PEZ Bookshelf: The Monuments – The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races
While many of our cycling heroes – such as Peter Sagan – spent much of their winter preparing for a shot at glory winning one of the spring season Monuments, my winter training consisted of riding and being a team captain in the fun and silly winter riding competition known as Freezing Saddles (racking up more than 1,200 early season miles) and reading The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races by Peter Cossins.
Certainly, the Monuments need no introduction to PEZ readers. But to review, they are:
• Milan-Sanremo (won in 2017 by Michal Kwiatkowski, Sky)
• Tour of Flanders (won in 2017 by Philippe Gilbert, Quick Step)
• Paris-Roubaix (won in 2017 by Greg Van Avermaet, BMC)
• Liège-Bastogne-Liège (won in 2017 by Alejandro Valverde, Movistar)
• Tour of Lombardy (won in 2017 by Vincenzo Nibali, Bahrain-Merida)
As coveted as a grand tour victory, these are the hardest of races – often under the harshest conditions of wind, rain, mud, and even snow – for the hardest of racers. But unlike the grand tours – Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, or Vuelta a España – which have become more about team tactics and racing by power meter, the Monuments harken back more to the era of mano-a-mano with the strongest of the strong more often than not prevailing. In my lifetime, riders such as Eddy Merckx (one of only three riders to win all five Monuments), Roger De Vlaemnick (one of the other two riders to win all five Monuments – the third being Rik Van Looy), Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen, and Fabian Cancellera all come to mind.
Like the races themselves, Peter Cossins’ The Monuments is not an easy read (over 350 pages not including the appendices in the paperback edition!) If you want a quick and easy read, visit Wikipedia. But if you want to learn what makes these races so great – especially if you’re only familiar with them in their current form – read the book.
Interestingly, Cossins chose to organize the book not in the order of the races on the race calendar. Instead, they are presented in chronological order based on their age. Here are some glimpses to whet your appetite.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège – La Doyenne
Liège is the longest standing of the Monuments. Hence it’s name, La Doyenne – the Old Lady. It was first run on May 29, 1892 with 33 riders (all Belgian) riding 250 kilometers. Even before the turnaround in Bastogne, there were only three riders in contention. The winner was Léon Houa. It took him just under five hours to reach Bastogne and an hour longer to return to Liège. His average speed was 23 km/hr (a little over 14 mph) astride a 11.6 kg (about 25.5 pounds) bike.
Liège is famous for Bernard Hinault’s epic victory in the snow and icy cold in 1980. More than 30 years later, Hinault says, “My fingers are still very sensitive to the cold.” Yet, “I still have very good memories of that day, even though I didn’t how the cold was going to affect my fingers.” And with the same brash panache The Badger was known for riding, he claims, “On the sporting side, it was actually quite an easy win because of the conditions.”
But perhaps even more epic (or as Cossins calls it, “appalling but epic,”) was the 1957 edition that started in cold and steady rain that turned to snow:
- As the snow grew heavier and the wind picked up, news came through that 5cm were coating the road over the Côte de Rosiers. At Vielsalm and the start of the Côte de Wanne, riders were resorting to urinating on their hands to get some warmth into them. One rider abandoned in tears, while defending champion De Bruyne keeled over, having been unable to free his feet from their straps because his hands were frozen. Teammate Désiré Keteleer tried to revive him, but De Bruyne told him: “It’s no use. Leave me.” Keteleer stayed with him, the pair of them climbing into the broom wagon.
Cossins also chronicles how Liège has changed. As an Ardennes Classic, we associate Liège with seemingly countless short, steep climbs. But the race didn’t really take on that character until the 1960s when it had 13 climbs – twice as many as Liège’s early days. The Merckx era saw the introduction of the iconic La Redoute, which averages 9.5 percent over 1.7 kilometers. But the long-range attacks often launched on La Redoute have become a thing of the past thanks to the inclusion in the 1990s of the double-digit average gradient Côte de Saint-Nicolas some six kilometers from the finish, which is no longer in Liège but in the suburb of Ans. According to Cossins:
- The issue many have with this climb is that it is so tough it forces the contenders to hold back until the very end of the race, effectively neutralising previous ascents, including those in the trilogy [Wanne- Stockeu-Haute-Levée] and La Redoute… Add in the final testing drag up to the finish line in Ans, and you have a very different finish from those used before the 1990s.
