On Comparisons With The Past

Pro cycling often reaches for historical comparisons, this blog included. There’s a rich history to exploit and in moments where it can be hard to work out the meaning of a performance or the value of a race, comparing today’s riders and results to the past can supply context. It can also be misleading.

Take the frequently asked question of whether Tadej Pogačar can win all five of the so-called “Monuments”, namely Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia. It’s a feat only Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck have achieved so as a present day accomplishment so it’d put Pogačar up with the best. That’s the point: it’s not just a difficult thing, it’s the comparison to feats of Eddy Merckx.

Only the concept of the Monuments is a relatively modern one and these five events got their unique status after the current set of riders to win them managed the feat. It came along with reform of the calendar for 1989 when a World Cup was established with “new” races in Canada and Britain. Attention was also paid to some of the special, traditional races to preserve their identity, including their extraordinary distance which continues today as in they’re all frequently over 250km. L’Equipe’s Philippe Bouvet described these five races as monumentales and the label seems to have stuck. So these five races were formally placed on a pedestal in 1989.

Before that, say, back in the day of Merckx these races were special but not part of restricted, elite circle of five special events. For example at times the Flèche Wallonne was the prime race of the “Ardennes week” and was part of the season-long Super Prestige calendar. In 1972 Eddy Merckx won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, obliterating the field even… but it wasn’t part of cycling’s top calendar that year. It was even held on a Thursday. It’s an example of how doing this and that today isn’t necessarily comparing races of the same value today.

Similarly the sport wasn’t always seen the same way. Spanish riders would often race in Spain and not much further, Italians raced in Italy. Now this is a generalisation verging on an exaggeration but all the same today’s teams are obliged to race across the world, it’s an entirely different system. Starting the five Monuments is obligatory for the 18 teams when decades ago it wasn’t. Take Rik Van Looy who won Sanremo and Lombardia while riding for Italian teams, he’d return to Sanremo when he rode for a Belgian team but never Lombardia again.

For another example of trouble with historical comparisons, take Jumbo-Visma’s recent 1-2-3 in the Vuelta a España. Unmatched? No because the KAS team took all the podium places in 1966. The same? Of course not. Now KAS did even better than Jumbo thanks to a 1-2-3-4 on GC, in fact they placed six riders in the top seven, the Fagor team salvaged a fourth place to spoil a KAS septuple. However the 1966 Vuelta isn’t comparable to the event we know today, the race that year almost didn’t happen and when it did go ahead, it was 17 days rather than the 21 days we know today. It had a small startlist with few foreign stars, especially when it came to the GC contenders, so as a feat it wasn’t as impressive and certainly not comparable to 2023’s vintage.

While we’re on it the 1966 Vuelta a España can also serve as another example, it only had 90 starters and six nationalities taking part. This year’s race 176 starters. The Bahrain team alone started with eight different nationalities. “Back in the day” the Tour de France field consisted of French riders and typically more from bordering countries like Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and Italy. To the point where even British riders were considered exotic, take Tom Simpson having to pose with a bowler hat. Today’s peloton is still very Euro with the French and Italians a large part of the World Tour peloton but there are Colombians, Americans, Australians and more. Of course the Slovenians too, who before 1990 were excluded from the pro peloton because of the Iron Curtain. It means today’s field is denser, there’s way more quality to pick among.

If anything all this makes today’s feats even more impressive. Bigger fields, stronger startlists, more rival teams: to win a Monument today might well be harder. But then again Federico Bahamontes branded today’s riders as soft because they got showers and massages so some things were harder back in the day. So we can hold up the quantitative results such as winning as many Monuments as Merckx, but rating the quality is a never-ending argument.

57 thoughts on “On Comparisons With The Past”

  1. Interesting post INRNG. I don’t really think comparisons over this lengthy period of time make a lot of sense, although they provide interesting points.
    Road conditions have improved enormously, bikes and gearing are in a different league, clothing has improved beyond recognition, teams are far better organized, todays riders don’t need to overace to earn a crust and today’s scientific approach was unheard of in the days of Van Looy and Merckx.
    All that said, Merckx must remain as the best rider of all time! Unless someone knows differently!

