Why the cobblestone classics are cycling’s best three weeks

Tour de Hoody: From the beer tents to Van Vleuten's last stand, here's what I am following from Flanders Week to Paris-Roubaix.

Photo: Getty Images

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The best three weeks of bike racing opens Friday with E3 Saxo Classic and rumbles all the way across the cobblestones and hills of Tour of Flanders and ends with an exclamation point at Paris-Roubaix.

For me, the northern classics — namely “Flanders Week” and “Holy Week” stacked up across the next three weekends — offers the best of what bike racing is all about.

In my book, there’s more drama packed into the pearl necklace of one-days that only an exceptionally good edition of the Tour de France can hope to better.

And the next few weekends of racing should be exceptional by any standards. The women’s and men’s pelotons roar into the northern classics with more stories and plot lines than a season of White Lotus.

Sure, “monument madness” continues with Liège-Bastogne-Liège into the second half of April, but let’s admit it, the cobblestone classics are hard to beat.

Here’s what I’ll be watching for during the next three glorious weekends:

Battle for pavé supremacy — equality at the top

Lotte Kopecky is a favorite in any race the next three weeks. (Photo: JASPER JACOBS/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

The depth and quality across the peloton is at an historic best.

No longer is it Cancellara vs. Boonen, or Van Vleuten against the world.

Each race from E3 through Paris-Roubaix (and beyond into the Ardennes) sees unprecedented quality in every start list.

It’s no longer a story of one team dominating — cue Quick-Step or SD Worx — or one or two capos dictating the action and tempo.

There are quite literally dozens of could-be winners at every start line from across an equal number of teams looking to disrupt, dominate, and destroy the classics.

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The women’s races see at least six teams with multiple leaders roaring into this weekend, and ditto on the men’s side.

Quick-Step sees a peloton of would-be usurpers nipping at its decades-long grip on the classics.

Can Jumbo-Visma and Trek-Segafredo wrestle away Quick-Step’s classics crown? Who can topple SD Worx? There’s finally some uncertainty in all these questions.

The Belgian team’s proud pedigree across the northern classics was largely unchallenged for two decades, with the exception of exceptional individual riders like Fabian Cancellara.

Few teams could match Quick-Step’s consistent depth for the classics, but the rise of Jumbo-Visma particularly is putting that to challenge.

In addition to Van Aert, Jumbo-Visma is bringing Dylan Van Baarle, Christophe Laporte, Tiesj Benoot, and Nathan Van Hooydonck to the startlines, all riders capable of riding deep into any finale.

Trek-Segafredo brings its two-pronged approach with Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven, while Ineos Grenadiers cannot be overlooked with the likes of Filippo Ganna, Michal Kwiatkowski, Magnus Sheffield, and Ben Turner.

Is there more to Movistar beyond Van Vleuten, a question that certainly annoys everyone inside the blue bus. SD Worx is used to dominating, and will be looking to topple Van Vleuten in her last dance.

Trek-Segafredo, FDJ-Suez, and Team DSM all bring very strong teams to the classics. It’s no longer a race for second.

Or will there be a singular supremacy at all? I fully expect a mix of teams and riders to win across the next few weekends.

The Vans have it

Van Aert powers over the cobbles in 2022. (Photo: Gruber Photos/VeloNews)

Someone’s gotta win, right? If there’s anyone who can emerge as dominators it will most likely be someone with “Van” in their last name.

Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and Annemiek van Vleuten all look to be at their crackling best.

And who might beat them? It will take a village.

These races mark the next chapter in the Van Aert-Van der Poel rivalry that dates back to their teenage years. Van der Poel is taking the cake this year, with big wins at Van Aert’s expense at cyclocross worlds and last weekend at Milan-San Remo.

Fireworks are guaranteed when these two face off in any race.

Adding spice to the mix will be Pogačar’s E3 debut and a return to Flanders for UAE Team Emirates.

The team’s strategy of blowing up Milan-San Remo on the Poggio didn’t quite work, and Pogačar enters a key racing window intent on continuing his Merckx-like start to 2023. His busy spring classics calendar also includes Dwars, Flanders, Amstel Gold Race, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

It’s interesting to watch how the women’s peloton is starting to specialize along race-specific disciplines.

As the depth and quality expand across the Women’s World Tour and the racing calendar fills out, it’s inevitable that there’s more space for riders to their specialties. No longer is it one size fits all.

There’s always been specialists in every decade, it’s only now with the WWT growing that riders and teams can start to let individual riders fully focus on what they’re good at.