Paris-Roubaix – The Hell of the North
Like many (at least amongst those of my … ahem … older … generation), my initiation to Paris-Roubaix was Jørgen Leth’s now classic documentary A Sunday in Hell. If there could be only one Monument, it would have to be Paris-Roubaix. Cossins sums up why nicely:
- The best known one-day event in cycling, and arguably the sport’s biggest race after the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix is one of the greatest anachronisms in modern sport. Like racing a Formula 1 car around the tight streets of Monaco, Paris-Roubaix is a throwback to organized sport’s early days, an event that provides its competitors with a spectacularly unique challenge. According to its former race director Jacques Goddet, “Paris-Roubaix is the last of folly that cycle sport puts before its participants.”
Do you wonder why the finish of Roubaix is on a velodrome? The race’s founders were textile magnates Théodore Vienne and Maurice Perez who built a velodrome in Barbieux Park as a way to bring attention to Roubaix. Opened in June 1895, the Vélodrome Roubaisien hosted most of the best track riders of the time – including Marshall “Major” Taylor. Based on their success, Vienne and Perez came up with the idea of a race starting in Paris and ending on the velodrome in Roubaix as a way to bring even more attention to Roubaix.
But for Vienne and Perez, Paris-Roubaix was meant merely “a training race preceding Bordeaux-Paris by four weeks” with “the distance of 280km as ‘child’s play’ compared to the 560km event that followed.” And in what would portend the character of the race:
- Rousseau [the director of Paris-Vélo sporting daily] dispatched his main cycling correspondent , Victor Breyer, to survey the route between the capital and Roubaix. Breyer roped in a colleague with a car who took him and his bike as far as Amiens on the first day of his reconnaissance. The next day dawned sunny, but Breyer was soon riding in deluge. He laboured on for hours, eventually reaching the Vélodrome Roubaisien bedraggled, exhausted and in a foul mood. He considered sending a telegraph to Minart [the editor of Paris-Vélo] advising him to drop the diabolical project, but decided to wait until he had dinner with Vienne and Perez. By the next morning, thanks to the hospitality and generosity of his hosts, Breyer viewed the project in a different light.
And so Paris-Roubaix was born and first raced in 1896. Fifty-one riders started. Some nine hours and 280 kilometers later, the winner was German Josef Fischer who had “encounters with animals on the route, but managed to avoid a bolting horse and circumnavigate a herd of cows that had escaped on to the road.”
Today, the cobbles define Paris-Roubaix and we think of it as the most grueling Monument with now 29 cobbled sectors in the 2018 edition. But there as a time when they were almost extinct. Road improvements in the 1960s reduced the 1965 edition to a mere 22 kilometers of cobbled sectors (compared to 54.5 kilometers in 2018). The 1980s saw the formation of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix who sought out new sections of pavé to include in the route, as well as restoring existing sections. As a result, the ”crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, highlighted by French writer René Fallet’s warning that ‘The De Vlaemnicks of the world are facing the same threat as baby seals’ has become a success story in the modern era.”
The Tour of Lombardy – The Race of the Falling Leaves
My favorite monument? The Giro di Lombardia. In part because my all-time favorite racer, Fausto Coppi, has won the race a record five times (1946-1949 and 1954). Appropriately, there is a section entitled “Coppi in his pomp.”. But also because it is considered the climber’s classic. Some compare the Tour of Lombardy to La Doyenne because both are hilly courses. But they differ in character. Liège features shorter and steeper climbs in more rapid succession. Lombardia has longer climbs spread out over the course that tends to favor pure climbers over power climbers. Indeed, the Tour of Lombardy is probably the only Monument that in modern times can be seriously contested by a grand tour rider. It also has more technical descents – something two-time winner Vincenzo Nibali (2015 and 2017),who has won all three grand tours and is noted for his descending acumen, has capitalized on.
