With the introduction in 2017 of the Granfondo Lombardia, it is now possible to ride the sportives of all 5 cycling monuments. We caught up with one of the first people to complete the set and find out how he got on:
There is no real order to how one goes about crossing these monsters off your list but usually one goes for the most attractive first working gradually up to the least enticing.
For me the order was:
- Ronde van Vlaanderen (Flanders) began in 1913
- Liege Bastonne Liege began in 1892
- Milan San Remo began in 1907
- Paris Roubaix began in 1896
- Il Lombardia began in 1892
1. Tour of Flanders – 2012
My first monument was on the cobblestones of Flanders in March 2012. We call it Flanders but they call it the Ronde Van Vlaaanderen or just the Ronde, something you find yourself adopting almost immediately, if only to sound like you know what you’re doing whilst trying to discover what the different coloured lions’ claws on the flags actually represent. At 244 kms this is no walk in the park although the first half from Bruges to Oudenaarde is rather dull it is at least generally rapid however the legendary winds of the area have a big say in the group’s overall progress.
The first cobbles are on the flat and thread their way through the fields, making right-angled turns every so often; not easy to execute as they are slippery regardless of whether they are wet or dusty and dry. Almost immediately the selection of discarded bidons builds up as they are shaken from their holders by the vibration, all this before you even see a hill !! the cobbles themselves are distinct from their Roubaix cousins as they are more rounded and resemble the top of a baby’s head as opposed to the square cut sets found in the Arenberg trench.
The hills(bergs) once you reach them are legendary with names like Koppenberg, Paterberg and Kwaremont they all exist within fairly close proximity of one another allowing the now fairly stretched out peloton to be seen snaking its way around the surrounding peaks and troughs emphasising the compactness of the climbs…a truly wonderful sight.
The climbs themselves are steep, very steep in places, but fairly short and very technical which is tough enough but with so many people attempting them at once the biggest issue is finding your way past those who have come to a halt in front of you, assuming you manage this then be prepared for the odd cobbled descent which are super tricky!!! Once released from the last berg there is a final dash to the finish, which despite the inevitable groups you join to aid your average speed, you gradually realise just how much faster the likes of Sagan and Cancellara actually are as they drive for home, often on a solo attack …. truly epic stuff. The post ride beer together with the frites and mayo are a natural choice; one that you have certainly earned if you manage to conquer this beast of a ride. One down four to go.
2. Liege Bastogne Liege – 2014
La Doyenne, as it’s known, is the oldest of the five monuments dating from c1892 and it’s a monster
My great friend Peter suggested I should do this one as he has a fabulous house in Antwerp, I had no idea how far from Liege this was but he seemed pretty confident so I signed up, not looking at the parcours (route) and assuming that much like Flanders it would be fairly flat and long ….note to self ‘DO MORE RESEARCH!!!’
The Ardennes are not flat at all indeed when you look at a map of this area you can’t help wondering how it’s part of Belgium at all but that’s a whole other discussion. Though not Italian fast the start was not pedestrian either despite the length of the ride ahead and I found myself yoyoing off the back of the group containing my friend Peter and a couple of his mates who were all looking at him and clearly saying something along the lines of ‘I thought you said this guy could ride !!’ First food stop and the waffle initiation began ….2/3 of them and I was a changed man. Indeed, it wasn’t long after that that I dropped my host and his mates and headed off into the unknown with my ass on fire … then the hills really began: fairly short, mentally steep with the ever-present door step to remind you of the ludicrous angle of ascent …. very helpful!
More waffles and the serious stuff starts to loom in the distance climbs with folk-law names like La Redoute Cote de Stockeu and the final ascent cote St Nicolas as you make your way back to Liege. Not the most inspiring destination it’s rather industrial and there’s a cobbles descent no one tells you about in the middle of town which was most unwelcome; finally, the ride finishes, at least for the pros it does, not so for us mere mortals who once over the finish line have a further 4 kms to get back to the race village, not far but it does rather add insult to injury after 260km.
The realisation that you’ve conquered such a brute of an event then begins to dawn on you with euphoric scenes as mates are reunited and new Strava buddies are hastily gathered. Time is a wonderful healer and there’s a very strange aspect to these events, at least for me where my fondness for them grows as my memory of the suffering recedes, I’m sure this is the same for many but it certainly helps when you start to think about the next one.
3. Milan San Remo – 2014
The Pro race is known as La Primavera as it’s in the early part of March and is a season opener for many. The amateurs get to tackle it later in the year when the warmth of the sun and the lack of snow are almost guaranteed. This is long, very long but the early groups are large and it’s fairly easy to find a rhythm that allows you to coast along at fantastic speeds without spending much energy … so far so good.
There are a couple of pinch points where the race ‘zigzags’ through the odd town square causing lots of braking and funnelling as the groups try to compress themselves through the right-angled bends. Survive those and it’s all fairly plain sailing to the first and largest climb which isn’t hard and rewards you with a speedy descent (always welcome) to the Ligurian coast. Once you reach the sea the roller coaster really begins as you work your way along the undulating route through slightly tired seaside towns squeezed along the ribbon of flattish land butting up to the sheer cliffs to your right.
