Finally, the gloves are coming off! And the mufflers. The overshoes too. But a century ago, north Italian winters, for example, were somewhat longer than they are nowadays. We were reminded of this recently, when a book landed on the desk at Boultbee Towers, exploring with beautifully translated words, and pictures worth one thousand of each of the aforementioned words, the history of springtime one-day racing on the Continent.
“The Spring Classics” is a new edition of a 2007 collaboration of five of the French sports magazine L’Equipe’s top cycling writers. Published in English late last year, it seems to have been designed to leave the reader with tongue hanging out in anticipation of the first riders rolling over the start line for Milan-San Remo, the first true Classic of the season.
Which they will be doing this weekend.
While it’s probably true of all the great cycling races to say that their earlier instalments were also their toughest, the stories which surround the first years of Milan-San Remo bear this truth out like no other Classic.
Eugene Christophe, by way of example, won it in 1910 after a twelve hour spin from which he spent the next two years recovering. Third (and also dead last) was the Italian Giovanni Marchese. 71 riders had set off from Milan.
But the initials D.N.F. have also loomed large in the modern era. In 1971, only about a quarter of those who had started made it to San Remo under their own steam.
The rate of attrition seems to be an underlying theme in any history of the Classics. We learn that in 1979, of the 174 starters at Liege-Baston-Liege, only 21 made it through blizzards to the finish. Hinault was the winner that year, though at the still-continuing expense of any feeling in his fingertips.
So Flanders, Roubaix, La Doyenne and the rest are all just around the corner, carrying the distinct whiff of likely havoc, tearful drama, uncooperative cobbles and wet earth, with a bit of luck. Or choking dust, we’re not fussy. The point being, now is a rather good time to be immersing yourself in Classics history, or simply soaking up the waft of suffering which almost every photograph in this book manages to convey.
Essentially, recounted between the book’s covers are the finest hours of European One Day Cycling’s Immortal Class – “The Flandrians”. Not necessarily Flemish by birth, or even holders of a Belgian passport, this was an elite cadre of riders crossing generations, comprised of men who displayed a set of qualities in the saddle which proved conducive to winning these races.
In the modern era it was an Irishman plying his trade in an era of outstanding Belgian Classics riders who is now considered the last of the great Flandrians. Evading a massive pile-up during 1988′s Liege-Bastogne-Liege we see a shot of Sean Kelly tellingly bunnyhop roughshod over an involuntarily abandoned bike, while behind him crashing riders are launched skywards. Kelly won or placed in just about anything European or Classic that moved in the Eighties. As Robin Magowan puts it in his seminal “Kings of the Road”-
“It is customary to talk of Kelly as quintessentially an Irish rider. For my part, though, I think it helps to place Kelly better as a cyclist to see him as the last of the Flemish riders. This is usually a title associated with (Briek Schotte), who has become appropriately enough the man in day-to-day charge of the de Gribaldy teams… it stood for a certain type of mentality, willing to suffer, narrowly focussed, and hard, hard, hard. Kelly had all this in him from his Irish small farm background: the outside loo; the dogs that have to be chained before you can step from your car; the one career possible, as a bricklayer on a construction site, stretching away and away into the grey mists. On the positive side, along with the self-reliance, came a physical strength that even by peasant standards is impressive. In a profession of iron wills, there is no one harder.”
By way of illustration, we are informed that the Belgian (and muliple Classics winner) Tom Boonen, doesn’t strictly qualify as a “Flandrian” per se. It seems that his domicile of Monaco would be considered overly “flashy” for a true member of the breed.
There are many fine pictures in this book; a non-exhaustive list of highlights would have to include a 20 year old Merckx edging the line in his first Classics win at San Remo, various scenes of mayhem in the Eighties on a wet, cobblestoned Koppenberg in Flanders, and the legendary Moser hanging on for dear life in his final tilt at Roubaix in 1986.
Random quote – ‘”If your wife hadn’t offended me, I would never have come back on you, and Il Francese (Andre Darrigade) would never have beaten you” thundered Magni at Coppi, who had collapsed in tears.’
It’s a long story.
“The Spring Classics – Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races” is published by velopress.