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In praise of Il Lombardia and the Monuments

11 Oct 2019

This Saturday, the final Monument of the season will take place under the falling leaves of Northern Italy as riders try and capture one last win by crossing the line first at Il Lombardia. With that race marking the effective end of the road season and also the fifth of the five Monuments, we've looked at what sets these races apart. This article is in the current issue of Cyclist Magazine, on sale now

Words: Trevor Ward Photography: Danny Bird

The easily offended should look away now as I’m about to mention the f-word. The similarities between the Monumental football stadium in Buenos Aires on a sultry afternoon in March and the cobbled bergs of Flanders on a drizzly morning in April may not be immediately apparent, but bear with me.

I was one of 60,000 fans in the Monumental to watch home side River Plate play crosstown rivals Independiente back in 2004. The fixture is one of dozens throughout the Spanish-speaking world to merit the label el clásico, which is used to describe any encounter between great rivals that has a history rich in drama, legends and beautiful football.

This particular game didn’t disappoint. The home fans never stopped singing as their team stormed to a 4-1 victory. They only paused to jeer the introduction of a hotly tipped 15-year-old substitute by the visitors midway through the second half. His name was Sergio Agüero.

The best known clásico is probably Real Madrid vs Barcelona. The biggest in the world, meriting its own unique moniker of superclásico, is River Plate v Boca Juniors in Argentina. The nearest we have to an English version – t’ clásico – is Manchester United vs Liverpool.

None of them, however, is as steeped in history as road cycling’s Classics. And even Sergio Agüero – destined to play for Atletico Madrid before arriving at Manchester City – couldn’t make as big an impact that afternoon 15 years ago as 24-year-old Mathieu van der Poel made by winning this year’s Dwars door Vlaanderen and finishing fourth in the Tour of Flanders a few days later.

The big five

There are five races considered so historic, significant and simply so damned hard that ‘Classic’ doesn’t do them justice. Over time, they have emerged as superclásicos or, as we prefer to call them in the more hushed environs of our favourite cycling cafes and tearooms, Monuments.

There’s no mention of a ‘Monuments’ category anywhere on the UCI website, but these five one-day races have come to define the history, drama, characters and essence of our sport.

With routes ranging from the bone-rattling savagery of Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders to the relentless gradients of Liège-Bastogne-Liège or the Tour of Lombardy (taking place this Saturday), plus the epic mileage of Milan-San Remo, they are monuments to levels of courage, endurance and suffering that are not witnessed in any other one-day races, and rarely in any other sport.

‘The key thing about the guys who win these races is that they are bloody hard,’ says Peter Cossins, journalist and author of The Monuments. ‘Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Sean Kelly – you say those names and you can almost see the gunk on their faces, the muck, the grit, the “Flandrian toothpaste”. They encapsulate what the Monuments are all about.’

But if the feats of individuals capture the spirit of the Monuments – Bernard Hinault’s solo breakaway in a blizzard to win the 1980 Liège-Bastogne-Liège with frostbitten fingers is a prime example – the races themselves take on a much deeper significance.

The Tour of Flanders, the ‘youngest’ of the Monuments, was started in 1913 to assert Flemish nationalism at a time when the French-speaking population of Belgium looked down upon their Dutch-speaking compatriots.

‘West Flanders was viewed as some outlandish dead zone, while Limburg was a province of fruit and fathomless stupidity,’ writes Harry Pearson in his history of the Flemish Classics, The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman.

The newspaper editor who came up with the idea for the race, Karel Van Wijnendaele, saw sport as a way of effecting political change and actively promoted Flemish culture among the football and race reports published in the pages of Sportwereld.

By the time the race had established itself, Van Wijnendaele was hailed as ‘the troubadour of Flemish muscle’.

Paris-Roubaix, meanwhile, served as a stark reminder of the horror of war as it took riders through a wasteland of mass death and destruction, earning its nickname ‘The Hell of the North’. (Incidentally, the football clásicos of Madrid-Barcelona and Buenos Aires are similarly tainted by political upheaval.)

In Italy, Fausto Coppi’s decisive breakaway at the Turchino tunnel in the 1946 Milan-San Remo was seen as a symbol of rebirth after the country had been decimated by war.

As L’Equipe breathlessly reported, ‘The tunnel was of modest dimensions, just 50 metres long, but on 19th March 1946 it assumed exceptional proportions in the eyes of the world. That day it was six years in length and lost in the gloom of war.’

Coppi’s victory also confirmed the race’s status as La Classicissima di Primavera. ‘It signals cycling’s move from winter to spring,’ says Cossins. ‘You start in Milan, where it’s still wintry, head across the Piedmont plain, climb the Turchino pass, through the tunnel, and on the other side you’re at the Mediterranean and suddenly it’s spring. You emerge into a different world, a new part of the season, and that’s when the race really starts.’

But can the Monuments survive when the cycling calendar seems to revolve around the Tour de France? Cossins has no doubts.

‘If the Grand Tours are the soap operas of cycling, the Classics are the thrillers,’ he says. ‘You get all the action without any waiting around. Recently there’s been a push to win all the Monuments, which hasn’t been done since the 1970s when Merckx, Van Looy and De Vlaeminck did it.

Now the likes of Philippe Gilbert [who has won four of them], Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski see it as something special to win all five.

‘They’ve all won stages of the Tour, but they’ll probably never win the GC, whereas winning the five Monuments is something that will give them their place in history.’

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Peter Cossins’s latest book, The Yellow Jersey, is on sale now