Part of what makes Lombardia special is its place on the calendar. As its nickname “The Race of the Falling Leaves” intimates, it is a fall rather than spring Classic. It is the last race of import before the Worlds, which take place in October. If Paris-Roubaix is the most grueling of the Monuments, the Giro di Lombardia is the most demanding. According to none other than Eddy Merckx: “It’s an admirably designed race that offers terrain that suits aggressive riders and suits my temperament very well. It is, alongside Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the most demanding race on the calendar.” Indeed, it was the toughest Monument for Merckx. He lost five times before finally winning his first of two Lombardias (1971 and 1972).
Lombardia also has the most iconic climb of all the Monuments – the Madonna del Ghisallo. – which was added to the race in 1919. The climb itself is some 10 kilometers long with an average gradient of 5 percent with the steepest section at 11 percent. Atop the climb rests a chapel:
- By pure definition this is the most iconic place in cycle sport. In October 1948, Pope Pius XII lit “the permanent flame of the Ghisallo.” The lamp containing the flame was transported by car to Milan from the Pope’s residence at Castel Gandolfino, near Rome. From there, a relay of cyclists including Coppi and Gino Bartali carried the flame up to the small chapel in the village of Magreglio at the top of the Ghisallo Pass. In October 1949, the Pope declared the chapel would become the site of the patroness of Italian cyclists.
The Ghisallo is where Coppi often made his mark in the race. According to Coppi’s long-time mechanic, Giuseppe “Pinella” de Grandi: ”He would keep his rivals in check until the first ramps of the Ghisallo, and then he would scatter them. The process was always the same. Fausto used to cross the summit with a significant advantage, which he used to almost double on the descent down to Erba.”
But beyond being my favorite Monument, The Tour of Lombardy was my favorite part of the book because Cossins introduced me to Giovanni Gerbi aka “The Red Devil,” who had a win-at-all-costs approach to racing:
- In the weeks leading up to the race [the inaugural 1905 edition], Peugeot’s Giovanni Gerbi had looked over the race route as many as 20 times and realized that the rain would make progress difficult. Yet, he had noticed there was a narrow strip of firmer compacted earth in between the tramlines running from Lodi to Crema in the race’s opening kilometres. To get onto this strip, Gerbi went to the front of the group and accelerated hard, then pulled aside as if preparing to abandon. In the rush to respond to his injection of pace, riders clattered into the tracks and each other, resulting in a heap of bikes and riders. Meanwhile, Gerbi stepped in between the rails and got under way again.
However, two years later what could be considered as smart riding (the first marginal gain?) and within the rules by Gerbi turned to outright cheating and treachery (if not by Gerbi himself, then his fans):
- Although initially confirmed as the winner after he finished 40 minutes up on Garrigou, Gerbi was relegated to last place the next day. His rivals accused him of numerous illicit manoeuvres, including damage to the route that slowed his rivals and caused them to crash, used of pacers and encouraging his supporters to block a level crossing and spread nails along the route. Gerbi insisted he had done nothing wrong, but received a two-year ban that was later reduced to six months after his angry fans carried out a public burning of copies of La Gazzetta.
Milan-Sanremo – La Classicissima
How do you know when spring has arrived? When the long thin line of the peloton is strung out on the coastal road contesting the opening Monument of the racing season: Milan-Sanremo – also known as La Classicissima and La Primavera.
But did you know that Milan-Sanremo has its roots in a failed car race? Three Sanremo notables – Marcello Ameglio, a lawyer from a well-established local family; Stefans Sghirla, a respected engineer; and Giambattista Rubino, a banker and first president of the Sanremese Ciclismo cycling club – had the idea for a bicycle race to draw more tourists to Sanremo and boost the resort’s profile:
- They fully expected to persuade [Eugenio] Costamanga [co-owner of Gazzetta dello Sport] to back their new event, particularly as his newspaper had successfully launched the Giro di Lombardia in the autumn of 1905. However, Costamanga reminded them of the fate of the rally just four days before. Only two of the 33 cars that started in Milan had reached the finish in Sanremo after two brutal days on unsurfaced and rutted roads. How could cyclists be expected to cover the same distance in a single day, he asked them.