It’s very hard to get into your rhythm here as the constant up/down simply doesn’t allow it. The food stops on this event were lamentable with water in the thinnest bottles possible which collapsed during pouring and coke as the ‘energy drink’ along with jam sarnies for calorie replacement …. This is a long day in the saddle so make sure you carry adequate provisions in case this sorry state of affairs remains the M.O
Now we’ve all heard that the final two climbs are just lumps, indeed Poggio ( knoll ) means just that, but after so long riding even a lump can seem insurmountable. Once you’ve overcome the final climb there is a very tight and unsatisfactory decent to the final sprint for the line in the centre of San Remo, a town which has been famed for the fresh flowers it used to produce in the numerous glass houses that are scattered along the steep side roads. Holland has rather usurped this function now and the town seems a bit lost as a result …. however, this means they are very pleased to see us riders who bring much needed income to the place so a warm welcome is guaranteed Peter Sagan was pipped to the win by Mikael Kwiatkowski last year and my friend crossed the line less than 6 seconds ahead of me when we did it ….. I’m still not over it as you can probably tell but that was number three done and dusted.
4. Paris Roubaix – 2015
This was the one I simply didn’t want to do, just couldn’t understand why or what the fuss was all about; road bikes on an almost off-road course in potentially terrible weather …why just why would you want to do that? They say ‘that curiosity killed the cat’ but not having ticked this off the list finally got the better of me and I signed up for it, hoping that it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as I had been led to believe
Its rather ironic how often the things you look forward to the least far exceed your expectations…you guessed it this was one of those situations
Despite a rather inauspicious start where the designated bus transfer numbers were on the near side of the vehicle and therefore out of sight of the thousands of cyclists trying to board the correct transport in the dark we all got to the start, where it began to rain gently and the wind made its presence felt too. The start is a strange affair involving us riding around the town eventually having to dodge the late arriving buses disgorging their eager riders into the road ahead of us!
Once out into the countryside it’s not long before our first sample of the cobbles arrives, despite everything you hear and learn each time you hit them there is a moment of total disbelief that you are putting you highly cared for machine through such purgatory but assuming you remain upright and make it to the end of the sector there’s the equally mad moment when once back on tarmac you are convinced you have a flat (which I didn’t at any time), this happens every time without fail. Some of the sectors are rougher than others some provide more of a verge to ride on to lessen the impact of the constant jarring but most of us find a speed that works and the need to do it properly (to ride it like Boonen- right through the middle of it all)
Familiar bridges and sector names keep cropping up and this spurs you on as you know the trench at Arenberg is getting nearer and nearer .You cross a railway line and then it’s downhill slightly and into the mouth of hell ,it’s amazing, then you realise half way through that you’re having to ride slightly uphill just as your legs are ready to give up… but you can see the other end and you’re sure as hell not going to get off now so you find the required grunt to press on. There is an unofficial stop at the end where a tangible sense of shared euphoria is in the air, then it’s back to the day job and the fields of the Carrefour de l’arbre loom large on your radar.
The corners are treacherous especially as the early rain makes an unwelcome return to add to the degree of both difficulty and suffering, pick a line, hold your line and own it and with a bit of luck you’ll get through to the final bit of Pave which is modern and almost outside the velodrome signalling the finish. Never in all the rides I have completed all over the world have I had such a special feeling as the one you get entering that arena its electric and totally fits the epic sense of achievement we all felt having made it. This bizarre event with all its madness still ranks at the top of my list of experiences on a bike …just do it, the sense of knowing you get is almost transcendental and you’re never quite the same as a result.
The crowning glory of this unexpected epic is the shower block where you get to stand in a concrete cubicle with a pull chain to activate the water reimagining the madness of the preceding hours knowing you’re in the midst of greatness with each of the winners’ names on a plaque outside every cubicle…… affirmation, as if any was needed!!!
5. Il Lombardia – 2017
This is the one we’ve all been waiting for as this year 2017 is the first time the lumpy end of the pro route has been made available to us to experience in the form of an organised grand fondo. Worth the wait for sure, the short course should in no way lull you into any sort of complacency as the speed of the initial undulating part along the lake is very Italian (by that I mean mental) and the lumps once they begin in earnest are epic
Passing the church dedicated to the patron saint of cyclists is another bucket list must do as is the climb up the ghissallo to reach it. The decent the other side was in the lea of the hill and as a result the temperature differential was spectacular. Then the main event, the muro de surmano is a short and extremely sharp rise with the accumulated ascent helpfully painted along the road side much like a ruler (I use the word ‘helpful’ in a slightly ironic way). If you manage to get up this then there’s a fast descent with one particularly tricky double apex bend that caught 4 of the pros out this year, ending their races so be careful!!!
There then follows a rapid smash along the lake side passing through a couple of tunnels and a few sleepy villages on your way back to Como, however don’t be fooled into thinking this is the end of the race (as we were) because just as you see the start finish gantry off to your right the route swings sharply left and up a 4.2 km climb …. unwelcome at this stage of the race and all a bit messy. This is the final sting in the tail as the descent brings you back into the middle of como ; one can only hope as the event gathers size that the officials are able to secure a lane to safely allow our filtering through the now busy Sunday traffic as this was chaotic but all rather Italian with little regard being taken for policemen directing the traffic , I morphed into one of the groups who seemed determined to press on regardless and this worked perfectly as I was able to gallop away in the final yards too win our little private sprint .
All in all, a perfect day with unseasonal temps making it feel closer to July than October really enhancing the overall experience. Its been a long time in the making but this one is certainly worth the wait
And with that I had managed to do all 5 of the iconic one-day races in their modern and slightly altered form …. there is something undeniably satisfying about being able to say that, and this year at least I’m in rather select group who can.