Route reconnaissance for the spring classics

For many in northern Europe winter is long. But there are signs of spring in Belgium today. Mother nature can give us clues with early blooming flowers amd cycling has its own annual rituals. Today’s recon rides by teams on the course of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad are very much part of the spring routine. The spring classics are coming.

It makes sense to check the route of any race but it is essential for a Belgian event. Often you can scan the race roadbook and try to memorise the finish, “roundabout at 3km to go, sharp left-hander at 1500m and the finish line is slightly uphill”, easy enough. Teams usually send soigneurs to the finish who can report any surprises along the way and sometimes the more assiduous squads use Google’s Streetview and other tools to explore the route.

But a race in Belgium has tens or even hundreds of strategic points with narrow roads, cobbles, hills, sharp corners and sections exposed to the wind. If these were listed in the roadbook only a memory champion could recall them… and they’d probably fail after hours on the bike in cold weather with their blood sugar level dropping.

In place of this the reconnaissance, or verkenning in Dutch, is almost essential. Take a flat stretch of cobbles, it is rarely uniform. Perhaps you need to be on the left of the road when you enter to benefit from some smoother path but then need to cross over mid-way; or maybe the wind is blowing hard and there’s some shelter from a building or a hedge. On a climb there could be running water down the gutter meaning reduced traction. This knowledge is vital and it can make the difference between winning and losing.

It’s not just the cobbles and climbs, the approach is crucial too. Teams need to place their leaders at the front of the bunch when entering these strategic points but on a small road there’s no room for more than five riders across the road. The pace gets frantic as riders scrap for every bit of space on the road. All this happens whilst trying to dodge street furniture, from sunken drain-covers to flower pots and even parked cars and spectators. The approach roads can be as important as the cobbled climb.

Note it down: the top tube of Lars Boom's $5,000 bike.

There are so many details to remember that a reconnaissance ride will help but it’s still hard to remember it all, in the past riders would use race radios but these are banned in all races except those on the World Tour calendar and neither of this weekend’s racing is part of the World Tour. Instead it is common for riders to tape details to their stem or top tube to help them remember, the image above is from Lars Boom’s bike in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last year. Note the triangles denote climbs, the circles flat cobbles and the numbers state at what point they come in the race, for example the Molenberg is the ninth climb and come after 168km of racing.

Repetition helps, whether reviewing the route over winter for local riders or checking the route several times this year. Above all experience counts, those riders who have done the race ten times remember what happened in years past; the same for team managers who have both ridden and driven the course so many times.

But the verkenning is not for everyone. Foul weather in Belgium today means Omega Pharma – Quickstep won’t be out on the route. “The weather forecasts are not really beautiful, we must not take unnecessary risks” team manager Wilfreed Peeters tells Het Nieuwsblad but his team are in the minority with almost all the other teams due to inspect the course over the next few days.

Media event
Note also that these rides are also part of the Belgian media’s routine. Nobody covers cycling quite like the Flemish press with daily coverage of the classics and even the act of riding on the roads ahead of the race is enough to fill columns and entire pages of newsprint with who is doing what, right down to the number of kilometres ridden and who didn’t ride because of injury and illness.

Route reconnaissance is a springtime tradition tells us the classics are just days away. These practice rides are essential, a professional cyclist needs to know the roads. Nobody can remember every corner and cobble but the race can be won and lost thanks to these details and a good team won’t be surprised by a tight bend, a hole in the road or rough cobbles. There’s no substitute for riding the route and these rides are themselves part of the build-up to the spring classics. Four days to go…

34 thoughts on “Route reconnaissance for the spring classics”

  1. Fascinating insight thanks and love the image and key on the top tube of Boom’s bike. Could you answer a newbie query please – what, if any changes are made to bike setup for these races. I’m particularly thinking here of tyres. If they are going to be racing over wet cobbles and rutted sections do they go with what they normally ride on or do they change to something more suited to the conditions and if so what is it ? Thanks as always, Ian.

  2. Ian: the rubber can be changed, for example you will often see the green sidewalls of Vittoria’s all weather tubulars. Wider section tubs can be used but this is more for the most brutal races like Paris-Roubaix where often an extra layer of bartape is used too. The most common variation is simply adjusting the pressure, it is lowered for damp weather.

  3. So the ***real*** cycling season is now upon us. Excellent. It seems like Copenhagen and Cavendish was just a few weeks ago.

    OK family, I’ll see you again in October.

  4. Thanks Inner Ring. Not being able to have lots of different sets of rubber when I ride cross country (oops sorry for mentioning that on a road blog) I also simply lower the pressure when wet. Still often fall off though.

