The Hardest Monument Classic

19 Mar , 2015  

Which classic is the hardest?

It’s an impossible question to answer definitively as the topic will always be somewhat subjective. How do you define ‘hard’? Hills? Cobbles? Wind? Rain? Speed?

Perhaps a good place to start is to rule out all of the classics that are not considered to be one of the five monuments – Milan San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy. After all, they’re considered to be above all the others for a reason.

While finding a definitive answer may be impossible, it is possible to find anecdotal evidence backing up the claim of each of these five races.

In his recent autobiography ‘Hunger‘, Sean Kelly makes the case for the race he won in 1984 and again in 1986. He writes “Paris-Roubaix is the hardest single-day test a rider can face”.

Could Milan San Remo be considered the hardest of the monument classics? (via

His compatriot Nicolas Roche in his own book ‘Inside the Peloton‘ refers to the other cobbled monument in such terms. Roche writes “I told team management that I hadn’t ridden a race in seven or eight weeks, I couldn’t be expected to ride the Tour of Flanders, possibly the hardest one day classic on the calendar”

Mark Cavendish, winner of Milan San Remo in 2009 has said about La Primavera “It’s a long race and the easiest to finish but hardest to win because every one of the 200 starters has a chance.”

In a 1966 edition of L’Equipe, the oldest monument of them all is heralded. “For 12 years, we’ve been waiting for such an exploit by Jacques Anquetil – to win a classic one day race. In Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the hardest, most demanding of them all, he finally filled the gap in his palmares.”

Finally, the Tour of Lombardy, considered (unsurprisingly) by former race direcotr Angelo Zomegnan to be the most difficult. He says “It is the hardest Monument. Our claim is that hard is great. Lombardy is not a classic to be taken lightly.”

When comparing a relatively flat, cobbleless race like Milan San Remo with the pavé-strewn courses of Roubaix and Flanders or with the relentlessly hilly terrain of Liége or Lombardy, there’s never going to be a correct formula to figure out which one is the hardest. But there are certain empirical data which can be derived from taking a good hard look at the results lists over the years.

Let’s take the last 50 years worth of monument classics and see if we can get an indication as to what the right answer might be.

One indication of which race is the hardest could be whether it is possible for a debutante to win the race. If someone who has never ridden the route or contested the finale before can rock up as a first-timer and take the victory then surely that’s a sign of a race being easier than one which takes years learn the difficulties and nuances of it before being capable of winning it.

Number of debut winners in past 50 years

Milan San Remo 5
Tour of Flanders 4
Paris Roubaix 0
Liege Bastogne Liege 5
Tour of Lombardy 5

Paris Roubaix is the only monument classic where no rider has won the race in the last 50 years having never ridden it before. The other four races have all been won in this period by debutants such as Mark Cavendish, Jacky Durand, Evgeni Berzin and Damiano Cunego.

This leads us on to another, slightly more complex measure of difficulty – how many editions on average does a cyclist need to take part in before they taste victory in each of these races (again, this data only pertains to the last 50 years).

Average number of editions ridden before victory

Milan San Remo 3.42
Tour of Flanders 3.52
Paris Roubaix 4.18
Liege Bastogne Liege 2.75
Tour of Lombardy 2.21

Again, the data suggests that Paris-Roubaix is harder than the other monuments. The low figure of 2.21 suggests that the Tour of Lombardy is the easiest to win. However for this race only, this figure could have more to do with the fact that it comes at the end of the season rather than being grouped in the Spring with the rest of them.

To expand this data out further once more, we can consider categorising what the best previous result of each winner of each monument was prior to the year that they won it.

Number of winners whose best previous result was:

  Worse than 10th Worse than 20th Never finished
Milan San Remo 18 15 7
Tour of Flanders 15 8 4
Paris Roubaix 9 3 0
Liege Bastogne Liege 15 12 5
Tour of Lombardy 15 8 5

Once again it is clearly Paris-Roubaix which looks to be the hardest race to take part in. Or in other words, it is the race which takes the longest to come to terms with, which could be seen as a measure of difficulty. The only three riders in the last 50 years who have won Paris-Roubaix having never previously finished in the top 20 are Jean-Marie Wampers (previous best 26th), Dirk Demol (33rd) and Felice Gimondi (64th). This is also something which has not been done for a long time, as Wampers is the most recent winner of these three, taking his victory back in 1989.