    • I agree – Eddy appears to still be the best. The issue with cycling in his generation, as mentioned by our host is there was very specific geographic limitations – ie. the top riders stayed very much in geographic silo’s.

      However, it appears that Eddy raced in a dominant fashion on any turf over his career. He won races across an annual calendar and very regularly had a great result at the world championships. I don’t know what would have happened if he had much deeper fields at all the races he showed up at, all we know is he dominated those he raced against.

      IMHO, I only see Pogacar, WVA, MVdP and POSSIBLY Remco being able to do this. Not even Sagan, Cancellara, Boogerd, Friere, Cav, Lance, Hinault, LeMond, Boonen are at the same level (IN MY OPINION).

      But, really really interesting blog post Inrng, thank you for writing it (and for reopening the comments!).

      • As I showed, I suspect that the points inrng makes and which you quote in the first couple of your paragraphs aren’t really that accurate. That said, WVA and MvdP can’t obviously compare with Merckx, not even by far, Pogacar’s got some lean chance, maybe, and Remco, who knows, not easy. As for the rest, Hinault is a decent term of comparison, on an obviously lesser level; Boonen is a whole different story being indeed “the greatest ever” but in a very specific and narrow field (cobbles).

        • Wasn’t it said of Hinault, possibly by his own coach, that he was physically as good as Merckx he just didn’t want to win every day. Or it might have been Anquetil. You could see how it could apply to either.
          Saying that only cyclists who are riding at this moment in time can compare to Merckx seems like a spectacular case of shortsightedness. They all have their qualities of course. WVA is a spectacular cyclist but isn’t as good at one day races as MvdP or as good at stage races as Pogacar. MvdP is an incredible one day rider but isn’t ever going to win a stage race, let alone one with mountains in. Pogacar, if Vingegaard hadn’t come along, would have had a solid claim.

          • I understand what you are saying, and yes many athletes might have the talent to conquer, but not the will/greed to do so. However, Eddy had the talent, willpower, ambition, resiliency, and he set out to conquer the world. He executed that plan and that’s why he is the greatest.

            Now, is he a selfish bastard? I don’t know, but his legacy still shines today.

    • Merckx is the absolute #1 but his rivals would probably grab a top 10 place in most best-ever lists, just think Gimondi, De Vlaeminck and Maertens. Despite having to share the spoils among them… and especially with Eddy, who was no specialist in “sharing”. And you could add Zoetemelk, Ocaña or Fuente, plus Poulidor in the final part of his career or Moser at his beginning as a relative benchmark. Even “minor” rivals as Bitossi, Van Springel, Janssen or Godefroot were top level. Cycling was probably in a golden age in terms of recruiting physically exceptional athletes.

      • +1 And to borrow some of Giancarlo Brocci’s thinking, they looked SO much better compared to the skeletons so prevalent today, but at least some of the Monuments still favor those with some meat on those bones. Many claim MVdP can’t win all 5, but how much different physically is he vs Merckx? He can’t win L-B-L or Lombardia despite Merckx winning both? I’d love to see him try anyway!

        • On a light note: for me the…we might call it the aesthetic attraction of the rider physique is not in how much meat they have on their bones, but on how they move, i.e. the grace they display on the bike, not how they look on the podium.
          (Or on how well they fit the image of myself I´d like to have…:-))
          This applies to other sports as well: marathoners are skinnier than quarter milers and milers are skinnier than cross country skiers (who in turn are skinnier than downhill skiers etc) but the beauty in my eyes resides in how their body shapes are, so to speak, an adaption to the demands of the sport.