  5. Excellent piece! Reminds me the human mind is amazing when you think of how memory can help you visualize what’s coming around the next bend on the race course. Many of our tour routes are ridden by us just once each year but quite often as I start up (or down) I can remember the exact scene from 12 months (or more) earlier and am always sort of surprised when it turns out to look exactly like what I’d remembered. Now bring on the REAL racing season…how long ’till Milano-San Remo? Thanks Mr. Ring and all the folks who make commentsf here for keeping us entertained during the off-season.

  6. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is IMHO one of the underrated and undervalued races in the race calendar. Last year’s almost track like Match Sprint finish, in the rain was really what can make a race like this so much fun.

    Juan Antonio Flecha – I think you can peg him for another strong performance this year.

  7. I used to make a regular pilgrimage to De Ronde, but nowadays I prefer the Omloop – you can get closer to the riders, you can drive around more easily, and you don’t have to stand five deep at the key sections. Will be there on Saturday – again.

  8. A Sunday in Hell is one of our all-time faves! We’ll FINALLY get to see it live this year, making it three of the five monuments. 2013 will be The Ronde while L-B-L will wait for future opportunity, but I’ll get there before I croak (I hope).

  9. Benjamin Hall, sneaky link to your blog, but thank you. One of the few cycling sites defence internet doesn’t block, and a good read to boot.

    Cat4Fodder totally agree – I love the Omloop. It’s also a prize being the first classic of the season and as such presents a real psychological win for those who podium.
    Classics just re-affirm to me that our ‘sport’ is the best one.

  10. @Prashanth I bet that’s his spring classics bike. Most likely has a slightly longer wheel base and/or a tad more relaxed steering angle (both attribute to a more stable and “safer” ride, but at the expense of some of the razor sharp handling and acceleration pros prefer for the rest of the season), probably there is also extra room in the frame and fork for larger tires (regularly they’ll ride 23mm tires, but for the spring classics 25, and up to 28mm tires are widespread. Like Inrng said – look for those green Vittoria Pavé Specials)
    These bikes can be totally one-off customs, either made in-house in the manufacturers prototyping dept, by some nameless custom builder or even be a hybrid of two (or more) production bikes cobbled together to achieve the desired characteristics. Some riders even ride CX bikes for Paris – Roubaix, others have the luxury (?) of their bike supplier having a Spring Classics bike already in their catalogue – e.g. the Specialized Roubaix.
    Spring time is a lovely time to look for weird and wacky bikes in the peloton!

  11. BikeRog: racing on these roads is fierce but anyone can ride. It’s not for everyone but if you like cycling and enjoy riding then a trip to the area is an experience to think about. What is noticeable is just how all the places for classics are packed into a small place and with, say, three days of riding you can tick off almost every climb going in Flanders. You can of course stay longer, I’m just suggesting how concentrated the area is.

    Andy Logan: yes and I think I’ll try to write something about video streams and how to get the best out of them soon.

    Prashanth Bhat/Peter Lütken: the photo was taken on the day of the Het Nieuwsblad race and the notes are those of the race and not Paris-Roubaix of course. Also the Paris-Roubaix decals look stuck onto the bike above the lacquer, like it’s been done recently.

  12. I’m always struck by how consumers demand and buy bikes optimized for stuff like racing up Alpe d’Huez with a team car behind them, while their everyday riding is more like the spring classics. Bikes like the Roubaix are pretty rare exceptions and the Big S probably sells a lot more of the “race” bikes like their Tarmac and Venge than the Roubaix?

  13. @Larry T. I used to sell Cannondales for a living, and trying to get people to grasp the concept that Regular Joe would most likely be faster and happier on top of a Synapse than on a Super Six was pretty damn hard.
    Has a lot to do with how they’re marketed though. Even though Liquigas Cannondale manage to get a couple of their guys on top of a Synapse for a few of the classics, they’re still primarily perceived as a “comfort bike”. The Roubaix on the other hand is almost the other way around – a comfortable bike marketed as a racing machine for cobbles. It even says Roubaix on the top tube. The same store I worked in also sold Specialized mountain bikes, but no race bikes. People would come in and ask for a Roubaix, I’d show them a Synapse, and they’d walk out empty handed, still set on that Roubaix.

  14. Watching the classics on video stream is all part of the fun…. The Sporza commentary is amazing….even though i have no idea what they are talking about… Who are the commentators? Ex riders?

    Rhys. It was a bit sneaky, but i hope the inrng wont mind (feel free to delete the comment if you do.) I do like the photo though. It shows that the pros have just as much fun riding their bikes, whilst enjoying the history and prestige of the classics just as much as the fans and armchair DS’s.

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