Stretching from what is traditionally known as ‘opening weekend’ in late February, all the way to the epic Paris-Roubaix Femmes, the cobbled classics is arguably the most thrilling period of the entire cycling season. Characterized by intense one day action across roads that you otherwise wouldn’t take a racing bike across, these races are the gladiatorial rings of the sport.
It all kicks off for Human Powered Health Cycling in Belgium, the heartland of the classics, at the men’s and women’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on February 25 and then Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne the next day.
What will follow is a whirlwind of races that will push our athletes to the extreme as they navigate the robustly paved roads of northern Europe. They will take on some of the most legendary names in the sport including Le Samyn, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars Door Vlaanderen and the women’s Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix Femmes monuments – two of the most prestigious one days in the calendar.
Resident Belgian, team director and classics legend Hendrik Redant knows these races like the “inside pocket of my jersey.” A two-time winner of Le Samyn and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, Redant competed with, and against, some of the most iconic names in spring classics history and is the perfect guide to this unique part of the season.
We sat down with Redant ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to talk about the thrilling world of cobbles, climbs, dirt, grinding gears, frenzied fans and french fries.
The classics are a big party in Belgium. Cycling is one of the biggest sports alongside soccer and people really look forward to the fight between the riders. All these races tend to have all those Belgian climbs with the cobbles and the narrow roads and so it is the start of a legendary period in the calendar. If you see in the Tour of Flanders people are going between spots to see the riders and it’s so close to the people. People live with this sport and it’s completely different from other countries. I will tell you if you throw a bidon away here there will be about 45 guys jumping on it.
I love the opening weekend. There is a buzz at the start. Thousands of people are cheering you to sign on and you can feel that they are living with their champions and it makes your adrenaline go up.
One of my sports directors used to say, “whatever you win before March 1, it doesn’t count.” Of course, this has changed with more races but all these semi-classics are the last preparations for the main event, the Super Bowl of cycling, the Tour of Flanders, everybody is reaching for that [the lead-up is like the playoff season].
It all went right for me in 1990. I had already been top five in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and won Kuurne in ‘88. I just was strong, I knew the parcours and every detail of the race so I didn’t waste any energy and I was so good at the end that I could just attack. I was always in the final at Samyn because it suited me but honestly, I didn’t do anything different in preparation. I trained the same way but I didn’t have any bad luck or puncture. I just had a lot of motivation.
There are fine margins in these races. I could have won Omloop but a mistake in the final lost it for me. I followed an attack but I was in a small team and everyone else had a teammate so I was easy to counter. I was overconfident but I didn’t make that mistake the day after and at Kuurne it was me who attacked, me who made the group, and in the final, me who attacked them, and in the end, I won it.
Paris-Roubaix was the one that got away. I was ahead alone on Gruson [one of the final cobbled sectors] in 1992 and I punctured. I felt strong and I really was going for it and then I got a puncture with 15 to go and at that point, the world falls apart. I would never be in that position again to win that one. I could have won in ‘91 as well, I was really strong but there you lose through bad luck. These races are vulnerable to that. There are more chances to have punctures and to crash and sometimes you can’t avoid that. That day was one of the worst of my career.
That’s my one regret. I would have immediately been a different rider. The classic is a legend. Your status as a rider gets big immediately. Of course, it would have brought me more start money but you are looked at as one of those icons. There is a lot of pressure but that is something you have to handle. The year after I won Paris–Tours and I could see already the difference in how people look at you, and how other riders look at you. It didn’t happen but if you do win that race, you don’t do it by chance. It’s not someone who had luck who wins it. I can tell you, all those guys have high expectations and a big engine, otherwise, you do not win a monument by luck.
It was immediately obvious that Johan Musseuw was special. We were on Lotto-Mavic in 1992 and at the national championships with 140km to go, he came to me and said, “Hendrik, can you control the peloton, start riding.” I was like, “what do you mean, there’s still 140km to go,” he said, “don’t worry, I will win this race,” and he did. So he started riding and controlling every break from 140 out. When I saw that, I thought, man this guy is going to do a lot of special things and of course, he went on to win three Tour of Flanders and three Paris-Roubaix, world champion, you name it.
That’s the difference between the big champions. I remember being on the Molenberg [a cobbled climb in the Tour of Flanders with pitches of 20%] and I turned into the road and Johan was ahead of me and we start passing guys and over the top of the climb, it is still rising onto the asphalt. I see him going from his little ring immediately to the big ring and I was not capable of that, I could only switch at the back. I was completely flabbergasted as my legs were exploding and for sure his were as well but the character to do that, and to speed up is the little detail that separates the champions from the guys who are just on a good day.
I always focused on wheels to follow. I would usually look for Franco Ballerini and Peter Van Petegem. I knew I could fight with them and they would respect me as I respect them in positioning. I had about four or five but with Roubaix it was always Ballerini and sometimes they’d look for me, but not often [Hendrik laughs].
