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Balancing tradition and change: Are the routes of the Monuments going stale?

Daniel Ostanek
24 Mar 2019

With Liège-Bastogne-Liège changing its route, Cyclist asks whether it is time for the other Classics races to follow suit?

Let’s talk about race routes, shall we? They’re the bread and butter of pro cycling – the roads, hills and cobbles which make the races we all love. From Alpe d'Huez and the Arenberg to the Mur de Huy and the Stelvio, the sacred routes that the calendar visits year after year are where legends have been built and memories made, over decades of racing.

Take Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North follows a tried-and-tested formula, heading north from Compiègne to the velodrome in Roubaix. Along the way, the famous cobbles of the Trouee d’Arenberg, Mons-en-Pevele and the Carrefour de l'Arbre are always there – the main attractions and biggest tests on the road to glory.

The route announcement for this year’s edition – the 105th – passed without much fanfare. Aside from minor tweaks, there were no surprises. The famed five-star sectors are all there, and the start and finish remain the same. Business as usual for the Queen of the Classics.

However, just a few weeks later at the oldest Monument Classic on the calendar, change is afoot. Big change. Liege-Bastogne-Liege has been revamped. April’s race will welcome a totally new finish, with the long-rumoured move away from the suburb of Ans to the riverside in Liege coming to fruition.

Liege-Bastogne-Liege will this year finish on a flat sprint

Back to the future

The new, flat finish is a huge alteration to the race’s finale, which had – from 1992 until 2018 – taken in the Cote de Saint-Nicholas before concluding at the top of the hill, next to the petrol station in Ans. 

‘Nothing against Ans, but it wasn’t a nice place for a finish,’ opines Lotto-Soudal sports director Mario Aerts.

The race has seen minor changes since 1992, such as the addition of the cobbled Cote de la Rue Naniot in 2016, but this year the overhaul is set to alter the character of the race.

Crucially, we could see the end of the usual ‘race of attrition’ at La Doyenne, or that’s the expectation, at least. Previously it’s been a slow-burner, with the peloton whittled down kilometre after kilometre while the major favourites wait for the final two climbs.

Riders tackle La Redoute at the 2018 Liege-Bastogne-Liege

But now, 15km from the finish, the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons will be the last-chance saloon for any rider without a sprint in their locker. Aerts – a veteran of 10 editions as a rider – will be at the race as a DS for the first time this year, and hopes the new format encourages the attacks to fly from further out. 

‘I know the roads from suffering myself,’ he says. ‘Now it’s a bit similar like it used to be, and it’s a really hard parcours now, starting from just before the Cote de Wanne. I’m still hoping that La Redoute will be again what it used to be – decisive.

‘If anyone gets away on the Roche aux Faucons it will be much more difficult to get him back, because if the break takes some time then it’s downhill and then you’re already 3km from the finish. So Roche aux Faucons will be maybe more important now.’

Of course, as is to be expected there have been voices raised both for and against the changes. There are those that called the old format stale, with riders waiting and waiting for the finale, rather than risking a longer-range attack on the brutal course.

The Tour of Flanders has changed its route a number of times

But there’s also the opinion that the reshaping of the finale takes something away from the toughest one-day race on the calendar. Now that sprinters – albeit only the most versatile and powerful – have a chance to win, doesn’t that diminish the reputation and tradition of the race?

Not according to race organiser ASO. ‘Tradition does not prohibit change!’ read the press release announcing the new route. ‘Although the ASO is attached to the history of the events it organises, also remain open to change, in order to give them a fresh look.’

Those sentiments were echoed by the Province of Liege: ‘The change of finish location is essentially dictated by purely sporting criteria to make the finale of the race even more attractive.’

Monumental changes

The question as to whether the change is a good or bad thing will, to some extent, be decided on the road in April. But remember that Liege-Bastogne-Liege is far from alone in this regard – not in pro cycling, not even among the fabled Monuments. 

Paris-Roubaix’s cobbled cousin, the Tour of Flanders, has most recently undergone a revamp, controversially moving away from the hallowed Muur van Geraardsbergen-Bosberg combination (introduced in 1973) to a finishing circuit consisting of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Tour of Lombardy changes almost yearly, with different start and finish towns and the 2016 edition in particular more arduous than the last two years. The climb of the Madonna del Ghisallo is perhaps the only constant there.

RCS have also attempted to alter their other Monument, Milan-San Remo. Back in 2013 a new climb, the Pompeiana, was introduced in the final kilometres. Mudslides prevented its inclusion however, and since 2015 the ‘traditional’ course, in use since 1980, has been the norm.

So, with all these alterations over the years (that was a very brief rundown), exactly how sacred are the Monuments? Perhaps changing things up more often is a good thing, so long as the race’s defining features are protected.

The Tour of Flanders has gone against this, excluding the Muur until it was reinstated at an earlier point in the race for 2017. But the race has survived and thrived without it placed in the finale. Aerts, a Flandrian himself, was sanguine about the modification.

‘Sometimes it’s not bad to change it a little bit. Monuments, of course, are Monuments,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of discussion about Flanders and it was great to have the Muur at the end but now it’s also nice. It takes a while for a race to get known like that, but with something new it’s often made better.

‘Cycling is a really conservative sport, and most of the people don’t like too many changes. But I think now and then it’s not so bad.’

Ideas for the future

But why keep these races in one place, following the same formula? The Tour of Lombardy has seen starts and finishes in Lecco, Bergamo, Milan and Como over the past decade, with a rotating cast of climbs in between.

It’s a formula other races could follow. How about a Flanders alternating between Muur-Bosberg and Kwaremont-Paterberg finales? Or Liege-Bastogne-Liege switching from Ans to the river?

Of course, contractual obligations mean these finishes are set in stone for a while yet – Liege for the next five years, and Oudenaarde hosting the end of Flanders until 2023.

The finishing circuit in Flanders is likely to stick around for another reason too, as the peloton race through three times in front of paying spectators in hospitality tents. As anathema to the tradition of the sport as it is, the dough raked in as a result means those laps aren’t going anywhere.

And as for Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix, well they’re point-to-point races with little leeway for alterations. Maybe they shouldn’t be, with Roubaix standing alone among the Monuments as a race that organisers haven’t sought to alter in recent history – it’s already exciting, year in, year out.

‘I think with Milan-San Remo it’s different,’ says Aerts. ‘You can’t change much. It’s one Monument that sprinters can survive and win, so I think you have to leave it as it is. That’s something you cannot change.

Milan San Remo 2009

‘What they can do [with Roubaix] is to change a little bit in between, but the finish and Arenberg – they can never lose that. They’re something legendary. And with Lombardia, some climbs always have to be in it, in my opinion. Those are the things that make these races legendary, and should be kept.’

But for the rest of the big five, maybe a little change is a good thing. Stage race and Grand Tour routes change yearly, with nary a whiff of opposition raised among cycling’s zealous fanbase, so why not the same for the likes of the Tour of Flanders, Tour of Lombardy and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, which is something of a Tour of the Ardennes.

Races turn stale when the same challenges are repeated over and over – the same hills and descents in the same order. Sure, we know when to tune in just in time for the action to kick off, and the riders themselves get used to the ebb and flow of set routes, tweaking and evolving their tactics accordingly. 

There’s comfort in the familiar but certainly less excitement. Surely few of us would have been eagerly anticipating another edition of Liege over the same roads, with a predictable truce until the penultimate climb of the race.

So, let’s throw open our arms and welcome this new Liege for what it is – an attempt to shake up a tired formula and a way to inject further uncertainty into one of the biggest races on the calendar. Another Monument enters a new era, and maybe more should follow suit.