While the Tour de France may be the household name, many of cycling’s true greats are made on the stony streets of northern Europe. Belgium and France’s cobbled classics are some of the oldest events in professional road cycling, and among the most revered races of the season. The arduous routes see the world’s finest athletes on two wheels straining to break away from the pack in a breathless, thigh-burning struggle to glorious victory.
Starting with the Omloop, the series of one-day events progresses into two of the most highly-regarded events in cycling – the Tour of Flanders (or De Ronde) and the iconic Paris-Roubaix. Here’s how to catch the best of the classics in person this year.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Taking place on 25 February in 2017, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is generally the first event of the Belgian cycling calendar, but this is the first time the event has been a part of the UCI World Tour.
While Belgian cyclists tend to have the cold weather and familiar routes on their side, 2015 saw Briton Ian Stannard repeat the magic of his gruelling victory for a second consecutive year. The more recently formed women’s edition was won by Lizzie Deignan in 2016.
While it features less cobbled sections than the other races, Ghent-Wevelgem still features one of the most punishingly difficult hills of the region. The infamous Kemmelberg is known for its capacity to make or break riders, but successful challengers rewarded with a largely flat 35km sprint to the finish line.
The open terrain of the route leaves cyclists at the mercy of the elements, with treacherous winds and rains causing havoc at previous versions. But when the weather’s good, the easier roads of Ghent-Wevelgem sees the world’s best sprinters in their prime.
Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen)
With the aforementioned success of Ian Stannard at the Omloop, and Welshman Geraint Thomas topping the podium at the E3 Harelbeke in 2015, hopes are high for the first ever British winner at De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix too.
The 101st Tour of Flanders would seem the storybook setting as it was recently named one of the five Monuments of cycling, having been included in the UCI Pro Tour in 2005 and the World Tour in 2011. Keep an eye out for the Koppenberg climb, a punishingly steep hill in Oudenaarde that definitively makes or breaks its steely challengers.
Paris-Roubaix is one of the oldest races in professional road cycling, running nearly every year since 1896. Dubbed the “Hell of the North” for the large expanses of land flattened by the First World War, the gritty, mud-worn route maintains its name today for very different reasons.
The course really has no compare for singling out the hardiest cyclists, with Sir Bradley Wiggins even saying he prefers the race to the Tour de France: “It was always a fairy tale Roubaix.”
Featured image by Troye Owens.