Following Ballerini on the cobbles was eye-opening. I was riding for Van Petegem at Roubaix in ‘95. I told him about one of the sectors late on. It was Cysoing or one of those so we are starting the final of the race and I said we just have to stay with Ballerini. We turned onto the cobbles and I’m on Franco’s wheel and Peter’s on mine. Franco starts accelerating and I go from my 16 at the back to my 15, the 14, and 13 all on the big ring and I just couldn’t hold it and we were both dropped. The only person who could try to bring it back was [Gilbert] Duclos-Lassalle (GAN) but that guy had so much speed he finished solo. I had a lot of shame about being dropped that day but I could not believe my eyes.
Paris-Roubaix was the most special race. I had one year at Flanders where I thought I could win it in ‘96 but for me, that was just above my abilities but Paris-Roubaix was the most exciting.
Racing on the Muur van Geraardsbergen was incredible. Our team will do it on Saturday. When I raced it was close to my home in Ninove so my supporters were there and it made me double motivated. We did a criterium there once and climbed it about 20 times and my name was written and the letters were like ten meters high and so when you see that you get the shivers all over your body.
I know first-hand how dangerous the cobbles are. You have to have the guts. It was ‘97 and we were climbing the Kemmelberg [the statement climb in Gent-Wevelgem] in the Three Days of De Panne and in that era we were still descending the cobbles the way they now climb up and not down the service road. We were going 75km/h and you are always airborne as you are bumping from the cobbles. Someone lost a bidon, it exploded on the road, one guy touched his brakes and there was a crash of about twenty guys and I could not avoid it. I descended that climb about 100 times and only one time it went bad but that’s life.
I still blame myself. That was my last ever race. In my whole life, I would always be one of the first up the Kemmelberg. There was a breakaway and we were still 90km from the finish so I thought why am I going so hard? So I climbed slower and like 40 guys came past. I’m completely fresh but then you’re in a position where the hazards will affect you far more than being in the front. So I could have avoided a broken elbow, muscle tearing in my right leg and a broken jaw. To this day my elbows are not normal.
You need to be tough. It’s a special type of racing. Positioning is also so important, so fighting every five kilometers because if you enter the cobbles in one hundredth then you can forget the race immediately because there’s going to be carnage. It’s about concentrating all day which is different to most races, to stay in position, to avoid issues and so you need to have a lot of consistency as well as battling the circumstances of the weather.
It’s that sound for us 🤩
— Human Powered Health Cycling (@HumanPwrdHealth) February 20, 2023
A small run of form can change your career. Riders will look at you differently because they realize you know how to handle your bike on the cobbles. Everyone who wins a classic shows that they are at the top of their generation. Once someone like Wout van Aert is in position, people are happy to follow him but if you’re not known like that, riders are a bit scared to stay on your wheel and they won’t give you the freedom. It’s all about status.
It’s crucial having Gijs Van Hoecke and Jesse Vandenbulcke for their knowledge. The Belgians train on these roads and know every detail. In my career, I knew that ‘hey, at the white house in 200 meters there’s going to be a little left turn and the cobbles start immediately at 18%’ and I knew that I could pass on the left or the right, etc. It’s an advantage to have them because they have the same knowledge so if the director is stuck behind, they can make the call and tell everyone about the parcours. It’s so important to have that because if you react in the moment you will lose too much energy which you need in the final of the race.
I don’t think Messi will wave at you. [Hendrik says in reply to Freddy Maertens waving to the author] But your cycling heroes will. In the classics, the riders are so approachable. You can take photos with your heroes and it’s a sport for everyone. These guys will never say no. People even still ask for my photo and I will always stop and give them a handshake. Those things should never change, the classics should always be like that.
Human Powered Health Cycling one day spring calendar
2/25 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (women)
2/25 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (men)
2/26 Kuurne – Bruxelles – Kuurne (men)
2/28 Le Samyn des Dammes (women)
2/28 Le Samyn (men)
3/4 Grand Prix Criquielion (men)
3/5 Grote prijs Jean – Pierre Monseré (men)
3/8 GP Oetingen (women)
3/10 Drentse Acht van Westerveld (women)
3/11 Miron Ronde van Drenthe (women)
3/12 Albert Achterhes Profronde van Drenthe (men)
3/15 Danilith Nokere Koerse (men)
3/16 Grand Prix de Denain – Porte du Hainaut (men)
3/17 Bredene Koksijde Classic (men)
3/18 Classic Loire Atlantique (men)
3/19 Cholet – Pay de la Loire (men)
3/23 Classic Brugge-De Panne (women)
3/26 Gent-Wevelgem In Flanders Fields (women)
3/26 Gent-Wevelgem In Flanders Fields (men)
3/29 Dwars Door Vlaanderen (women)
3/31 La Route Adélie de Vitré (men)
4/2 Tour of Flanders (women)
4/8 Paris-Roubaix Femmes (women)
How to watch
Coverage of the spring campaign will be brought to you either by GCN+/Eurosport or on FloBikes. Check our social media on race day to find out when and how to tune in and make sure to look for behind-the-scenes updates from the team on the ground in northern Europe throughout the racing block.