          On a more serious note: athletics is a sport of measurable and directly comparable- if we put aside the small matter of changes in running tracks, shoes etc – and we can safely say that the great athletes we remember or read about would not be winners in a field of today´s also-rans.

          I have a hunch – which, of course, may be quite wrong – that Merckx, Gimondi and Martens would not necessary stand out if they, by some miracle, appeared in their top form in today´s races. That it, not unless they trained the modern way – which, in turn, would make them look just like today´s riders who don´t have much meat on their bones…

          • Um, you might want to be careful about suggesting that past athletic stars are not as good as the current crop. Bannister, for example was holding down a full time job as a doctor, and did not have access to the modern training and recovery science available to today’s full-time professionals, and the better shoes and tracks that you acknowledge make a huge difference. I would also challenge anyone who suggests Zatopek was not one of the 10 best athletes of all time (full-time soldier and then cleaner with limited opportunity to compete against the best and then a politically imposed early end to his career).
            I’m not saying that the names I mention are better than those we watch today, but would instead repeat our host’s statement that comparisons between eras are unreliable and probably misleading

          • I´d very much like to start this comment with an “Um etc”, but the little winged creature son my right shoulder told me not to 🙂
            But I´d like to point out that what I did *not* suggest was exactly what you said I should perhaps be careful about suggesting.

            The point I tried to make was that the reason why past greats tended to “look SO much better compared to the skeletons so prevalent today” was because they didn´t have to in order to become greats – and if they (in an imaginary world) trained and raced today, they would look different from what they looked in their prime in real life.

            But, naturally, they would in that no doubt be frequently seen on the podium…

            PS It has been argued – or kind of counter-argued – that the skinny riders of today wouldn´t be as succesful if they were (in another scenario) dropped into the 1950s or the 1970s, because the limited gears available at the time would have been too much for them.

            I´m not sure that is the case if we similarly change the scenario so that we allow today´s greats to adjust their training to take account of the fact that they won´t always have the gears they´re used to.

          • Of course, time-travelling is a complicated issue, as Hawking’s party showed one century ago, err, I mean 14 years ago.
            That said, an athlete who sits in a quantile of absolute excellence against the total population involved will probably do the same in a different context. How much adaptation would it need to achieve a given sets of results – as in “winning” – is hard to say, but it’s relatively safe to assume that bodies who could outperform competition in an historical period when the base of people practising the sport was broad, well, would work at least decently in a different era of the same sport.

          • Merckx rode the Hour at nearly 50 km/h on a bike who wasn’t obviously a TT one, on a single attempt (and a far from perfect one even for that historical moment’s standard). Have a look at how fast present ITT stars ride when on a normal bike, just to have a term of comparison.
            A top specialist of that (single) discipline (…but also a great bike activist) like Boardman who could ride over 56 km in the Hour on a special aero bike, when instead going for the record on a machine comparable to Merckx’ (just 30 years more modern), would return pretty much the same distance as Merckx. It was at the beginning of the 2000s, with training science and all already on a notable level, optimising most conditions (unlike Merckx).
            It’s just like Coppi’s Alpe d’Huez… might look “meh” until you start crunching the watts’ figures.
            But it’s even beyond that.
            The man with his exact body, at 33 by the way, his own training, his relatively heavy bike with limited gears, his feeding and so on would easily make a top 20 in current cycling on that hill in 2018 or 2022 TDF with *this same time*. Only, he made that time on an *unpaved road* and in the context of a way more physically exhausting race (nearly 5,000 kms – mostly gravel ^__^). Ah, yeah, he had also won the 4,000 kms long Giro *less than one month* before at some 35 km/h of overall average speed, i.e., the same average which we’d see in the GTs until the 80s.

            So, I’m pretty sure that what statistical theory suggests is reasonably confirmed by facts – those historical top athletes would easily shine, one way or another, also in today’s sport. Which, on turn, also says quantities about their rivals whose figures aren’t available with the same precision.

