Images: Justin Britton
I’d like to welcome you to a new occasional feature, which will pit a group of writers from the team against one another as they argue over which race was the best within a given category.
Over the course of the season we will have SERIOUS DISCUSSIONS – for example over which stage of the Tour de France was the best, or which was the best race of the year, but we may also indulge in some – ahem – less serious moments, for example (but not in any way limited to) which was the best breakaway effort, best new kit, or best social media account – so look out for these in the future.
First up though, we need to talk about the Cobbled Classics. As we bid farewell to Easter and pitch headlong towards the Ardennes, and with Grand Tours edging ever closer, we must take some time to mourn the loss of a series of races which makes Spring as a cycling fan unforgettable, year in, year out.
This year has been no different, with races knocking it out of the park, in terms of intrigue, entertainment and superior feats of athletic prowess. But which was the best? Over to the team, to convince you that their favourite Cobbled Classic should be yours, too…
Stine Momo Agerbæk kicks off proceedings by fighting the corner of E3 Saxo Bank Classic, the little Tour of Flanders that so often exceeds expectation with thrilling racing, whetting the appetite for what’s to come.
Why E3? It boils down to exactly 3 things. And the result sheet isn't even one of them…
1) E3 was, if anything, THE race where the dramatic curve never flatlined, despite the twisting, turning ups and downs of the Flemish hellingen.
My manicurist (if I had one) might disagree with the value of this; but it was nail-bitingly suspenseful all the way to the finish line. It was never predictable, never “well, that’s it then…”, never settled, never dull.
E3 kept reinventing itself as it unfolded until the final collaborative crescendo. A roaring bang. Not the solo version of a victory march and a whimper.
2) It showcased significant elements that in retrospect made the Cobbled Classics 2023 special.
E3 had all the ingredients, all the drama, the scope of a 260 km monument condensed down to 200 km of pure unapologetic racing joy.
It featured the select supergroup trend. The favourites opening fire with 80-100km to go. The battle royale between flashy pew-pew accelerations and unwavering gritty stubbornness. Sweet and silly moments aplenty. Shiny new faces and unexpected teams joining the classic superstar protagonists. Everyone pitched in, magic happened. E3 was all this and more. The quintessential “2023-Classics” concentrate if you will.
3) E3 delivered exactly what it promised…
Three Extraordinary riders giving their all. Three supernovas, together to the end - shining on the podium, as it should be. No accidents, injuries or untimely mechanicals, no lingering 'what ifs' complicating the post-script. E3 stands as a finished masterpiece in its own right.
So, while I can (and will) wax poetically about other races; this triumphant trio and the epic, exciting, engaging race they created together has my heart, soul, and words for now.
Oh… and as a bonus feature, it gave me my new favourite gif…
Next, Dan Challis reflects on a vintage edition of De Ronde, which saw three titans of the sport go head to head…
The race everyone was thinking about, but were too cool to say.
Pogačar attacks, more Pogačar attacks, that guy falling over while Pogačar attacked – the men’s Tour of Flanders in 2023 was the most exciting race of the cobbled classics.
The two-time Tour de France winner knew that he had to make the race as hard as possible to give him the best chance of winning the tussle with his two main opponents. It was the most impressive individual performance of the year so far, a demonstration of everything that defines the great Slovenian.
The cobble gods even threw in heartbreak and controversy. The early crashes which ruined the chances of many were not what anyone wanted to see, but they added to the drama of the day.
The 2023 men’s Tour of Flanders wasn’t just the best race of the cobbled classics, it was a moment in history. It’s one we won’t forget in a hurry.
And who knows? Perhaps in a few years’ time, we will look back on this race as a piece in Tadej Pogačar’s five Monument jigsaw.
Next up, Peter Barnes pitches for Paris-Roubaix Femmes, a race which saw the unexpected writ large.
Paris-Roubaix Femmes has to be the best cobbled classic this season. It was such an incredible race – it had drama, it had crashes that left you gasping, it had punctures and misfortune.