But the trio prevailed – with the help of “The Red Devil,” Giovanni Gerbi, who rode over the Turchino Pass with Luigi Ganna and Carlo Galetti to prove to Costamanga that the crossing was possible by bicycle – and Milan-Sanremo was first raced in 1906.
Gerbi raced first edition of Milan-Sanremo and was true to form. First, he conspired with his Bianchi teammate, Lucien Petit-Breton:
- The canny 22 year-old had quickly worked out that he could earn far more by collaborating with his illustrious new teammate, Petit-Breton. Bianchi had promised Gerbi two and a half lire for every kilometre covered if he were to win Sanremo. Yet Gerbi had heard Bianchi had offered Petit-Breton six times that for the victory. Not long after the small peloton started on its long ride south, Gerbi edged up alongside Petit-Breton and whispered: “If I help, will you split your winnings in half?”“D’accord,” Petit-Breton murmured back.
The finish featured Gerbi, Petit-Breton, and Peugeot’s Garrigou, who “must have known he had little chance of outsmarting and beating two riders from Bianchi, but Gerbi, who would pocket more than 1,000 lire if Petit-Breton took the title, wasn’t about to let him try. As Petit-Breton opened the sprint 500m from the line, Gerbi grabbed Garrigou’s collar and all but yanked him to a halt.” Gerbi would eventually admit his crime … 30 years later!
It’s stories like this that make The Monuments such a worthwhile read. We realize both how different and how much the same our sport is after more than 100 years.
France’s Raymond Poulidor was known as the “Eternal Second” because he finished on the podium – but not the top step – so many times. Nonetheless, Milan-Sanremo is among his impressive palmares. In fact, he won in 1961 on his first try! But almost didn’t. About 125 kilometers from the finish, Poulidor punctured and was ready to abandon the race.
- When [Antoine] Magne [the Mercier team manager] saw Poulidor starting to unlace his shoes, he asked: “What are you doing?”
“As you can see, I’m abandoning. Continuing on is pointless as the leaders are too far ahead,” Sanremo debutant Poulidor replied.
“Raymond, I am forbidding you from abandoning. You have no right to do so. A race is not lost in advance,” Magne insisted once and then again.
Poulidor eventually made his way back to the peloton, instigated a three-man break on the Capo Berta, attacked on the Poggio, and came first on the Via Roma despite being directed off course by a policeman on the final bend. Making his victory even sweeter: “Mercier doubled his salary that evening, enabling him to marry his fiancée Gisèle a month later.”
The Tour of Flanders – Vlaanderens Mooiste
I would be surprised if PEZ readers didn’t know that the Tour de France was the creation of a newspaper (L’Auto which is now L’Eqiupe) and that the yellow newsprint is the inspiration for the Maillot Jaune. Similarly, the pink newsprint of La Gazzetta de la Sport and the Maglia Rosa in the Giro d’Italia. But did you know that the Tour of Flanders was also borne of a newspaper? ”As with many of the other great events on the cycling calendar, the Ronde emerged for a desire to promote a newspaper, in this case Sportwereld.”
The two men most often credited with making Ronde van Vlaanderen a reality are August De Maeght and Karel Van Wijnendaele. Maeght was a print company owner who was about to launch Sportewereld in the summer of 1912. Van Wijendaele was a sports journalist who was lured away from another publication, Sportvriend, and a passionate fan of cycling. Cossins introduces us to a third man, Leon Van den Haute, who “played a much more fundamental role in establishing the race.”
- On 17 February 1913, Sportwereld unveiled the Tour of Flanders, announcing the race would take place on 25 May 2013. Van den Haute’s commitment ot the project in the three months between the announcement and race day was total. As well as organizing the finances, he sorted out the route, a task that was not without complication as the towns of Loderen and Oudenaarde refused the race passage, or at least demanded the race was neutralized when it passed through. Oudenaarde’s reluctance to welcome the Ronde is particularly notable as it is now the proud home of the event’s finish and of the Tour of Flanders Museum.In the days immediately before the race, Van den Haute put out the signs marking the route, decided on the position of the control points and checked the condition of the roads, all of which makes it harder to understand why someone with such a fundamental role has been all but erased from the Ronde’s history.
