Posted by: Travis | April 3, 2009

If you have any interest in watching bike racing, the next two Sundays are the time to do it!

Tour of Flanders picture by Graham Watson

Tour of Flanders picture by Graham Watson

The Tour de France is unquestionably the greatest and most famous bike race in the world. However, for the casual sports fan, watching it is extraordinarily difficult.

It takes place over 3 weeks  with the rider having the smallest aggregate time over those three weeks taking the win. It is possible that the winner never wins a single stage, but is instead the most consistent rider. The whole Tour is normally won only one or two days, so tuning in for the other 19 can be a little bit difficult. Not only is there the leader’s yellow jersey, but the green jersey for the best sprinter, and polka dotted climbers jersey for the rider that accumulates the most points over the climbs in the mountains, and the white young rider’s jersey for the best place rider under 25. Some days are flat stages that belong to the sprinters, some days are over rolling hills that suit a break away, other days take place in the high mountains, and still others are time trials where riders get dressed up like aliens and go as fast as they can by themselves over a short closed course. All of this makes the tactics exponentially more complicated. Only a few of the teams have a shot at the overall leads, so some of them aim for stage wins for their sprinters, only becoming visible on the flat days. Other teams aim for the climbers jersey so they sit in on the flat days and are active in the mountains. The smaller teams with no real hope for results send riders who are way behind in time out in break aways where they are destined to fail but gain attention for their sponsors be being plastered on television screens across the world for the day by being in the break.

All of these things mean that if you aren’t very familiar with cycling, you don’t know the riders and their abilities, the teams and their interests, and you don’t follow the race everyday for 3 weeks, watching a stage can be pretty boring and meaningless. If you find yourself in this camp, tune in to Versus this Sunday afternoon and next Sunday for the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix, two of the biggest one day races in the world.

These two races fall into the category of the 1-day spring cobbled classics. For two Sundays in a row the best bike racers in the world will race over 160 miles (that’s for each race, not total) over the tiny cobbled roads in Belgium and Northern France that are hundreds of years old. Rather than favoring the small, super skinny guys that win the Tour de France, these races favor the big strong guys that are as tough mentally as they are powerful. The tactics are simpler than the Tour de France, every team wants the exact same thing, to win the race that day. There is no sitting in a recovering for the time trial coming up in the next few days, this is everyone puts all their cards on the table and the strongest man wins.The schloogs (think soccer hooligans, but for cycling) come out in full force for these races, drink tons of beer and then go nuts when their favorite rider passes. Mayhem ensues.

Tour of Flanders photo by Graham Watson

Tour of Flanders photo by Graham Watson

Tour of Flanders (April 5)

The Tour of Flanders takes place in the Flanders region of Belgium and is the first of these two epic races. While Paris Roubaix is more prestigious around the world, the Tour of Flanders is bigger in cycling crazed Belgium, kind of like if the Superbowl, World Series, and March Madness were all crammed into a single one day event. The schloogs go nuts for this race. Though the route changes from year to year, it is always at least 250km (160 miles long) and is known for it’s short, but very steep cobbled climbs. It puts a huge toll on the riders’ bodies and is emotionally just as difficult as it is physically. You can read more about the Tour of Flanders here.

Paris-Roubaix photo by Graham Watson

Paris-Roubaix photo by Graham Watson

Paris-Roubaix (April 12)

Paris-Roubaix is seen by the rest of the world (outside of Belgium) as the slightly more prestigeous race of the two, but only just. The route is much more consistent than the Tour of Flanders, beginning outside of Paris and ending in the industrial city of Roubaix near the French/Belgian border. Typically slightly longer than the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix covers 28 sections of cobbled roads before ending with a lap in the Roubaix velodrome. Those strong enough to finish the race (a feat in itself in the pro ranks) get to take showers in the old concrete showers of the velodrome, where each stall is named for a former winner of the race. Some riders say that getting to take a shower in the velodrome is the highlight of their careers. The winner receives a trophy made from a pave (stones used to pave the cobbled sections). Its is a that has been running for 100 years and is just oozing with history. If your interested, check out the movie, Road to Roubaix. They have a preview imbedded in their website that gives me goosebumps every time i watch it. It’s certainly one of my favorite cycling films. You can read more about Paris-Roubaix here.

My picks? American George Hincapie (Lance Armstrong’s right hand man during his 7 consecutive Tour victories) is actually a man design for the classics, though he forced his body to race grand tours over the years. He has yet to win either of these races in his career, mostly because of his notoriously bad luck through the years. Entering the twilight of his career, the number of opportunities he has left to win one of these is dwindling. He now rides for a very strong team (Team Columbia – High Road) that can ride classics well with him as their leader, as opposed to taking a bunch of guys selected to help Lance win the Tour. I’d say he has a decent shot at getting one of these races this year.

That being said, you can’t deny that Belgium’s golden son, Tom Boonen (shown in two of the above 3 pictures), has inflicted his will upon the races in the last 4 or 5 years. He’s certainly the favorite and i expect him to pick up at least one of them. I think Juan Antonio Flecha from the Rabobank team and Martijn Maskaant from Garmin-Slipstream could also do very well.

In the past, Versus has done a criminally short 30 minutes of coverage for each race and shown them a week or two after the race, making them practically useless. This year they have come to their senses and scheduled 2 full hours of coverage on the days of the races. Add to that they just came out with a Versus HD channel, and i’m a pretty happy camper. Pop some pop corn, grab a Belgian beer, and tune in for 2 hours of sheer mayhem.

May the strongest man win.



  1. […] know i’ve sung this song before, but if you have any interest in bike racing, or have a cable package that includes the Versus […]

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