There was a big breakaway, not that the host broadcaster wanted anyone to know it seemed, and all the time whilst Daniek Hengeveld was solo, the chasing group was not shown. There was the drama of the Kopecky attack on sector 12, and then the crash that took the favourites group out. Most of all it had the peloton playing the role of Tantalus in this Greek epic, almost within touching distance of the breakaway on the approach to Roubaix but never able to grab it. The race had the belief that the breakaway might make it, but the intrigue created by the cameras barely showing it; at one point focussed so intently on a group that had dropped from the break that viewers were led to believe they were the break and about to be caught, until the reveal: that Marta Lach, Alison Jackson et al were still going strong. There was also time for a final twist with Femke Markus crashing in the velodrome itself, and All Action Ali Jackson holding off her competitors to take the sprint and earn herself a cobblestone. Truly a race for the ages.
And last but by no means least, Anna McEwen pledges her support to the men’s Paris-Roubaix, a race of many stories.
Paris-Roubaix is as glorious as it’s terrible. It’s this contradiction that makes it the most compelling.
On Sunday we watched as with each cobbled sector the peloton is whittled down to an elite group of 7. From these, it’s Van der Poel that breaks free to head toward the velodrome and an unstoppable victory. The soundtrack to his win is the roar of the crowds, which echo around this most prestigious of cycling theatres.
But the story of the victor, is just one. The magic of Paris-Roubaix is that it’s the race of many stories. Each rider that starts, ends up with a tale worth telling.
A crash ends Sagan’s final battle against these cobbles. The lasting image of him is that of him sat on the grass, bloodied, and dazed.
The youngest rider, Tarling, crashed but remained determined. He soloed 90km to finish just OTL; the image of his proud but weary face decorating social media.
The uncontrollable joy expressed by Philipsen; boundless and contagious.
Degenkolb, collapsed at the end. Overcome with emotion about a dream cruelly snatched away in a matter of seconds.
Mechanicals robbed Van Aert of his chance. His expression on the podium is one of such utter disappointment it breaks my heart.
This race is unrelenting in its brutality and heroics. 135 make it, 3 OTL, 37 DNF. I could write about them all.
As Van der Poel wins, disbelief and joy etched in his expression, I rush through a myriad of emotions of what is, and for what might have been. It is impossible to land on which is the right one, as I feel them all, all at once.
Paris-Roubaix may be ‘Hell of the North’ for the riders, but it is also an exquisite form of torture for the fans too.
THE FINAL JUDGEMENT – one for the road…
And so it falls on me to adjudicate, and cast my vote for the best cobbled classic of the season. While my esteemed colleagues make a great case for their chosen races, and have me almost convinced, I’d like to propose a final alternative. It’s technically inadmissible if we’re being strict with the criteria. Not strictly a classic, and not particularly cobbled, Brugge-de Panne nonetheless belongs in the fabled run-in to Flanders week just as surely as the likes of Gent-Wevelgem and even semi-classics like Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and the men’s race was so unexpectedly brilliant that it warrants inclusion (the women's was too, but I only have space for one).
Brugge-de Panne is a race for sprinters, and the start list at this edition did not disappoint, reading like a who’s who of sprinting palmares.
The grim, relentless rain and wind of the Belgian Spring provided the ultimate obstacle for the determined riders this year, and they were forced to show their mettle beyond the usual dash for the line. It was balls to the wall madness from the moment the broadcast dropped in, with echelons forcing splits in the bunch and requiring the favourites to manoeuvre their way to the front.
The outcome was nothing short of spectacular: a selection that included almost all of the world’s elite fast men, not just sprinting but actually racing, most without lead-out men, working together for the greater good, then attacking one another later on, with the young guns Jasper Philipsen and Olav Kooij breaking away from the rest, along with Yves Lampaert who instigated a tactical decision-making nightmare for Soudal-QuickStep as their leader for the day Fabio Jakobsen was caught in the chasing group.
The final surge for the line was won by arguably the best sprinter in the world right now, Philipsen, but the fact that Kooij almost had him is testament to the strength of the next generation of sprinters, and their ability to do more than just power over a line. It was a thrilling race and is my pick for the best one-day race of the Spring, cobbles or no.
Was that a cop-out? I’m not sure, but I stand by my decision, as do my colleagues. It’s a brilliant demonstration of the state of the sport right now, that five different opinions can be posited to a question and all be valid. This Cobbled Classics season has been one to remember, that’s for sure.