There are classics and there are monuments. No, that’s not right. There are Classics and there are Monuments. They should properly be capitalized because that is the way we signify importance in words; words like Mom, President, God - take your pick. And further, there is a reason that these words stand alone, with no further modifier needed. They aren’t properly referred to as “Cycling” Classics and they aren’t Monument “Races”. Because if you don’t know what is meant by these terms standing alone, you can’t possibly understand what they mean.
For some cyclists, the Classics are the season. Oh sure, we all pay attention to the Tour. You have to because it’s too much of a circus to ignore and people at the office are going to ask you to explain why the guy who is winning hasn’t won any of races. That never happens in NASCAR or the NFL, so it’s hard to get the nuance I guess. The difference is that the Tour is a 3-week chess match, but one with frequent intermissions for all other sort of shenanigans. It’s like a chess match with a food eating contest and a high-ropes course thrown in. That's why you mix up the general classification stuff with sprint stages, mountain stages, TT's and even TTT's. The Classics, on the other hand, are very direct and very primal. More like a boxing match, but of the variety in the “Quiet Man” – lasting for hours across hill and dale, bare-knuckle, might makes right, winner take all. It’s the toughest competitor that wins a Classic and to be the toughest competitor, particularly that early in the year, you start with a tough racer and you prepare in the toughest conditions. It’s not the guys training under the sun in Majorca that win the Classics. It’s the guy wintering in Shithole, Belgium, riding the pave, covered in mud and cow splatter that has earned the right to win a Classic. And that is why they are Classics. And the toughest of these are the Monuments.
In a world where everything is hyped, where everything becomes hyperbolic and oversold, you have to question these terms – Classics and Monuments. Is that just a marketer’s hype? Is it classic, god forbid, with a K? No and no. These are genuine Monuments, not just in the cycling world, but Monuments, full stop. Consider the history of these races – Milan-San Remo (La Primavera, first running 1907), Tour of Flanders (the Ronde van Vlaanderen, first held in 1913); Paris-Roubaix (the Queen of the Classics, the Hell of the North or l’Enfer du Nord, first raced in 1896); Liege-Bastogne-Liege (La Doyenne – first held in 1892); and Giro di Lombardi (Race of the Falling Leaves, the only one not held in the Spring, started in 1907). The last of these was first ridden 100 years ago this year. The earliest was 21 years earlier, in 18-frickin-92. Do you know what else was going on in 1892?
In 1892 Ellis Island became the processing center for immigrants to the United States. The rules for basketball were published and the first public game, ever, was played. The toothpaste tube was invented that year. The Stanley Cup was created. Thomas Edison patented the two-way telegraph. AND they held a bike race from Liege to Bastogne to Liege and they have kept doing so since then except when things like World Wars got in the way. That is what it takes to become a Classic and one of the Monuments.
For better or for worse, however, these are not things known by most cyclists in the United States, much less the general public. I suppose their hidden quality makes them all the more special, like truffles in the woods. You can’t really explain it so much as experience it. And the experience has obviously changed over the last 100 years. The equipment is lighter, as carbon dampening has taken over for steel frames with tied and soldered wheels. High-tech, water-resistant, breathable fabrics and pads have taken over for wool jerseys and shorts with sheepskin chamois. But what has not changed one bit is the struggle of the racers against each other, against the elements – the wind, rain and snow – the rough roads and pave, the agonizing and brutal climbs, and the bitter temperatures. That is the stuff of the Classics and it’s the stuff that forges Monuments over the course of a century.