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The Northern Classics Guide, Part 1: Cobbles and Climbs

Fasten your seatbelts — the northern classics are back for 2021. If traditionally you've only watched Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, we're begging you to tune in to as many of the nine races in the classics season as you can.
Women's World Tour Peloton at the Tour of Flanders 2020
Over the past twelve months, a handful of riders in women's and men's racing have proven to be inseparable at the finish line. They can climb, attack, sprint, solo to victory, and animate the race. This type of rider comes along once every decade. Think Peter Sagan, but in 2021, there is more than just one. Now, we've got an extra dimension of superb ability to add to the cobbles, climbs, weather, and mud. Marking a favourite is going to be difficult to manage now that there are five or six.

Treat the nine races like a protracted stage race. It will not only give you a narrative to follow going into the two biggest events scheduled to take place, Ronde van Vlaanderen (known also as Tour of Flanders) and Liege-Bastogne Liege, but you'll be able to get to the know the riders better, who are riding for revenge or to make amends. Who has formed rivalries and allies from the last race and who is in the form of their life?!
Cobbles and spares. 2021 guide to Tour of Flanders Route marker at Flèche Walloone
1. E3 Saxo Bank Classic

Starting and finishing in the west Belgian town of Harelbeke, E3 was given World Tour status in 2012. The route uses some of the climbs in the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen), making it a nice little opener for riders to put a marker in the sand and test tactics. There are 17 climbs in the race including the Kapelberg, the Paterberg, and the infamous Oude Kwaremont, plus a new addition to the 2021 route — the Eikenberg, a cobbled ascent of 1.25 kilometers at a 6.2% average grade.

Who Does it Suit?

Riders who have explosive power, bike handling skills, and aren't too heavy to climb over the hills. A pure sprinter like Kristoff may struggle. Look to Wout van Aert, former winner Greg van Avermaet, Matthieu van Der Poel, or Tom Pidcock.

2. Gent Wevelgem

Often called a sprinter's classic due to its flat finishing terrain, cobbles are only found on two climbs, the Kemmelberg and Kasselberg. The Kemmelberg is an infamous ascent riders will have to tackle three times in the race.

Who Does it Suit?

It has only been five months since Mads Pedersen sprinted over the line to win the rescheduled 2020 edition. He'll be a favourite to win again, along with the other strong sprinters, Alexandre Kristoff, Matteo Trentin, and Yves Lampaert.

Kwaremont climb in the Tour of Flanders

Guide to Paris-Roubaix 2021 and northern cobbled classics

Crashes on the cobble. Race guide to the 2021 Northern Classics
3. Dwars Door Vlaanderen

The 75th Dwars is the final race before the big audience-pulling Ronde van Vladrederen. Taking place in West Flanders, starting in Roeselare, and finishing in Waregem, Dwars shares the cobbled climbs of Kruisberg and Taaienberg with the Ronde. But it is the third ascent of the asphalt-covered Côte de Trieu that will be decisive. Two kilometres in length and 30km from the finish, an attack here may be the launchpad for a winner.

Who Does it Suit?

Once over the Côte de Trieu, riders face a cobbled flat section and then three more climbs averaging 5%-6%, but with steeper 12% sections in places. This is a puncheur’s paradise, in which one name springs to mind: Julian Alaphilippe. He's proven at the World Championships he can win with a solo attack from that distance. He just needs to stay out of sight of the peloton.

4.Ronde van Vlaanderen

The second Monument of the season. The Ronde or Tour of Flanders is a historic race that ever rider would love on their palmares. After starting in Antwerp, the race heads towards the town of Oudenaarde, and after a couple of preliminary cobbled sectors, the route starts a sequence of circuits, perfect for roadside fans, who will be monitored by robots this year. Flanders is characterised by its tough sequence of climbs with their uneven cobbles, muddy gutters and searingly steep Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont, and Kruisberg.

Who Does it Suit?

It’s the one-two punch of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg that are the most crucial on this year's route just 17km and 14km from the finish. Matthieu Van der Poel won the Ronde in October 2020. He will be the marked man but Flanders never plays out in a straightforward manner.

5. Scheldeprijs

The oldest cycling race still held in Flanders. First run in 1907, Scheldeprijs features a windswept early passage into the Netherlands, and cobblestone section of of Broekstraat. There aren't any further cobbles or climbs to speak of. The winds of coastline do the damage here.

Who Does it Suit?

This is a chance for the pure sprinters to get involved in classics season, especially with Paris-Roubaix just a few days away. Season's favourites may pass on this race. The finish is anything but a sprinting set piece. The twisting technical nature of the final makes for a challenging finale, and more often than not, it creates a bit of chaos. Look for Caleb Ewan.

Paris Roubaix in 2019
6. Paris Roubaix
The Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix is the third monument of the 2021 season. For the first time ever, there was meant to be women’s Paris-Roubaix, running just before the men’s. The 113km route is yet to be released. The race was set to finish on the velodrome in Roubaix, where history will be made with the first winner of the women’s ‘Hell of the North’. For those new to Paris-Roubaix, the race is characterised by its 29 cobbled sections rather than climbs. Each sector of cobblestones is rated between one star (the most straightforward) and five stars (the most difficult). As usual, attention will centre around the three toughest sections — Tranchée d’Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle, and the Carrefour de l’Arbre — which often prove pivotal to the outcome of the race. The vicious jutting d'Arenberg cobbles feature at 94km. Look for the favourite to get in a good position here. If you are out of place, you could miss a split in the peloton.
At 47km to go is the Mons-en-Pévèlè, which, if a rider is on the form of their life, is the place to go. If a small group leads the race after 250km of battling it out, Carrefour de l’Arbre at 2.1km to go is the ideal opportunity to put the hammer down, especially if a rider doesn't feel too confident about their sprint ability.
Who Does it Suit?
Cycling is dominated by new, young talent at the moment, though there is something to be said for experience, especially in a race so physically demanding. In 2019, it was veteran classics specialist Philippe Gilbert who won against Nils Pollit.
Favourite Matthieu Van der Poel won a rain-soaked stage of the 2021 Terrano Adriatico from a solo 52km attack, but 2021 will be his debut in the Paris-Roubaix. Tom Pidock is a former winner of the under-23 edition of the race.

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