Thanks to the increased US television coverage of cycling events like the Tour de France, (due in no small part to the recent decade-long domination of that event by a certain Texan named Lance Armstrong) more Americans than ever before know at least a little bit about professional bicycle racing. But pull back the focus a bit higher up and away from the Tour de France, and you rapidly lose folks. Well, there are a lot of bicycle races in the world besides the Tour de France… Here’s a quick primer on the differences between the two major categories of big-time professional road races – the “Grand Tours” and the “Classics“.
Grand Tours (also called stage races) are multiday events in which the overall winner is determined based on the lowest total time to complete all the individual stages. Each individual stage is like a regular road race, put them all together over 1 to 3 weeks and you have a stage race. The biggest stage races are called Grand Tours. The biggest ones are the Tour of Italy (Giro D’Italia), the Tour de France, and the Tour of Spain (Vuelta a Espana). In the US we have a few smaller-but-growing races that fit this mold, like the Tour of California and the Tour of Colorado. These are the races that draw the most fan attention, sponsorship dollars, and media coverage. Think of them like the World Series or World Cup – large tournaments.
Classics are generally single day races. They’re the more basic and pure form of the sport of roadracing – get a bunch of racers together on a start line, lay out a route and a finish line at the end, then off they go. First one to cross the finish line wins. As opposed to a multi-day stage race (think World Series) these are one-shot races (think Superbowl). The biggest and most important one-day classics in the world are called “Monuments” and top professionals dream of winning at least 1 of these 7 major events before their careers are over.
The 5 Monuments:
- Milan – San Remo (Italy)
- Tour of Flanders (Belgium, known there as Ronde van Vlaanderen)
- Paris – Roubaix (France)
- Liege – Bastogne – Liege (Belgium)
- Giro di Lombardia (Italy, also known as “la classica delle foglie morte” or “The Race of the Falling Leaves” since it happens at the end of the season, in the fall.)
The Grand Tour winners (like Lance Armstrong) are deserving heroes. I completely admire the skill and effort required to pull off a grand tour victory. In any given generation there are a few hundred top riders in the pro ranks. Of those, only 3 to 5 of them have any realistic chance of winning a Grand Tour. The riders who win them are the absolute best of the best, across all variants of the sport. To win the Tour de France means you are the best all-around rider with the winning combination of a strong team, excellent resource management, athletic consistency, and physical endurance. Grand Tours are like wars, with each day’s stage a battle towards the overall victory. Absolutely impressive, and I still watch the Grand Tours every year without fail.
That said, of the two types of racing, I personally prefer the Classics. Why? Because of their “lay it all on the line” nature , and the fact they can be won by a wider variety of riders. As opposed to a stage race where you need to think long-range, playing each day like a move in a chess game, in a one-day race you’re going all-in, 100% for that one day’s effort. You watch for the right moment to go, and then dump every bit of fuel you have on the fire. There’s no tomorrow, you win *today* or you lose *today*. Many classics are won by either fast and powerful sprinters who can win the crazed bunch sprint drag races that occur in the final 200 meters of the race. Others are won in reckless and bold solo efforts from much further out, by riders who can’t sprint but can drop everyone else and endure a long solo ride that others fear to follow. In either scenario, at the end of the race you have a winner who used his particular skillset to absolute perfect effect.
In comparison, there’s often a lot of conservative racing in stage races, and the overall winner is usually spending his days trying to do as little as possible until the right moments present themselves. Working too hard can leave you too weak to fight the next day, so there’s always a careful foot on the gas pedal during stage races. Often when you watch a Grand Tour there are numerous stages where the field is basically just rolling along, conserving energy in advance of a major stage the next day. And this is even more true for the overall leader; unless there’s a threat from someone near him in the overall classification, you rarely see any action from the big guns. Not so much in classics racing, the big guns are always right near the front ready to make their jump, sometimes multiple jumps.
I also prefer the classics because there are more chances for “imperfect” riders to win them. It takes a freakishly perfect all-rounder to win a grand tour. You need to be able to ride the longest and hardest climbs faster than most, and you also need to time trial better than most. You need a team of riders willing to sacrifice their own chances to protect and help you. And you need 1 to 3 weeks of good luck and no major mistakes. Generally, the winners of Grand Tours are skinny little climbers who can also time trial. Big sprinters need not apply, being able to go fast in a sprint doesn’t help you on an hour long climb. Because of this set of requirements, with few exceptions you rarely see the same winners in Grand Tours as you do in the Classics.
Bottom line, anyone who wins a race (Grand Tour or Classic) at the ProTour level is worthy of immense respect. But I still prefer watching the Classics because I feel they more fully embody the spirit of bicycle racing. When I was a young kid on my bike I never fantasized about calculating time splits or discussing team tactics with my manager. I fantasized about riding my bike harder and faster than anyone else around me, and crossing the line in first place. When I watch a Grand Tour I see too much military precision and corporate strategy at play, obscuring and often muting the action. I want to see the little kids racing their bikes. With the Classics, I still see the same exact hard brutal racing and exciting victories that excited me as a kid and stuck in my head. I still see the fantasy and the romance of professional cycling. And I still get to feel like a little kid when I pretend I’m one of those guys when I’m on my own rides and races. For me, it’s always going to be about the Classics.
Related Reading: musings on the differences in following pro racing in 2012 vs 30 years ago.