This is likely an uphill battle (HONK), but no matter. It is worth the effort, because cycling, in almost all of its many forms, is fun as hell. And unlike most of the “major” sports you can actually get out there and Do It your whole athletic life. (Yeah you can get out there and get some burn on the court at the local Y in middle age but your knees and back are a wear item, so maybe give them a rest?)
Do not be put off by the endless in-group bullshit you may have heard from pretentious douchebags the world over. Cycling is here to dish up some good ass excitement in the coming weeks, and you should get involved.
World Tour Racing
The World Tour cycling season is comprised of many different categories and types of races. The Grand Tours, which you have mostly likely heard of, are the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, and the Vuelta a España. The Grand Tour races are a massive undertaking: multi-week stage races that span thousands of kilometers and even continents (the TdF often starts in countries other than France, because, you know, money). These races cost tens of millions of dollars (or euros) to put on, and the stages include team time trials, individual time trials, rolling courses and mountain courses and they really do just go on and on. They are so long that it is common for riders to agree in advance of one or several of the stages of a GT race to take it easy, because it sucks to go flat out all day long in a headwind while cowshit blows into your mouth and eyes. Stage races can be thrilling, or they can be boring, strategic affairs with all the drama sucked out of them by teams with enormous budgets and outrageously strong riders (Team USPS last decade; Team Sky this decade). If you want to get excited about bike racing, then GT races are not a great introduction. They are too long, and it is confusing for casual fans when a guy that wins a dramatic sprint on stage 8 does not actually win, or even come close to taking the lead in, the big race (aka the ‘general classification’). Grand Tours are won by a very specific type of rider, about which more anon.
We are not here to talk about the Grand Tours. We are here because the best and most exciting types of bike races are the Classics, and the best of these is the Monuments. Fun fact: You win an actual cobblestone monument if you win Paris-Roubaix, and the trophy is unique, if also ugly. Another fun fact: the youngest Monument was first raced in 1913(!!).
The Classics are grueling one-day races over varied terrain (cobblestones, gravel, whatever passes for a paved road surface in Italy, etc.) in often brutal conditions. Since they are only one day the results tend to be much more varied than in the Grand Tours. It is much harder to spend your way to success in the Classics, because you cannot just buy every single good rider and wear down the field (although Team Sky is trying). Nor can you stack up your small advantages over the course of a four week odyssey (again: Team Sky with their ‘marginal gains’ :: barfs :: ). You have to be both very good and a bit lucky to win a Classic, as it takes an enormous amount of talent to even be in contention at the end of a race. Sometimes you can be a race favorite and get wrecked by a jacket thrown over barrier.
The Classics tend to also be won by a very specific type of rider, although there are a few modern riders that will try and compete for victories in both Grand Tours and the Classics.
They run throughout the year, and the Monuments all run in the Spring (Milano-San Remo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Baston-Liege) except for Il Lombardia, which is run in October.
You may see these races described in English as the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen) or the Tour of Lombardy (Il Lombardia). Keeping all the different names in order is hard enough, so you are duly forgiven if you prefer the English titles. Nod-snobbing fans will maybe correct you, or maybe they will just be glad that someone besides them gives a shit about cycling for once.
There are other one-off road races that are just as prestigious as the Monuments, most notably the World Championships, which bestows the honor of wearing the famous (in cycling circles) rainbow jersey for the entire next year. Any previous road race world champion can wear the rainbow stripes on their sleeves during a road race, which is fun and cool and insider-y. The various national championships for each country are governed by similar jersey rules, so you will see the road race champion for Germany wearing his custom team jersey with special German colors in the World Tour peloton, and so on for the Dutch, French, Belgians, etc. It’s pretty great! Winning the national championships is a big deal, so I enjoy when the riders represent the colors.
Note that a world champion is also awarded for the individual time trial, but the ITT world championship jersey (and previous winners sleeve stripes) is only to be worn during time trial events. Thus the road race rainbow stripes are among the most coveted jerseys in all of cycling.
So! The Classics are happening, and the Monuments are happening, and it is going to be great. But who are you watching?
There are 18 World Tour teams, all of whom carry 25 riders on their roster. As in all other forms of racing, money is an issue. Some teams have a lot of it, and some are shaking out the couch cushions. The big money really stopped rolling in after the doping scandals of the late aughts, so many teams really are scraping by. Also, since the big money left it opened the door to sponsors that are, shall we say, niche. Sponsors range from flooring companies, oven hood manufacturers, coffee companies, governments (see below), lottery businesses, and much else.
Cycling has always been the metier of rich white men, but in recent years the circle has expanded to include rich men from such forward-thinking eastern nations as Kazakhstan (Team Astana), Russia (Team Katusha-Alpecin), Team UAE (UAE, natch) and Bahrain (Bahrain Merida). The riders are just trying to earn a living, but it is kind of hard to get behind a team whose budget is provided by murderous dictators and/or serial abusers of human rights. YMMV
Most of the team sponsors, major or otherwise, have the greasy feel of rich white guys that want to leg hump the pros at races, group rides and social events. In my limited conversations with former pros this seems to very much be the case.
The most heavily funded team has sucked the life out of the last several Tours de France by putting together an all star team of riders and adding money and science and more money and drugs until they are very difficult to beat. They also sucked the life out of the 2017 Vuelta. And yet! They did not win the Giro last year (shoutout to Tom Dumoulin), so it is possible for other GC riders to step up.
