Unless you’re going uphill, 25.8 kilometers is not a very long distance in the world of cycling, especially when it makes up a small portion of a 262 kilometer race. While each of the monuments of cycling can be defined by its age, the true spirit of a classic for me is that one section of the race course that forces a selection, elicits a response from the contenders, speaks to us in that recognizable language with all the familiar vocabulary that says this is why I watch; this is what I wait all winter for; these are the visions I have when I close my eyes on those long, lonely rides in the cold, the wet, the days that hurt, that I am unaware of the reasons why I am a cyclist. And it is these very same roads, these locations that welcome me when I arrive, when there is that memory recall of those months before.
For cycling’s monuments, there is a soundtrack in my mind that animates the visual. For Milan-Sanremo, the critical section of the race is the climb of the Poggio and the Cipressa that leads to the sprint, that brief moment when nearly 300 kilometers is condensed into 200 meters of speed and fury. It is during this section the chorus of one’s heart pounds so loudly it drowns out the tifosi. Desperation comes in two forms here, one from the bravest who attempts to steal the race as he launches himself off the front, the other from the favorite wrinkling under the intensity, giving one last desperate attempt to stay in contact, to keep pace. Sean Kelly and Moreno Argentin have each written their own music to this, and one has the lyrics of a triumphant fight song, the other a single word to accompany Taps.
Anyone can tell you Paris-Roubaix begins in earnest at the entry to the Arenberg Forest. The hell that is unleashed in 2,400 meters is a cacophony of noise unheard anywhere else. The rest mimics the fiercest sounds of battle that ravaged the landscape so many decades ago. Liège-Bastogne-Liège- a race that no man has ever won on luck- elicits the sound of a man’s will slowly crumbling under the constant pressure, until it has dissolved into dust. The winner has succeeded in turning this dust into gold. And while the Giro di Lombardia closes the fall classics season, its sound is as definitive and haunting as the fallen leaves that cover the roads. The church bells at the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel ring as the first rider crests the climb, announcing the commencement of service that will last 70 kilometers. I’ve heard the bells of Saint Peter’s announce the Pope and I’ve attended Easter mass at the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. I’ve been woken many mornings from the sound of small town church bells. The ring from the Ghisallo is as beautiful a sound as I’ve ever heard from a church steeple.
As March ushers in the beginning of the Classics season, there is a beautiful parallel that I embrace that can be drawn between the sounds that accompany the races and the sounds that emanate from nature. Nature’s sheet music is perfectly written with the operatic songs of birds, their stage decorated with the perfume aromas of budding flowers. Opening the curtains on spring, there is an awakening from an insulated slumber whose last remnant is the dwindling smell of a smoldering fire. The sounds and senses of winter turning into spring is triggered by nature’s alarm clock, and brings forth the races that have come to define the term Spring Classics. Each great race has its own title track. For some it is masterfully crafted music, for others it’s the spine shattering sound of scratching fingernails on a blackboard. There is an emotional orchestration that is scripted to match the physical composition. Each piece is played to its own rhythm, and played with a vision of the overall.
For me, the beauty of the Tour of Flanders lies in a 25.8 kilometer stretch that has as much in its orchestration as there is in the improvisation provided by the riders. I have no idea if Karel Van Wijnendaele, the creator of the Tour of Flanders, was a listener of great music, but he has his box seat for a one man audience of his composition, played in front of him on the same stage, with different animators each year. The gently arched monument bearing his bust sits on a perch on the Ronde van Vlaanderenstraat, close to the Flanders/Wallonia border, with open arms embracing his riders and his countryside, and its solid, unscripted stone back defiantly defining the boundary of what is purely Flemish and what is clearly not.
If the first 160 kilometers of this race is the opening set, then the second set begins with six climbs that are introduced with the Oude Kwaremont, and followed in rapid succession by the Paterberg, Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg and Eikenberg. This six song set, a bridge, a transition that takes the show, the music, the players, from the orchestrated to the improvised, the best of the musicians confidently taking turns at the front, firmly embedding the viewers, the listeners onto the edge of their seats. It is during these six climbs that the race transitions from a show to a concert, from a celebration to a ritual, from an event that will be to a race that is. There are the highs and lows, the rhythmic pieces, the powerful pieces, the transitional moments that take this from one stage in the composition to the next.
The Oude Kwaremont is first, as it reaches to touch the monument of Van Wijnendaele. 2,516 meters of asphalt and cobbles, and its pace is never hurried, but always with a strong start as the approval of Van Wijnendaele is sought. It’s as if the race and its riders are performing in his shadow, paying homage to its creator with their first effort before moving forward to script their own version. The sound of speed defines the next two kilometers to the Paterberg. A short burst of power, condensed to 360 meters rising sharply over bone rattling cobbles. The next six kilometers sees moderation, a chance for the players to put their instruments down for a few minutes while the background tempo resonates. The surge of intensity returns as the 2,100 meter Mariaborrestraat introduces to the crowd the Steenbeekdries, a 761 meter cobbled ensemble whose lively chorus is the clattering descent of the Stationsberg. The 533 meters of the Taaienberg is stretched for maximum effect, its slowly dissolving grade keeps the intensity of the pace flowing. The Eikenberg, at 1,252 meters, reminds me of that song that is minutes longer when performed live than on the studio version. No it is not the finale, only the final piece that has set the stage for the performers to shine. From here, some will step aside, others will fall away, and one will step up, for the finale. He will perform the encore, and embrace the reception of a standing ovation.
It is the sound that goes with the relentless fury that animates the emotions I feel as these races finally arrive and when I experience them live. And this is what animates my emotions each time I straddle my bike, sink onto my saddle and enter the timeless realm that is this wonderful sensation I know to be cycling.