Of the other four monuments, it looks to be the Tour of Flanders which slightly shades it in all three tables. Incidentally the four riders who have won the Tour of Flanders in the past 50 years who had never previously finished the race were Jacky Durand, Rene Martens, Cees Bal and Dino Zandegu.

So out of our five original anecdotes it seems that Sean Kelly was the most accurate with his assertion that Paris-Roubaix is the toughest of them all, and having finished on the podium of all five races a total of 13 times, Kelly would be in a better position than most to make up his mind about such things.


*If anyone would like to know a breakdown of these figures or the identity of the riders behind the figures, just send me an email or catch me on Twitter and I’d be more than happy to oblige.

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A Monumental Loss of Tradition

2 Jan , 2015  

Norwegian, Swiss, Dutch, Australian and Irish -the nationalities of the five winners of the 2014 monument classics were unusually diverse. It was only the fifth time that all five races were won by riders from different countries. Notably the winners didn’t include any Belgians, French, Italians or Spaniards. This is not quite a first in cycling history, but it almost is.

Labelled ‘La Doyenne’ for good reason, the first ever monument classic that took place was Liége-Bastogne-Liége in 1892. Only one year has passed since then where none of the five took place, 1895. The following year after that barren Spring, Paris-Roubaix arrived, soon followed thereafter by the Tour of Lombardy and then Milan San Remo. In 1913, the Tour of Flanders completed what we now hold dear as the set of five biggest one day races and not a year has passed since then, despite the two World Wars, where at least one of them hasn’t taken place.

In the 122 years following the first monument classic, in only one of those years were none of the races won by anyone from Belgium, France, Italy or Spain. That year was 1896, when the only one of the five which took place was Paris-Roubaix, its first edition won by the German Josef Fischer.

And then came last year, the first time since 1896 that such an abomination has befallen cycling’s five one-day majors.

The following is a graph of the victories and podium places of riders from four of the traditional cycling nations in the five monument classics:

Monument Podiums (Belgium-France-Italy-Spain)


The blue line at the top illustrates the number of podium places bagged by riders from the four countries since 1892 and the red line at the bottom illustrates the number of wins. It’s logical that the more podium places these countries achieve, the more wins they are likely to achieve. This is evident in the graph because the two plots are strikingly similar.

Josef Fischer – The first winner of Paris-Roubaix

There are some interesting historical pieces of data which are shown in the graph and are worth explaining. In 1949 and 1957 the number of wins reaches as high as six. How can there be six winners of five races? Well, in those two years, one of the races resulted in a shared victory. In 1949, Paris-Roubaix was shared between Serse Coppi and André Mahé after some confusion about the finishing laps. Helped by some threats to the race organisers by Serse’s brother Fausto, they agreed to award both riders the victory. In the 1957 Liége-Bastogne-Liége, after an argument about an illegal traversal of a closed railway crossing, the win was eventually shared between Germain Derijcke and Frans Schoubben. In 1949, the Paris-Roubaix incident is also reflected in the overall podium total of the five races reaching a value of 16.

It’s also worth pointing out the three obvious troughs in the podium total. Two of them coincide with the World Wars between 1914 and 1919 and between 1939 and 1945. During these two periods there were some years where only one or two of the races actually took place, consequently this obviously limited the number of podium places that were achievable.

The third notable trough in the podium total occurs between the years 1983 and 1988. This trough is thanks largely to the success of Sean Kelly and the proliferation of a number of talented Dutch riders such as Jan Raas, Hennie Kuiper and Adri Van Der Poel.

It’s also worth mentioning the inclusion of Spanish results in this graph. The reason for including Spain is that in recent years, its riders have consistently contributed to making it the most successful cycling nation. Although much of the Spanish success has come in stage races, in the last decade, Spanish riders have consistently achieved podium places in the monuments. It’s also natural to place Spain alongside Italy and France as they are the three home nations of the Grand Tours. While Belgium is not part of this triumvirate, it is included due to its historical ability to produce classics winning monsters, not to mention the fact that two of the monuments in question take place in Belgium.

