Tips & Recipes

Classics 101

What to look for in the Cobbled Classics

February 27, 2020

What baseball is to Americans, cycling is to Belgians. It’s a national pastime. And the hills and cobbles of the Flanders region have helped shape the sport of cycling and molded it into what it is today.

Starting in late February, fans across the country will flock to the hills and towns of the Flanders region in Belgium to watch the Cobbled Classics, a series of one-day races culminating in the Tour of Flanders – or Ronde van Vlaanderen as it is known in Flemish – and Paris-Roubaix.

If you’ve never watched a one-day race (or a cycling race), the cobbled classics are a great place to start. They have it all: fast racing, crashes, beautiful views, and passionate fans. And unlike stage races, the first rider over the line wins it all, no matter what.

Before you sit down to watch the races, here are some tips we wished we had known before watching our first Cobbled Classic.

Cycling 101

Grab a bowl of popcorn (or some rice cakes) and make yourself comfortable since these are some of the longest races of the year. Lasting anywhere between 4-6 hours, the classics usually cover distances of more than 150 miles.

But what differentiates the Cobbled Classics from other bike races are the cobblestones, or pavé in French, that the riders have to contend with during the races. Here’s a video that’ll give you an idea of what makes the Cobbled Classics so exciting (volume on for full experience).

While it might look chaotic from the outside, most of the races follow a similar structure. Think of them as a well composed piece of music. There’s an introduction to get you hooked, a middle section where the orchestra sets the scene, then a steady crescendo until you reach the pinnacle of the piece. In cycling, the orchestra is the peloton.

For more on what the peloton is, here’s a video from EF Pro Cycling’s CEO, Jonathan Vaughters:

How it unfolds

The overture
The start of the race is usually action-packed as groups of riders try to distance themselves from the peloton and form what is called a breakaway. The peloton is picky about which riders it lets into the breakaway, though. They are looking for a non-threatening group to let go. They don’t want riders that are too strong in the breakaway as they might make it harder to catch them later, but they also don’t want the breakaway to be too slow as that will mess with the rhythm of the race. It’s quite the calculation.

The pre-chorus
Finding the right breakaway can take a while, but once the peloton is happy with the composition of the breakaway, the peloton can rest a little. This a perfect time for both the peloton (and us viewers at home) to enjoy the scenery, eat something, and chat.

The chorus
As the race nears the end, the peloton will begin to reel the breakaway back in and there won’t be much time for chatting. Once the breakaway has been caught, the peloton will move into the final phase of the race – fighting for the win.

How to win the race

Now there’s no point in overcomplicating things. What is the point of going through all of this, race in and race out? The answer is simple, like nearly all sports, the point is to win. What makes cycling unusual, is that while only one rider wins a race, it is by no means an individual effort, especially not during the Cobbled Classics.

For an explanation on why teamwork is so important, here’s a video from EF Pro Cycling’s CEO, Jonathan Vaughters:

So, during the last phase of the race, all but one of the riders, the team leader, will be tasked with making sure they are in the best possible position to win. While this is never an easy task, the narrow roads of Flanders, and the cobblestones that line the roads and climbs, make it all the more difficult. Being in the right place at the right time is crucial.

Last year, our Italian rider Alberto Bettiol won the Tour of Flanders. Click here to find out how he did it.

Fun Facts

Here are some of our favorite fun facts about the Classics.

The four biggest Cobbled Classics:
E3 BinckBank Classic, Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), Paris-Roubaix

Paris-Roubaix’s nickname:
“Hell of the North”. A common misconception is that this is because of how hard the race is, but in reality the nickname dates back to 1915 when journalists who watched the race after World War I saw it pass through the ruins, craters, and destruction along the way and described it as riding through hell.

The oldest Cobbled Classic:
Paris-Roubaix. The first edition was held in 1896! For context, cars had only been around for ten years at that point and the first World Series in baseball wouldn’t be for another seven years.

Famous climb
The Koppenberg is probably one of the best known climbs of the Cobbled Classics. It’s short (less than half a mile) but reaches gradients of over 20%. It is so steep in fact, that even some of the best riders on earth have been caught walking their bikes up it.

Useful vocabulary:
Bergs – hills
Pavé – cobble roads/sectors. Can be both flat sections and on the climbs hills
Waffles – a Belgian staple food that is a must-have ride food
Friture – kiosks or vans that serves all sorts of fried food, particularly fries with a wide-range of sauces
Hup! – Go!

Share this story

More Tips & Recipes