          • I think Merckx, Maertens and any other really strong Belgian would be just as likely to be at the top now as then. They maybe wouldn’t win quite as many races but they’d be top in their generation. Belgian cycling has always been strong so if you make it through the amateur ranks there in dominant fashion then you will make it as a pro. Maertens was quite odd looking and barrel chested but presumably he was all lung!
            Merckx as a statistical outlier can only really be compared to Donald Bradman in cricket in the extent that his record is superior to everyone elses.

          • Gabriele, Coppi didn’t ride the full ascent of Alpe d’Huez, so it’s a poor comparison. Bahamontes on Puy-de-Dôme is a better example of the performances possible back then.

          • When Boardman did the Merckx hour record he did so:

            – in an era of common use of powerful hormones (EPO, corticosteroids). (Boardman denies ever taking anything, but he finished his career with osteoporosis which is generally unusual in males – but known to occur with chronic use of corticiosteroids; and his body has also suppressed endogenous testosterone production… for some reason *cough*).

            – with an aerodynamic skinsuit, soaked in alcohol for optimum cooling. Merckx had a silk skinsuit, which was visibly flapping away over his shoulders.

            Counter points:

            – Boardman had to wear a modern road helmet. Bit more frontal area than Merckx’s “hairnet” leather head protection. OTOH, Merckx had more hair sticking out. Probably a watt or two in Merckx’s favour there. (Note: Merckx probably could have had a couple of easy watts just from wearing a cap to smooth his hair).

            – Boardman did his attempt in his England, pretty much close to sea level. Merckx did his at 2200 metres in Mexico City. Thinner air for less drag, though also makes for less power. We’ve seen riders in the new hour record era go to Mexico for their attempt and fail to get it, so not 100% clear the trade-off is an automatic win.

          • It’s always an interesting thought but honestly there is zero way to properly evaluate athletes of different eras. With that being said Eddy destroyed those around him at the time. That’s all he could do.

            Also, look at it this way, if Eddy’s entire generation had our bikes, training methods, salary levels would they all have been even faster? Absolutely. Would it have played out exactly as it did? I don’t know. BUT, I have zero doubt that Eddy would be a top top top rider today too. IMHO, he would have won World’s in 2023 against that top crop of riders.

            But a great debate, with no possible exact answer, sounds like a perfect question for all of us avid cycling fans!

        • Merckx, later in his career 74-75) looked more solid than todaay’s GT riders but photos in his first GT winning years (68-69) showed him remarkably lean.

          For asthetics try Frans Verbeeck, a

        • On aesthetics, Merckx in his early GT-winning years (68-69) was pretty lean – and very lean to be winning bunch sprints in classics. It was only later in his career that he started to look solid and lost his climbing edge.

          Also for style, try the classic Flandrian and Watney beer man, Frans Verbeeck. A career synchronised with Eddy’s and, as a result, lots of second places.

  2. Pogacar is still only 25 so lets hope his team let him have a go for other races rather then the Tour each year. If the Tour in 2025 is back to the cobbles then he might hopefully have a go at Paris-Roubaix.

  3. @Sbs. Try these for just a few of the top of my head: Eric De Vlaeminck, Roger De Vlaeminck, Bernard Hinault, Freddy Maertens, Francesco Moser, Walter Planckaert, Jan Raas, Bernard Thevenet, Lucian Van Impe, Louise Ocana, Franse Verbeek………Plenty of opposition in both GTs and single day races.

  4. The people that capture my imagination are the ones who set the sport in motion. In cycling I think that has to be Arthur Zimmerman. He was both a phenomenon and in on the ground floor.

    • Aye to Arthur Zimmerman. And to Major Taylor. (Major was his first name, he was never in the military.) Taylor was black, and refused to race on Sundays due to religious beliefs. Due to his skin color he was subjected to racist gang-up abuses on the track by white competitors. And still often rode away for victory. 1899 World Champion sprinter!

