What's Cool In Road Cycling

Pez Bookshelf: The Monuments—The Grit and Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races

For many cycling fans, professional bicycling racing more or less begins and ends with the Tour de France—perhaps understandable given the titanic battle that made the 2023 edition so memorable—but bicycle races, like the cyclists who contest them, come in many styles beyond the Grand Tours. And while there are many other wonderful stage races, like Paris-Nice, the Dauphiné, or Tirreno-Adriatico, an argument can be made that it is in the one day races, the so-called Classics, where the glory of the metier is truly found. And of these the greatest must be the five races known collectively as The Monuments.

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In 2014 British author Peter Cossins’s book “The Monuments,” covering the history of these five events, was published to acclaim and now a second edition, bringing their stories up to the end of 2022, has been released by publisher Bloomsbury Sport. It is an entertaining and informative work and highlights the diverse characteristics of these great races, as well as their similarities, masterfully.

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Liège-Bastogne-Liège

It appears that the description of the races: Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix, and Tour of Lombardy—as “Monuments” is of fairly recent derivation. According to Cossins, it was around 2005 when the UCI was reorganizing the season with the World Tour structure that these races were deemed superior to the other one day races, whether Classics or Semi-Classics, and the name has stuck. There is much spirited debate as to whether Italy’s Strade Bianche should be included as a Monument but while no doubt a difficult race (in some places akin to riding through golf balls) it lacks both the physical length and historical one perhaps to qualify.

The book is divided into five sections, one for each race, and set out in chronological order, beginning with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which was first run in 1892, and ending with the Tour of Flanders, inaugurated in 1913. Over time the popularity of each of these races has ebbed and flowed. L-B-L was not really much of a success in its early years, appearing irregularly on the calendar, while Paris-Roubaix seems to have always been a success in spite of constant format changes in its early years. These included pacing with motorcycles at one point, which gave track racers a great benefit—Albert Champion won in this way in 1899 before going on to spark plug manufacturing glory in the United States. Paris-Roubaix also saw an existential threat to its running as in an effort to show they were up-to-date municipalities were busily paving over the cobbles with modern asphalt, a crisis that was overcome with the rearranging of the parcours with an alternative route featuring semi-forgotten cobbled stretches, including the fearsome Arenberg Trench.


The cobbles of Wallers-Arenberg

It has been suggested that professional cycling is a very conservative sport, perhaps even more so than baseball, valuing tradition over change. In a world where everything constantly changes, there is something comforting in the fact that a ridiculous race like Paris-Roubaix, something that would never be created today, can continue to draw enthusiasm to the point where it is probably the most famous race after the Tour itself. And “The Monuments” is chockablock with wonderful stories, many of which we know but never suffer in the retelling, along with a delight in the more obscure facts.

For example, Fred de Bruyne won three editions of L-B-L but after his last win in 1959, his career wound down following quite the injury in 1961. He had broken his collarbone in a track meet in Bordeaux and was being driven back to Belgium by a teammate when his car and another were in a head-on collision in Paris. This was caused by both drivers being distracted by seeing Brigitte Bardot walking down the street! Or in 1907 how Georges Passerieu, riding for the Peugeot team, was about to enter the velodrome at Roubaix in the lead when he was stopped by a policeman demanding proof that he had paid the tax for owning his bicycle. Luckily, he was able to dislodge the gendarme and get away to victory before his competitors could catch up.

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Fred de Bruyne

While there is much about The Good Old Days, one senses that at the time racing was not so bound by tradition as nobody quite knew what they were doing. Hence the constant changes of race rules, realignment of the routes, and allowing races to be run in conditions so appalling that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you would need a heart of stone not to laugh. While the fourth edition of Milan-Sanremo in 1910 saw only four finishers, there was plenty of suffering to go around over the years, such as the 1974 Liège-Bastogne-Liège edition that took place in what seems in retrospect to have been Arctic conditions, with winner Bernard Hinault still feeling the effects in his fingers five decades on.

The Monuments all began as local affairs, strongly identified with their regions, but as time has passed they have become truly global in reach. The Tour of Flanders was once an all-Belgian (well, all-Flemish really) affair and has had 69 winners from that country but it has boasted 37 foreign victors. Once upon a time Grand Tour competitors showed up to race the Monuments but as an era of specialization came into focus, these races seemed to favour different riders. In our time this trend seems to have reversed itself somewhat as stage racers such as Vincenzo Nibali, Dan Martin and most recently Remco Evenepoel and Tadej Pogacar have found success at the Monuments. The author points out, however, that no Tour de France winner has participated at Paris-Roubaix since Greg Lemond in the 1990s, overlooking Bradley Wiggins’ ride there in 2015 at the end of his career.

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Greg Lemond after Paris-Roubaix

All the races profiled in “The Monuments” truly have character and it is perhaps the only fault of the book that while each section provides a map there are no other illustrations. Grand Tours change their parcours often enough that stages can be anonymous outside of famous climbs but the Monuments all have their special places. And it is noted that in the Tour de France “might makes right,” with only a few riders realistically have a chance to win, while at the Monuments, where there is no tomorrow, there is an element of randomness. Roger de Vlaeminck, one of only three cyclists, along with fellow countrymen Eddy Merckx and Rik van Looy, to win all five races, said that for Paris-Roubaix there were three things you had to do: be strong, be at the front, and be lucky.

The author concludes this excellent updated book with:

“The Tour may offer fame and wealth, but the Monuments provide their own special glory and an indelible connection to the great champions of the past; to those riders whose deeds made landmarks like the Poggio, Oude Kwaremont, Arenberg, La Redoute and Ghisallo as renowned as any of the sport’s lgendary places.”

“The Monuments—The Grit and Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races”
by Peter Cossins
441 pages, softbound, revised expanded edition
Bloomsbury Sport, London, 2023
ISBN: 978-1-399-40786-1
Suggested Price: US$20/C$25.59
(Photos here are not from the book.)

*** Available from AMAZON.COM at: www.amazon.com/Monuments-Glory-Cyclings-Greatest-One-day. ***

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