Despite Spain’s recent successes, there have actually only been nine Spaniards who have ever finished on the podium of a monument (Miguel Poblet, Oscar Freire, Juan Antonio Flecha, Iban Mayo, David Etxeberria, Alejandro Valverde, Pablo Lastras, Joaquim Rodriguez and Samuel Sanchez). And before the turn of the century, only Poblet had managed it.

The 2014 Milan San Remo podium (via [Sirotti])

So if we were to remove Spanish riders from the data it doesn’t change the conclusion much, in both 2013 and 2014 there have been no Belgian, Italian or French winners of a monument. The last time this happened even once was also 1896.

Whatever way we slice it, it’s bad news for the traditional cycling nations. The Spanish riders who have delivered success in recent years are all in their mid-thirties. The last time a French rider won a monument classic was in 1997, thanks to Laurent Jalabert and Belgium’s old reliables Phillipe Gilbert and Tom Boonen seem to be fading from the very top end of the sport.

The fourth trough in the graph is of course, the period we are in right now. The major favourites for next year’s monument classics include Mark Cavendish, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, Zdenek Stybar, Michal Kwiatkowski, Daniel Martin and Simon Gerrans – none of whom belong to the graph above.

The traditional nations still have the aging Spaniards as well as the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Arnaud Demare, Greg van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke. But as the peloton grows evermore diverse, it’s hard to see a way out of this current monumental trough that these countries find themselves in currently.

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Cancellara – Record Breaker

9 Apr , 2014  

Twitter is a transient beast. Almost as soon as you plop a thought or a fact or a piece of nonsense on the screen…it’s gone. For all it’s worth, an adequate Twitter search engine still does not exist, rendering this transient information largely inaccessible.

During Fabian Cancellara’s displays of strength in this year’s Milan San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, I happened across a few facts pertaining to his incredible consistency in the monument classics, tweeted them, but now they’re gone. So I’ve collected a few of the better ones here to illustrate just how impressive Cancellara has been over the past few years.

We look back on the achievements of Merckx, Hinault, Van Looy and Kelly and think the likes will never be seen again. But Cancellara is here, right now and he’s doing these things that are just as amazing as his predecessors. Fans will look back in 10, 20, 50 years time and wonder what it was like to watch Cancellara winning races live….

Cancellara wins the 2014 Tour of Flanders - his seventh monument classic.

Cancellara wins the 2014 Tour of Flanders – his seventh monument classic. (via

Cancellara has now won seven monument classics
Seven wins puts Cancellara in joint seventh place on the all time list of monument winners alongside Tom Boonen and Gino Bartali. If he wins Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, he will occupy joint sixth place on this list alongside Rik van Looy. Considering that Van Looy is often spoken of in the same breath as Eddy Merckx when it comes to winning classics, this would be quite an achievement.

Cancellara has finished 11 monument classics in a row on the podium
There’s a couple of slight caveats to this one. In amongst this streak was a crash and a DNF at the 2012 Tour of Flanders. It also ignores Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy because Cancellara never rides them. So this amazing streak consists of the last 11 monuments that Cancellara has ridden and finished. Four Milan San Remos, four Tours of Flanders and three Paris-Roubaixs.

If we apply the same rules to other riders, amazingly, 11 in a row is not a record. The current record stands at 12 which was achieved by Costante Girardengo in Milan San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy between 1918 and 1925. But during this time Girardengo rode and (voluntarily) abandoned Paris-Roubaix on several occassions.

Alfredo Binda is also worth a mention as he also achieved 12 podiums in a row in the two Italian monuments. However his streak was ruined because he got himself disqualified from second place at the 1928 Tour of Lombardy for an illegal wheel change.

Cancellara on his way to his first monument victory – Paris-Roubaix 2006 (via

Cancellara has finished on the podium of Milan San Remo four times in a row
This feat has been emulated in the past by just two riders, Costante Girardengo and Erik Zabel. However both of these managed to also win the race throughout their four years on the podium. Although Cancellara did win the race back in 2008, he’s finished on the podium the last four years without winning (three 2nds, one 3rd). Cancellara is the only rider to have ever finished on the podium of the same monument classic four years in a row without winning it.

