend to take place in a fairly compact area. 

This means, unlike the A to B nature of a stage race route, you can easily see the race in multiple areas if you’re prepared.

You can choose to find a single location by the roadside and wait for the race to come through, or try to get ahead of it at specific points in order to track it.

Fans clamour for a view on the first cobbled sector of Paris-Roubaix 2016 (pic: Sirotti)

The former option works best if the location is part of a loop as you’ll see the riders come through, although almost without exception you can expect the key action areas to be packed from early on in the day, so it’s worth getting there either early doors, or even the day before to get your spot.

The latter takes planning, and a route map with predicted timings so that you can make sure you see the riders come through.

However, this does allow you to take in more aspects of the race, from being at the start where the teams are warming up to catching the race through its various stages.

The likelihood of catching what you want to see will be different depending on the race, the route, and the conditions of the day. Don’t be too ambitious though, as you can end up missing the race entirely – so it’s good to be able to keep tabs either on your phone or via radio.

For both, you need to ensure you’ve packed supplies for the day, including water, food, cooking equipment and spare changes of clothes in case the weather is bad. You also may wish to think about taking sleeping bags if you plan to stay in the one location overnight and sleep in your car.

Races like the Tour of Flanders are quite compact, so it’s possible to view the race at several points in a day (pic: Sirotti)

Events to ride

  • Paris-Roubaix Challenge – Organised by ASO, the same people that organise the Etape du Tour, the Paris-Roubaix Challenge runs the day before the pros take to the fabled cobbles. You have a choice of three distances – the full 170km and middle 145km that go over the Arenberg Trench, and the shorter 70km taster, which headlines with the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector.
  • Liège-Bastogne-Liège Challenge – Also operated by the ASO, this challenge is the ideal sportive if you want to ride the Ardennes hills. Again, there are three distances – the full pro 273km route with 4,500m of climbing, a 156km mid-distance ride with 2,600m of ascent, and a short 75km parcours with 1,200m of uphill travel.
Sportive riders take on the brutal cobbled slopes of the Koppenberg at We Ride Flanders (pic: Sirotti)
  • We Ride Flanders – Part of the Skoda Classics Challenge, along with the Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège Challenges, We Ride Flanders is the sportive of De Ronde. Once again there are options, including the full 237km, as well as 200km, 141km and 74km routes that still crest some of the major climbs, including the Koppenberg, Taaienberg, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.
  • Gent-Wevelgem Cyclo – Another sportive with many distance options (220, 135, 90 and 60km) to suit a wide range of fitness levels, the Gent-Wevelgem cyclo prides itself on visiting war memorials on route, as well as the key cycling roads of the region.
  • Dwars Door Vlaanderen Cyclo – Also organised by Proximus Cycling Challenge, this challenge has three distances at 110km, 85km and 55km, and visits the likes of the Taaienberg, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg as well as cobble sectors of Haaghoek and Ruiterstraat.

Preparation for riding

If you’re planning on riding while in northern Europe, the characteristics of the road need to be considered. There are no mountains, but climbs are short and steep in profile, so fitting a cassette that can help you deal with this is advisable.

Cobble riding is also a significant challenge in its own right. As we found out ahead of the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, it’s no mean feat to simply complete the dreaded sectors of pavé.

These can be particularly taxing on your body through sheer impact, so we advise that if you’ve suffered any back, neck, shoulder or hand injuries you get the go ahead from your doctor before you ride them in earnest.

Wide tyres are a must for riding over cobbles

You can also think about fitting wider tyres to help to take the edge off the impacts of riding over cobbles, while we also recommend leaving your expensive lightweight racing wheels at home.

While they’re designed to deal with cobble riding, failures are nevertheless inevitably more likely, and pros have access to spares as they ride in the event of a failure – you don’t. It could become an expensive trip in this respect, so it’s worth erring on the side of caution.

As ever when travelling with your bike, if flying, you also need to ensure that you’re carrying at least the spare equipment you would have for a normal ride at home, with extra spares in your luggage just in case.

This should include spare tubes, tyre levers, and a pump or CO2 canisters (subject to airline restrictions), as well as puncture repair kit, a versatile multi-tool (some may even want to bring a toolkit for larger repairs back at base), and anything you may need over the course of your trip, including chain lube and the charger for an electronic groupset, if you have one.

How to get there

The beauty of the Belgian classics season is that it’s within reasonable driving range of the UK. This means that you can conceivably take the ferry across the channel and make a day visit if you wished.

It’s very common for visitors to take camper vans and park them on the side of the road in the build up to individual races – although you need to be careful about when the roads close ahead of the events, as well as know in advance where you want to be placed, because once the crowds settle it’s nigh-impossible to move.

Alternatively, you can take the Eurostar to either Brussels or Paris and hire a car to drive to your preferred races, or indeed fly.

Belgium and northern France are very easy to reach by train, plane, ferry and car (pic: Sirotti)

Package or DIY?

There are two fundamental ways to get organised for your trip: by using a tour operator or cycling holiday specialist to do the legwork for you, or by organising it yourself – and there are pros and cons to both options.

A tour operator or specialist company will take much of the hassle out of your trip and most will take care of everything once you’ve arrived, from airport transfers to hotel bookings, routes to bike hire.

You’ll find options to suit a range of budgets but the downside of going this way is (sometimes) the cost and that you can be largely bound by the itinerary of the trip.

Fans travel to the Classics from all over the world, and it’s not uncommon to see plenty of British representation at the roadside (pic: Sirotti)

Some trips can even include a sportive entry or a ride with a distinguished ex-pro as part of the organisation.

Alternatively, you can arrange to visit the area yourself, using either hotels, bed and breakfasts or private lets from sites like AirBnB, which can be cheaper and give much more flexibility because you’re not tied to a set itinerary – only your own plans.

Planning a DIY trip to the Classics is really simple to do with a little bit of fore-planning and takes away much of the expense associated with package trips.

This can be particularly useful if you’re planning on staying in the region for a week to take in multiple chosen races, or want to dip in and out of a specific race. If you own or can hire a campervan, you can also park up on the side of the road in the days leading up to the races and let the riders come to you.

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