A change for this year is that the teams are only allowed 7 riders per race (down from 8 last year), in the hopes that it will shake up some of the results, especially in the GT races.
When you picture a typical road cyclist you probably imagine someone like Chris Froome, or, if you haven’t paid attention since an American was winning races, Lance Armstrong. An emaciated, hollow-cheeked guy in a yellow jersey, because the Tour de France is the only time anyone pays attention. Both of these GC riders are well suited to winning GC races: pencil-necked and toothpick-armed, likely unable to do even a single push-up, strong climbers, excellent in the time trials, and surrounded by a team of elite support riders, some of whom could probably win a Grand Tour of their own were they given the same support. They are phenomenal athletes, capable of outrageous scores in things like VO2 max and power to weight ratio. They are also boring as hell and get smoked in the Classics.*
* Armstrong was an excellent Classics rider before he got the cancer and the drugs and the plan and reinvented himself into a superlative GC rider. He was still decent in the Classics, but it was no longer a priority for him once he transformed himself.
Most of the Classics eat the GC riders alive. They are too long, without enough climbing. Instead you need a rider that can do something besides get an escort to the base of the mountain and then do his own work. You need a well-rounded cyclist that can climb a short distance, very fast, and then recover, and then do it again. These are the most interesting riders in cycling, because they can do almost everything well, and do a few things extremely well indeed. Also, they look like actual people, and not like they would be trapped indefinitely when their significant other falls asleep on them.
Look to riders like Peter Sagan (pictured above) to make some noise in the Classics. The Slovak is the reigning road race world champion (three times in a row!) and is a threat to win a one day road race every time he throws a leg over the bike. Sagan is by far the most popular cyclist in the world right now. This is partly down to the fact that he rides with panache, and partly because he looks like an actual person and not a stick figure with weird balloon legs. Also he says the right things, as here after a second place finish:
“Sometimes I can do some things, sometimes I can’t. Today, I had bad luck but also good luck at the same time. It would’ve been better first place, but I don’t have to have everything,” Sagan said after showering and before signing autographs and posing for selfies with the huge crowd that was waiting at the Bora-Hansgrohe bus.
Sagan frequently does wheelies and bike tricks, makes cycling look fun. Not afraid to flex on other riders, or to display insane bike handling skills, as at the close of a recent stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico. Notice how he makes a split second decision to hop a curb and shortcut a roundabout here to save some time. That is some very casual, next-level shit.
Not for nothing, but he is also quite handsome. I have described him to others as ‘the guy your girlfriend hooked up with during the Eastern part of her European tour, but don’t worry he was totally chill about it’.
Other contenders for the classics, especially the upcoming Milano-San Remo: Greg van Avermaet - like Sagan, a superbly talented all around rider. Not as powerful on the bike as Sagan (few are), but the course favors him this year.
Michal Kwiatkowski - Probably the most talented classics rider in the field after Sagan. Famously beat Sagan in last year’s Milano-San Remo, although people will remember Sagans attack on the Poggio (a famous climbing section) longer than they will remember the winner. Losing with style is sometimes more impressive than winning.
Tiejs Benoot - Young rider that is in excellent form right now. Won Strade-Bianche this year in decisive, thrilling fashion. Turned in some strong results at Tirreno-Adriatico.
The Classics are extremely difficult to predict, so although it is generally acknowledged that a handful of riders are the class of the field they do not always win.
Typical race strategy for the Classics races is to identify a specific rider that you want to protect for the race, ride for him, and then cut him loose when he feels like he can get the win. Your ability to deliver your rider to the line is affected by your own team, mechanical failures, rider failures, and the other teams, who often have conflicting strategies (such as to ride off the front in a small group). It is almost impossible to solo to victory in a bike race so the teams often work with one another until they don’t. If you like game theory you will love cycling race strategy.
When is the Next Monument?
The next several weeks will have some of the best racing of the year. The first (and best) Classic that isn’t an official monument is Strade Bianche. It runs in a big loop around Siena, and it makes liberal use of the white gravel roads for which that region is justifiably famous. This year’s race was run in a driving storm and it was fantastic. The calendar looks like this:
Milano-San Remo is 17 March, so maybe catch some race replays in between watching free labor generate revenue in the NBAs minor leagues.
Ronde van Vlaanderen is 1 April
Paris-Roubaix is 8 April
Liege-Baston-Liege is 22 April
How Do I Watch?
Depends where you live. The races are easy to find on TV in Europe, but it’s tougher in the states. Cycling Fans dot com has a good summary of where to find coverage in your local area.
The Elephant in the Room
Drugs! So many goddamn drugs. Cycling is cleaner than it used to be, but there are still drugs everywhere. Not as much EPO, but it is awash in painkillers, stimulants, respiratory medications, diet medication, and whatever else they can get away with. Something something cheating trying something, but if you are strongly anti-drugs then you should probably just not watch any sports, ever. The cycling community tends to be split on the drug users. Some are ostracized, some are lionized, and some end up making a lot of money after they did the drugs and everyone is cool with it.
It does not help that the most successful drug user, and greatest ever Tour de France rider, is also one of the all-time biggest assholes in professional cycling, or any sport. So fuck that guy.
It’s also probably not a good idea to get popped for drugs when you have a very prominent marketing campaign and ‘zero tolerance’ policy.
Enjoy the Races!
Seriously, they are great.