Cancellara has finished on the podium of the first three monuments of the year…twice
Obviously Paris-Roubaix hasn’t happened yet this year, so this is something that Cancellara had done before this year’s classics campaign, achieving the feat in 2011 and 2013. Only two riders other than Cancellara have finished on the podium of Milan San Remo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year, twice in their careers – Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly. No rider has achieved this podium hat-trick three times in a career, or two years in a row. Cancellara will do both if he finishes in the top 3 in Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.

The Flanders-Roubaix double
Ten riders have won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year, one of the most impressive ‘doubles’ in cycling. Before Cancellara and Tom Boonen came along, no rider had ever done it twice. The two modern giants have now both done it twice. If Cancellara wins Roubaix on Sunday, he will be the only rider to have achieved this double on three occasions.

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The Most Versatile Classics Rider in Cycling

13 Sep , 2013  

So which rider is the most versatile classics rider in the current peloton? Who has what it takes across all five of cycling’s hardest one day races, the monument classics?

If we are to judge simply on the number of wins in these five races, it has been a ding dong battle for supremacy for the last few years between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Boonen has four Paris-Roubaixs and three Tours of Flanders, both records. While Cancellara’s total of six victories are spread between those two same races along with a single win in Milan San Remo.

But this is not about total victories. Boonen and Cancellara have been the two dominant Spring classics riders of their generation, but neither have ever even started either Liege-Bastogne-Liege or the Tour of Lombardy.

Gilbert has been on the podium in four of the five monuments

Perhaps Phillipe Gilbert would be a better bet. The incumbent world champion has won both of the hilly classics in Liege and Lombardy and has finished on the podium of Milan San Remo and the Tour of Flanders. But in Paris-Roubaix, a race much less suited to Gilbert’s physique, he has only ever finished a modest 52nd.

Although, he has yet to win a monument classic, in more recent years Peter Sagan has shown us a talent the likes of which has the potential to nab him wins in any of the five. But similarly to Boonen and Cancellara, he has yet to attempt either of the two hillier classics. Although still only 23 years old, he is sure to rectify this scenario before his career is out.

So just who is the most versatile monument classics rider in the current peloton?

One way to determine this is to consider all riders who have actually ridden all five races, add up their best finishing positions in each and the rider with the lowest score wins.

Using this system, Gilbert sits in third place, only let down by that 52nd place in Paris-Roubaix, to yield a score of 60.

The rider who would be in second place on this list is a team-mate of Gilbert’s, another of the world champion brigade on the BMC team, Alessandro Ballan. The Italian has finished fourth, first and third respectively in Milan San Remo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. A more modest showing in the hilly classics with 19th in Liége and 14th in the Tour of Lombardy is still good enough to give him a score of 41.

The rider at the top of this list is yet another rider from BMC. Cadel Evans? Thor Hushovd?



The most versatile monument classics rider in the current peloton is Greg van Avermaet.

He has never won any of them or even finished on the podium but his lowest scores, in the order in which the five races appear on the calendar, are ninth, fourth, fourth, seventh and 12th, giving him the lowest score of any current rider of 36.

Van Avermaet is a curious type of rider who has all the attributes of a top classics contender. He’s strong over short climbs, he has an enviable sprint and he seems to have a keen eye for reading a race. He has won Paris-Tours, a stage of the Vuelta and numerous stages of minor stage races. But for a number of reasons a big win has always eluded him.

Greg van Avermaet – The most versatile monument classics rider in the bunch

One of the main apparent reasons is the team that he has chosen to be a part of. When Van Avermaet joined BMC in 2011 he was leaving an Omega-Pharma-Lotto team which was to be built around Gilbert for the coming season. This meant that Van Avermaet’s chances of going for personal glory would be greatly reduced by the presence of Gilbert who ended up winning all three Ardennes classics in 2011. So Van Avermaet decided to leave.