      • Steve, please go fly a kite. Had to look up Choppy. He was a runner himself, then went on to be a notorious cycling “coach”, if by coach one means a supplier and promoter of early PEDs. A couple of riders under his direction seem to have died from his ministrations.
        Major Taylor on the other hand was a very successful bicycle racer, despite being black in a miserably racist time, and hobbling his own career by not racing on Sundays.
        No useful comparison between Taylor and Warburton.
        I shall say no more of this history.

  5. Although the two “Belgian Monuments” needed some more years than the other three races in order to get an international field (relative to the eurocentric standard of that moment), in the 50s cyclists from the different nations involved in the sport were already targeting them all.

    Sanremo, Roubaix and Lombardia were already contested by foreign athletes in the early 20th century: for example, the 1911 Lombardia had 7 foreign athletes in its top-20. Same in 1913. Of course you have editions with just a couple of foreign stars, or even fully Italian ones, but the examples above show that despite obvious difficulties several top cyclists already considered that those races were worth the effort (or paid to start, which means that the races had already that sort of perspective and leverage). I’m taking Lombardia as an example because it’s less obvious and expected than Sanremo or Roubaix whose status from their very beginning is more manifest.

    Of course, other races shared a similar status, the most known example being the Fleche, but same is true for races which have lost even more status like Paris-Bruxelles or Paris-Tour or Tre Valli Varesine from the late 50s on, before they declined in the 90s and 2000s. And so on.

    Which, however, doesn’t mean that the later-called Monuments weren’t already extremely important and highly contested, more notably after the IIWW.

    Same for Tour de Suisse which held a higher status, unlike the Vuelta a España, but the Giro and the Tour always were extremely important races. The Volta or the current Itzulia were already pretty much international in the 20s and 30s…

    That said, the simple idea of an “even more international field” doesn’t automathically mean “a deeper or denser field”. It depends on the capacity of cycling, both in general terms and in specific countries, to attract athletes with a notable physical potential among the broader population. In the 50s or in the 70s people with a privileged biology for endurance sport or even athletic exercise in general terms would end up in cycling, if the were to practice a pro or semipro sport, much more probably than they’d do today, barring probably Belgium, maybe.

    In other words, in statistical terms it’s not just about how many countries are involved in cycling (which is very relevant, of course), but also about how many young people in total can get interested in cycling, hence providing a statistically broader and deeper talent pool to pick from. It’s even more complicated than that, but this is a significant starting point. Assuming sort of a genetical equivalence, you’ll pull more talent into the sport if you work with a base of 2 M Italians, 3 M French, 1 M in Benelux, 1 M in Spain practising the sport than if your pool is some 100 K each through 20 different countries…
    Obviously the best situation is having a huge base wherever people might get interested in cycling, and expanding geographically or culturally this specific sport can be seen as a target in itself. However, if the total number of athletes involved on every level doesn’t grow, geographical diffusion doesn’t necessarily hold a strong correlation with the qualitative depth of the field in technical or athletical terms.

    • Its an interesting point. Every country must throw up a certain amount of ‘freaks’, some more so than others (Norway?!), but what will they be exposed to and what will they end up doing. Are there many countries where your top level athletic weirdo who’s blood can run at 101% oxygen and who doesn’t produce lactic acid will become a cyclist? It was probably once true of Italy, and maybe France. It might still be true of Belgium and it appears to be the case in Slovenia. I wonder if they are more likely to be found now via things like Zwift. If they are perhaps a runner or something else (Skijumper) they might now be more likely to stumble into cycling whilst off season training or recovering from injury.