Without Van den Haute, we would not have the fabled cobbled climbs, or hellingen, of the Molenberg, Oude Kwaremont, Peterberg, and Koppenberg.
From its inception until 1948, the Tour of Flanders was considered largely a Belgian race with Belgian winners every year except one. That changed in 1949 when Italian Fiorenzo Magni won. He won again in 1950. According to his fellow competitor, Louis Caput: “Magni is undoubtedly a rider of quality, an incredible fighter at the end of a races, when he feels victory is within reach, but he often lets others take on the role of policing the race, of provoking the selection. He’s not a Coppi, a Bartali, a Bobet, a Van Steenbergen, a Kübler.” Whatever he wasn’t, Magni was a three time consecutive winner of Flanders in 1951. Despite Caput’s description, in 1951, “over those final 70km he [Magni] put on a performance worthy of Coppi, Van Steenbergen or any other of the greatest Classics riders. He finished five and a half minutes up on runner-up Bernard Gauthrier, with Redolfi and Petrucci taking third and fourth place respectively, more than ten minutes later.”
Just as – if not more – important, Magni “changed the international perception of the Tour of Flanders with his three consecutive wins. Foreign riders not only turned up in greater numbers, but also went into battle on the cobbles and bergs believing the could beat Belgium’s best Classics exponents.”
Magni was known as the Italian Lion of Flanders. For riders of my generation, that moniker is for Johan Museuuw, who also won the Ronde three times but not consecutively (1993, 1995, and 1998). What I didn’t know about the Lion of Flanders symbol that adorns my Lazer Helium helmet Aeroshell cover is that
- there are two versions of it: the official standard of Flanders, which was legally adopted in 1973, that shows a rampant black lion with red claws and tongue on a field of gold. However, those who support Flemish nationalism – and they come from all parts of the political spectrum, not just the right – favour a flag where the lion does not have the red claws and tongue, and consequently does not share the colours of Belgium’s national flag.
Another three-time winner is Fabian Cancellara (2010, 2013, 2014). But before Spartacus was another Swiss rider, Heiri Suter, who was the first foreign rider to win Flanders in 1923. Wijnendaele was critical of Suter’s victory because he wasn’t Belgian, but this was “a huge disservice to Suter who rightly considered the Fabian Cancellara of his day. Victory at Paris-Roubaix a fortnight later made him the first man to complete that famous double, which Cancellara emulated in 2010 and again in 2013. The two Swiss are the only non-Belgians to have achieved this feat.”
The Final Word
Ultimately, Peter Cossins’ The Monuments is a monumental work that every fan of bicycle racing should read. The Monuments are probably best summed up by former pro racer Thor Hushovd , who was third at Milan-Senremo twice (2005 and 2009) and second (2010), third (2009), and eighth (2011) at Paris-Roubaix:
- “These races are brutally hard, they are dirty, they are very long. Everyone knows the rider who wins these races is a really tough guy, a true hard man. Then you think about the history of these races, you look at the great names that have won them in the past, and you realize what it would to win one of them, that your name would go down alongside all of cycling’s legends. I love riding them.”
Thor Hushovd’s words encapsulate the regard most professional cyclists have for the Monuments. The Norwegian, winner of the world title in 2010, went on to confess he would gladly swap one of his eight Tour de France stage victories for success in a Monument.
So dear PEZ readers, now that you’ve had a taste, hopefully you’ll want to devour the whole book and come away with the same regard as Thor Hushovd.
The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races
By Peter Cossins
Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2014
• Buy The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races at AMAZON.COM
# Photos here are not from the book. #
PEZ contributor Chuck Peña is a former weekend warrior racer who now just rides for fun, but every once in a while manages to prove Fausto Coppi’s adage true: Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill. He lives in Arlington, VA with his wife (who is his favorite riding partner), his daughter (who takes great joy in beating him at golf all the time, but at least he’s still faster on a bike), and their dogs (who are always there to greet him when he comes home from a ride). You can follow him on Twitter @gofastchuck