The BMC team that Van Avermaet was joining contained a more balanced classics squad which included George Hincapie, Taylor Phinney, Karsten Kroon, Marcus Burghardt and Alessandro Ballan. Plenty of talent but plenty of races to go around. Indeed, this was the year that Van Avermaet won Paris-Tours along with the GP de Wallonie. But that winter, team owner Andy Rihs got out the cheque book once more and signed both Gilbert and Hushovd, which reduced Van Avermaet’s opportunities for sole leadership of the team on race day. He was reduced to feeding off scraps in the big races and often acted as the tactical decoy for his more illustrious team-mates.


There are actually surprisingly few active riders who have ridden all five monument classics. And of those that have, they tend to be of the second tier of riders likely to win one of them. One would be inclined to think that times have changed since the days of the old World Cup competition where there was a season-long incentive to take part in all of these races and in its absence, that incentive is no longer there.

But even riders who took the World Cup seriously, indeed former winners of the World Cup like Paolo Bettini and Erik Zabel did not ride all five in their careers. Bettini never rode Roubaix and Zabel never rode in Lombardy. For the really big names when it comes to classics riders, there always seems to be at least one of the five races which they shy away from.

Here is the top 10 list of current riders with the lowest total finishing positions in the five monument classics*:


*I’m open to correction on riders who are possibly missing from this top 10. It’s a tricky enough stat to research and come up with a definitive answer.

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Classics,Tour of Flanders

The youngest ever monument classic winner

1 Apr , 2012  

This week in cycling history in 1944, Rik van Steenbergen won the Tour of Flanders at the age of 19.

The now legendary Belgian began racing at the top level in the midst of World War II. Because Belgium was still occupied by the Germans at the time, he had to forge a German identity card in order to turn professional.

He won the Belgian national championships in his first year as a pro, and in 1944, he took part in his first Tour of Flanders. This was the last edition to ever finish in a velodrome as the finish line came after 224km in the Kuipke Velodrome in Ghent.

Rik van Steenbergen

Nine riders made it to the velodrome together just behind the lone leader Georges Claes. But a problem with directions, caused Claes to crash at the entrance to the velodrome. Van Steenbergen was fastest out of the group of nine and won the Tour of Flanders aged just 19. He remains the youngest ever rider to win a monument classic.

This was the first major win of an incredible list of career wins which Van Steenbergen racked up in a career which spanned 24 years. He won the Tour of Flanders again in 1946 where he again won the race as Belgian national champion. He also won Paris Roubaix and Fleche Wallonne twice each and Milan San Remo.

But he is perhaps most famous for being a triple world champion, a record only equalled by Alfredo Binda, Eddy Merckx and Oscar Freire. But not only was he prolific on the road, he was also a master on the track where he won a total of 1,591 races.

To find out more about this edition of the Tour of Flanders and more about Rik van Steenbergen check out the Velocast – This Week in Cycling History podcast available now on iTunes. We also discuss Tom Simpson’s Tour of Flanders victory in 1961 and Bradley Wiggins’s first ever stage race victory way back in 2001.

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Classics,Giro d'Italia,Music,Tour de France,Vuelta a Espana,World Championships

Get Outta That Saddle Stephen!

26 Nov , 2011  

The 1980’s was a magical time for Irish professional cycling. For a while we could lay claim to the top two cyclists in the world. Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche won everything (except the Tour of Flanders). At no stage in their careers did they ever end up as team-mates, but they liked and respected each other and often rode for each other in races.

Roche once said that people shouldn’t look at their respective careers as separate entities, weighing up which one of them won which races. Instead, said Roche, we should put their career achievements together and view them as one.

These successes which brought so much joy to Irish cycling fans took place before I became one. Despite the recent resurgence spear-headed by another Roche along with Dan Martin and Philip Deignan, I can’t help but feel I missed out.

Fortunately, there are many ways for us to relive these moments.

Both Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche have books detailing all their ups and downs on the bike throughout their period of dominance.
Both riders also have DVDs documenting their life stories.

Sean Kelly even had a board game.

And in 1987, as he was on his way to winning the Tour de France, Stephen Roche had a song. It was written by Dermot Morgan of Father Ted fame for the radio show Scrap Saturday. And thanks to a very kind girl called Sinead, here ’tis resurrected from an old magnetic piece of tape housed in plastic, reborn as a living breathing digital sequence of numbers.

Get outta that saddle Stephen!

[mp3j track=”″]