    • Well, Lombardia had some foreigners, mostly french, from the beginning until 1920, but if you look at the podiums you can see it’s 100% italian between 1921 and 1947, in 25 editions… And you have to wait until 1951 to have Bobet, the first non-italian winning the race since 1920. So the situation might be a little bit more complex that you claim. Same for Milano- San Remo : between 1915 and 1950 (34 editions), you have only 3 foreign riders making the podium… It really seems that it was mainly an italian race then.
      No such thing for Roubaix, with a mix of Belgian and French riders, few Italians and one Swiss in the same period (it almost seems like a belgian race more than a french one, with lot more Belgians winning and podiuming). Podiums of Paris-Tours are even more international in this period (France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy). The Ronde was almost exclusively Belgian from 1924 to 1949 and the victory of Fiorenzo Magni, and Liege also (2 foreigners between 1909 and 1947).
      French races seem to be the more international ones between the 20’s and the beginning of the 50’s. Maybe it was mainly for a geographical reason.

      • Very interesting break down of the retrospective internalization of les Courses Monumentales, thank you.

        In a thread comparing Now & Then to paraphrase Beatles’ latest #1, it’s mesmerizing to think that Paris-Tours happens to be the only Classique which King Eddy never ever won despite several attempts. And this during a time when the Sprinters’ Classic was top ranked in the Super Prestige Pernod and the only one-day race to remain in that prestigious category alongside Paris-Roubaix and the Worlds for the entire lifetime of the yearlong competition.

      • As I had already stated before, of course the situation is way more complex than it can be summed up in a post like these, and we have got several editions with very reduced foreign presence (just as in the other Monuments). Plus, as I made explicit, I named Lombardia precisely as it’s the Monuments we’d probably expect to be the lesser one, in a sense, not as relevant as Liège or Ronde, whereas its history really goes in the opposite direction.

        That said, your breakdown is skewed by the mere perspective of just examining podia. Italian cycling during the 20s and 30s had a series of impressive champions racing Lombardia like Girardengo, Binda, Bottecchia, Bartali, Guerra…the “minor” ones were the likes of Brunero, Aimo or Belloni.
        It’s not Lombardia’s “fault” if great champions like Péllissier, when he came back, Suter, Ronsse, Vietto etc. weren’t even able to podium.
        It’s hard to make the effort to race abroad when you know you won’t even have a shot at winning. Binda was the sort of athlete who got paid to prevent him from racing for this same reason, on the national scene.
        As I recalled several times, some fans made a statistical effort of evaluating the GTs through time taking into account startlists and podia, and the Giro was the main GT in those same years and approximatedly until the 60s.

        However, indeed fascism brought in a declining level of the race when it became more national and nationalistic, more notably in the second half of the 30s, which doesn’t mean it hasn’t a long tradition of well-acknowledged relevance dating further back. Dark periods touch nearly ever race in the course of time.

        Paris-Bruxelles or Bordeaux were other races which were highly regarded in the past and aren’t anymore.

