Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Method to the madness, or how I learned about the classics (part 1)

Gentle readers, if you are reading this blog you are most likely already aware of what Paris-Roubaix is, perhaps of  Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and perhaps of the Tour of Flanders. But as soon as you delve a bit deeper beneath the icy surface of the Koppenberg, you find a whole other world of semi-classics such as Brabantse Pijl and Flèche Wallonne (which are really sister races, but that's another subject).

How does one possibly learn about these races, their significance, and how they relate to each other if one weren't born in a red barn-house in Belgium, and didn't learn to walk on Quick-Step laminated hardwood floors?

Allow us then to give a rambling tutorial of sorts, a story perhaps, of these races.

In the beginning there were monuments, the oldest of the races. Liège–Bastogne–Liège, nicknamed "la doyenne" or "old woman" in French, is the oldest of the monuments, although it wasn't the oldest of all the bike races; but that's another story. It was started in 1892 by a Belgian newspaper L'Expresse for promotions, much like how the much younger Tour de France was started by the newspaper L'Auto in France 10 years later in 1902. So much for most thinking that le Tour was the oldest of bike races!

Not wanting to be outdone by a rival, another Belgian newspaper Les Sports wanted their own cycling race and started la Flèche Wallonne, or the Walloon arrow, in 1936. Unlike its sister race, FW didn't really have a prescribed route, and has undergone significant revisions in its life.

Between 1950 and 1964 both races were even run side-by-side for some time: FW on Saturday and LBL on Sunday, in the Weekend Ardennais. Amazingly, two riders managed to win both during this period: the Swiss Ferdi Kübler and the Belgian Stan Ockers. After 1964 FW was moved to the Wednesday prior to LBL, in homage to the older, more prestigious race and also for its own survival as back-to-back racing was arduous to the riders.

Over time, both races become synonymous with the sharp hills of southern Belgium and shed more and more of their cobbled stretches. Their shared identity and fate continued to be linked up to today.

Further but barely south in France, Paris-Roubaix or the "queen of the classics" was started in 1896. Is it a surprise that it was organized by a newspaper Le Vélo? A new cycling track had been built in Roubaix, and the track owners collaborated with the newspaper organizers to put on a race to promote their track. 

Just like all cycle races of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, PR had to traverse through many cobbled stretches of roads since its birth. Following the end of World War I, when journos called the race "L'enfer du Nord" or "hell of the North" for its cratered landscape, many of its roads started to be converted to asphalt. With the loss of more and more secteurs pavé, the race faced an identity crisis. LBL and FW survived by adding more and more hills. But where are the hills of northern France? 

Fortunately, the club Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix was founded by enthusiastic locals, and helped the organizers find less-traveled roads that are still cobbled. In fact, today they continue their work maintaining the cobbled stretches! Upon conferring membership, a small pave statue is sent along with paperwork and volunteer information. 

No comments:

Post a Comment