5 cycling classics you can actually ride
With the one-day race season now underway, we reveal how you can test yourself on the steep climbs and brutal cobbles of the spring classics.
Tour of Flanders Sportive
April 1, 2023
First raced in 1913, the Tour of Flanders pro race is the most famous race in the historic cycling region of Flanders, and one of the most iconic cobbled classics. Its nickname is Vlaanderens Mooiste (Dutch for “Flanders’ Finest”).
The race is notorious for its short, steep climbs, many of which are cobbled, making these gritty climbs even more painful. Belgians Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen have all won three editions, along with Italian Fiorenzo Magni and Swiss Fabian Cancellara. Dutch rider Mathieu van der Poel is the latest winner, having triumphed in 2022. A women’s edition was also launched in 2004, with Belgium’s Lotte Kopecky winning in 2022.
But the day before the pro race, a huge crowd of 16,000 amateur cyclists can test themselves against this famous and historic course. You can choose between a 75km course, with 973m of elevation; a 144km course, with 1,929m of elevation; a 177km course, with 2,338m of elevation; or the full 242km course, with 2,536m of elevation.
The climbs here are short, sharp and steep, so the lactate and fatigue will pile up over the course of this extremely challenging route. The Oude Kwaremont is an agonising 2.2km cobbled climb, covered in uneven cobbles which attack your wheels and your sanity. The Koppenberg – famous enough to be crowned a national monument – is seriously steep, with stretches of this poorly paved narrow road, which is greasy and rutted, reaching 22%. And the Paterberg climb has an average gradient of 12% and maximum hits at 20%.
But with cobbled climbs and country views, this legendary sportive offers a winning combination of brutal riding and beautiful Flemish countryside. The race motto is short and simple: “Hills. Cobbles. Suffer.”
April 8, 2023
Most sensible amateur riders wouldn’t go near the bone-shaking cobbles of northern France, which have earned the notorious Paris-Roubaix race the nickname of ‘the Hell of the North.’ But for those who dare, the Paris-Roubaix Challenge will provide a face full of mud, plenty of saddle sores – and golden memories to last a lifetime.
The pro race, which takes place just 24 hours later and dates back to 1896, has attracted many famous Belgian winners, including Rik Van Looy and Greg Van Avermaet, but Tom Boonen and Roger De Vlaeminck share the record for the most wins, with four triumphs apiece. A women’s version of the race was launched in 2021, which has been won by England’s Lizzie Deignan (2021) and Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini (2022).
Depending on your taste for suffering, you can choose from a 70km route, with eight cobbled sections; a 145km route, with 19 cobbled sections; or the full 170km route, with 30 bruising cobbled sections. This includes the Trouée d’Arenberg, which features 2.3km of cobbles laid in the era of Napoleon I, in the late eighteenth century, and the Carrefour de l’Arbre, a 2.1km section of rutted cobbles which is often regarded as the hardest of all, and really sums up the pain-drenched madness of the Roubaix race.
All of the different Paris-Roubaix sportive routes finish in the famous Roubaix velodrome, so you can ride all the way into cycling history. Completing this sportive is guaranteed to earn any rider kudos within the cycling community – and a few bruises.
The Amstel Gold Race Sportive
April 15, 2023
Founded in 1966, the Amstel Gold Race is the only Classic in the Netherlands, and it marks the first of the three Ardennes Classics. The race takes place in the southern Limburg province, and it is characterised by a succession of steep, leg-flaming climbs. Previous winners include Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, France’s Bernard Hinault and German Erik Zabel, but the Netherland’s Jan Raas holds the record with five victories. The women’s edition, which launched in 2001, was most recently won by Italy’s Marta Cavalli (2002).
However, amateur riders can take on the same course in a sportive on the Saturday, then watch the world’s best riders battle it out on the Sunday. You can choose from a range of route options, from a short 65km taster route all the way up to the full 240km course, which packs in 2,960m of climbing.
The main route includes famous ascents like the 7.9% Kruisberg, which has terrible sections at 14.8%; the Fromberg, which hits highs of 8.5%; the Keutenberg, which delivers punchy gradients of 14.7%; the Eyserbosweg, with a shocking high of 17.4%; and the Cauberg, which peaks at a grinding 11.8%. In total, the full course features over 30 short climbs in quick succession as the race progresses. You won’t get much time to catch your breath, but you’ll finally understand what it is like to be a pro.
April 22, 2023
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is often regarded as the hardest of the spring classics, thanks to its brutal combination of extreme distance (271km) and total ascent (4,400m). The race first took place in 1892, making it the oldest of the five Monuments in the cycling calendar. That is why it is warmly known as La Doyenne (“The Old Lady”).
Eddy Merckx is the most successful rider here, with five victories, just ahead of Italian Moreno Argentin and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde who have four victories each. The women’s edition was introduced in 2022, and the reigning champion is the Netherlands’ Annemiek van Vleuten (2022).
The 2023 edition of the pro race takes place on April 23, but amateur riders can enjoy the Liege-Bastogne-Liege Challenge sportive the day before. Riders can choose from an 81km course, with 1,445m of climbing; a 155km course, with 2,869m of climbing; and a 255km course, with a huge 4,442m of climbing.
The hilly route weaves through the Ardennes region of Belgium, beginning and ending in Liege. With long hills, steep ascents and frequent changes of gradient, this is one seriously painful race. Killer climbs include the 2.3kmkm Stockeu at 9.9%; the 3.6km Haute-Levée at 5.7%; the 2km Cote de La Redoute at 8.8%; and the 1.4km Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons which hits highs of 11%.
Expect aching legs, heaving lungs and a wonderful sense of achievement.
Granfondo Milan-San Remo
June 2, 2023
The professional version of this monstrous 296km race – known as La Classicissima – is the longest professional race in the calendar. Dating back to 1907, the Italian event has been won by cycling legends such as Italy’s Fausto Coppi, France’s Laurent Fignon, Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara and Britain’s Mark Cavendish, although Eddy Merckx holds the record with seven victories.
The pro race takes place in March, but the amateur sportive event, held a few months later in June, traces the same route tackled by the pros in this famous race. This year’s sportive marks the 52nd edition of the event. Riders will journey from the outskirts of Milan, across the Lombardy and Piedmont Plains, to the ascent of the Turchino, before arriving at the Ligurian Riviera, along the coast of the Ligurian sea, and on to the finish line in San Remo.
In order to get to the finish, you will have to conquer the daunting climbs of the Cipressa – a savage 5.6km climb with 226m of ascent at 4.1% – and the Poggio di San Remo – a 3.7km climb at 3.7%, with grim gradients of up to 8%.
The last edition of the sportive attracted about 2,000 athletes, with riders coming from as far afield as New Zealand, Malaysia and Canada. Finishing this terrifying course will elevate you into a whole new class of cyclist.