        • Some italian fans, I guess, for GT evaluation ? 🙂
          Gabriele, I’m afraid your cuore italiano gives you a real bias and some bad faith. Let’s take the complete results of the Giro di Lombardia between 1921 and 1938, not to be accused of sticking to podia (source : Firstcycling)
          -1921 : 3 french (2 brothers Pélissier, great riders with great palmarès), 1 swiss, 1 german
          -1922 : 1 swiss ; 1923 : 1 swiss ; 1924 : 1 swiss ; 1925 : 2 german and 1 swiss ; 1926 : 3 belgian & 1 french (Ronsse being the only one I know) ; 1927 : 1 swiss ; 1928 : 1 swiss ; 1929 : 1 luxemburger (not Frantz) ; 1930 : 0 ; 1931 : 1 swiss ; 1932 : 1 french (with no palmarès) ; 1933 : 1 luxemburger ; 1934 : 1 French, Vietto ; 1935 : 0 ; 1936 : 0 ; 1937 : 1 austrian ; 1938 : one swiss.
          So in 18 editions : 24 finishers were foreigners. You checked the facts because you told me about Ronsse or Vietto : you can’t be serious when you tell me that my breakdown is skewed… You just assumed I wouldn’t be patient enough to check the finishers, and I suspect that you often use the same strategy.
          The “very reduced foreign presence”, as I stated before, doesn’t exist for Roubaix or Paris-Tours. Most of the time, you have almost as much foreigners in one edition than in 18 editions of the Lombardia… (I rapidly checked for MSR : between 0 and 12 foreign riders finished each year apparently. A little bit more international, but not so much)
          Except Pélissier, Bottecchia (3 times, one less than the Tour) and Bartali, if I don’t make mistakes, no Tour de France winner participated to the Lombardia in this period. I still think it’s a great race, and I don’t want to minimize the quality of the Italian champions : Binda, Girardengo, were terrific riders, but Italian cycling was such in some kind of autarcy in that time that they very rarely participated in races abroad, except for some Worlds. We can’t really know how to compare them with the best riders outside Italy, Frantz, Leducq, Magne, Maes & co. Guerra raced more abroad, as well as Martano or Pancera, and the level seems more or less the same in Italy and outside.
          Even the Giro finishers were almost exclusively italian in that time. So don’t be, please, of such bad faith, and let’s try to have a constructive exchange. Your reason of the nationalization of italian races might have some truth and work in both senses : why bother to go far away not to win, and with a crowd cheering against you, when you can have glory in your place ?
          The fact is that French races were in that time much more international, with a lot of Belgian riders, some from Luxemburg, some Swiss, some Italian and even Spanish (Trueba in the Tour). As I said, there might also be a geographical reason.
          In the end, italian races in the entre-deux-guerres were mostly important for Italian riders, and it was like two different calendars rarely crossing each other. Each side lost some palmarès for the statistics : I think there was a lot of great riders that are not appearing in the “all-time records” because of such a dual calendar.

          • Speaking of “bad faith”, how does that look if you, for example, consider the Belgian and the French as the same movement when the races starting in Northern France are concerned?

          • I applaud the work you put into this but let’s be clear – you’re using a period of between 1921-1938 to back up claims that span just that…1921-1938 rather than the whole history of pro cycling. In some cultures they call that “cherry-picking”.

          • @ Larry : I was just talking about this period from the beginning. gabriele said the races were international from the early 1900′, I just stated that there is, for some reason that I don’t entirely understand (and that’s where gabriele could help me, with his uncomparable knowledge of cycling), a gap between the two WW where italian cycling is a little bit apart.

            @ gabriele : you could argue that France and Belgium are the same, but I’m not sure that Belgians would agree, at least not since the Battle of the Golden Spurs near Kortrijk in 1302… It would be like saying we can consider Swiss and Italian in the same movement when the race is starting in Lombardia… And this point does not apply for Paris-Tours. Yes, the Worlds can help, depending on the startlist which seemed to be very changing each year.

          • I think it’s fair to see Paris-Roubaix as a local race for Belgians, given that the velodrome is within 3km of the border.

            Same point doesn’t apply to Paris-Tours or Bordeaux-Paris, though, of course.

          • To avoid any misunderstanding, Paris-Roubaix was of course a quite “international” race since a very early age, and probably even more so than Lombardia. My point was just that unlike what we’d expect *even* Lombardia had some of the best foreign athletes competing at an extremely early point in time. The least international races among Monuments were the Belgian one, probably for the same reason as the Italian ones in the 20s and 30s, i.e., too powerful a local field to be worth the effort required to race there.
            However, after the IIWW all the Monuments rapidly got international enough.
            All the above was meant to say that we’ve got enough of a benchmark to speak of Monuments even if the weren’t called like that. For sure, the benchmark is more about “only” 80 years of the sport rather than the whole 130-150 years or so.
            I also agree about some pre IIWW riders not having been able to exploit their full potential in terms of international palmares (Binda and Girardengo being the more obvious Italian names), not to speak of those who were deprived because of the war itself.