That only means every race is more open to a wider spectrum of teams and riders. Bring it on.

Can Pogačar aspire toward the monument sweep?

Last year’s edition will be hard to beat. (Photo: Chris Auld/VeloNews)

It’s perhaps cycling’s most elusive milestone, the monument sweep.

Only three have pulled it off — Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck, and Eddy Merckx — and it could be a mark that no one ever matches again.

Philippe Gilbert came closest of any modern rider, winning four of the five, and Sean Kelly came excruciatingly close in the 1980s, early 1990s. Gilbert evolved from a sprinter who could climb to a classics hardman who could go the distance. Recent course changes at Il Lombardia might have made it harder for Gilbert to win compared to when it did.

It was Milan-San Remo — the easiest monument to finish but the hardest to win — that slipped through his fingers, while Kelly could never pull off Flanders, a race that on paper fit him like a glove.

And now comes Pogačar.

Already a winner at Liège and Il Lombardia, the two monuments that best suit his natural talents. He’s banging on the door at San Remo and Flanders. His tilt toward the classics this spring only confirms that he’s putting the monuments at the center of his ambitions.

Roubaix could be his Achilles Heel. Though he proved last year at the Tour he can handle Roubaix-level cobbles, a stage at the Tour is very different than the six-hour sufferfest of Roubaix.

With his grand tour ambitions front and center, it’s seen as too much of a risk for a rider like Pogačar to race Roubaix at the peak of his powers. The UAE bosses that back the team want to see victory.

An older Pogačar could tackle Roubaix, and he almost certainly would if he picks off San Remo and Flanders.

It’s great for the sport that a rider comes along like Pogacar who can aspire to win every race he starts.

It’s equally as good for cycling that Pogačar doesn’t win everything all the time. Jonas Vingegaard topping him at the Tour was the best that could have happened for everyone, and seeing riders like MVDP outplay him at Flanders and San Remo only adds another layer of spice.

The other “real” triple crown rates right up there, too – the Giro, Tour, and worlds sweep — that is perhaps an even more realistic one-off milestone for Pogacar to aspire to than the monument sweep.

Of course, Pogačar is so good he could someday do both.

Van Vleuten’s long goodbye begins now

Van Vleuten, shown here early in the season, is on her last ride across the classics. (Photo: Alex Broadway/Getty Images)

I still cannot believe she’s retiring.

She says it’s all about the process, and her quest to reach the maximum expression of her cycling capacities. And in every interview she gives, she insists she’s hit her ceiling.

Without seeing the ability to improve, she says it’s just not worth all the sacrifice.

The Dutch star says she races for the process, being first across the finish line in the full realization of that.

It’s the training, the hard work, and the discipline that delivers the win, but more importantly for her, improvement. And at 38, she admits that the margin for improvement is diminishing against the work she’s putting in.

She believes she’s squeezed everything she can out of her body.

There will be a before and after in the women’s peloton.

Van Vleuten raised the bar across the entire peloton, and set markers for a new generation to aspire toward. It’s special for any elite athlete to leave on their terms. Rather than overstaying her welcome or losing her passion for the sport, Van Vleuten is retiring at the absolute top.

Will her final season be as good as her near-perfect 2022? Probably not, but it all starts this week in Belgium.

It’s a shame she won’t race Paris-Roubaix. That decision is also understandable, but who wouldn’t like to see how she could do?

And it’s also too bad she’s balked at hanging around for the 2024 Olympics. The courses in Paris won’t suit her strong points, so why race if she cannot win?

Basically, she’s at the top of her game at the top of her capacity at the top of the sport – can’t argue with that.

It’s time to savor the last rides of one of cycling’s legends.

Cycling’s best three weeks

The velodrome is the perfect finale for arguably cycling’s greatest one-day men’s race. (Photo: Chris Auld/VeloNews)

And finally, what I am most looking forward to for the next three weeks is the racing.

The northern classics season is cycling’s best three weeks.

For me, the run from DePanne/E3 through Roubaix is even better than the Tour de France.

The Tour is the pinnacle of racing, and I certainly love it. Yet the purity, the audacity, and the extremity of the classics is real racing at its best.

There’s no holding back for tomorrow’s stage or saving some matches for a key climbing stage in three days. Don’t get e wrong, the measured cadence and absolute sacrifice that it takes to win the Tour is beyond reproach.

Six hours of racing – empty the tank – risk it all – put everything in for the win … that’s racing. That’s soul. That’s history.

Add in beer, frites, and 1 million of your best Belgian friends, and what’s not to love?

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