  6. The modern era does of course offer the tools to better make the most of natural ability, but hyper-specialisation is driving everything to the brink of absurdity. It’s scientific professionalism so perfected and optimised that it’s starting to develop a faint whiff of riefenstahl. I’m supposed to be awe-inspired but records in sport are coming so thick and fast that I’m just not impressed any more.

  7. According to the archives of various Western European newspapers, around 1975 there were 6 most important one-day races (Sanremo, Vlaanderen, Roubaix, Liege, Lombardia and Paris-Tours). It wasn’t formalized in any way, it was just an opinion. For various reasons the Tours race lost its prestige, and then there were three… I mean five.

    In the 80’s Hein Verbruggen (then the International Professional Cycling Federation (FICP) president) proposed a reform of the cycling calendar. In 1985 he used the term „monument of cycling” or simply „monument” to describe the „Vuelta, Giro, Tour and 6-7 classics”. Later that year he said that multi-stage races (including the Grand Tours) didn’t fall into this category. Finally in 1986 he recognized 5 classics (MSR, RvV, P-R, LBL, GdL) as „monuments”. As far as I know Verbruggen was the first to use this term in reference to these specific 5 races. Well, that’s what I learned from the archives.

    • Laurent Fignon in his book listed Paris-Tours alongside the other 5 as races all cyclists want to win. Its reduction to a novelty gravel race ran the day after Lombardia is a travesty.

      • Especially because it was already a “solved problem”… with the small hills in the finale it was already very entertaining, plus the field didn’t already compete at all with Lombardia’s. They could be two equally good alternative options to spend the last form after the Worlds for two different kinds of one-day riders.

        Ah, by the way, I agree with your typical point about the need or desire of having a slightly more open Lombardia, although probably to a lesser extent than you suggest given that it traditionally was a race with hard and extended climbing.

      • I’d be curious to know if there are viewership numbers available anywhere for Paris-Tours. Did the inclusion of the gravel sectors substantially increase the number of people watching? Was viewership waning before the changes? If the race was “dying” and the changes saved it, there’s really no argument to be made against it. If it was just change for change’s sake, then yes, it’s a travesty. Especially since we already have Strade Bianche.

      • In my memory Paris-Tours was always a sprinter’s classic…sort of afterthought to the REAL season’s ending race, Giro di Lombardia (old name) rather than any sort of “monument” rivaling the now-recognized 5. Perhaps Fignon’s opinion was because he was a Parisian?
        Must confess I find the recent versions with un-paved roads more interesting as they reward more than pure sprinting at the end, travesty as they may be 🙂

        • I have to admit when I read Fignon’s comments I presumed it was because it was his local race.
          I don’t think ‘sprinters classic’ is any bad thing. People use the term like its some sort of insult. A good group sprint can be the most exciting thing in cycling. A proper one that is, on a big wide boulevard. In terms of drama and adrenaline rush a group gallop can’t be beaten. Its much better than watching riders get dropped one by one out the back door in slow motion on some ludicrously steep climb. And miles better than watching riders pull to the side of the road with punctures. In terms of dramatic finishes Virenque’s Paris-Tours win would take some beating. The ‘mini Sanremo’ finish with the little climbs at the end produced some good racing too, such as Gilbert narrowly out dragging Boonen.

          • Don’t blame me! I just reported on what seemed to be the case from the daze I paged through “The Fabulous World of Cycling” when it would show up at the end of each year. Paris-Tours always seemed an afterthought compared to the 5 monuments. I sold-off all my editions before I left the USA so can’t tell you who to blame as the author/editor back then…but it wasn’t ME!

  8. Great insight. I knew that Grand Tours were different in the past and that Vuelta especially was not so respected as two others, but never thought this way about the monuments.

    But people need statistics, comparisons, need “best” labels more than ever (as they are more “clickable”), so we will have more and more of that.

  9. Good post that makes some interesting point. Minor detail: Primož Čerin, from Slovenia, rode the 1986 Tour de France (as a Yugoslav). Poles and Czechoslovaks had started in Tours by that time too.

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