1. Milan - San Remo
The first of the spring classics, La Primavera as it is known in Italian, is also the longest one-day race in pro cycling. No sense starting off easy, eh? Running 298 km (185 miles) between Milan and San Remo, the race has been won seven times by Eddy Merckx. The race has been run since 1907, and while there are some hills, the layout of the course is not sufficiently severe to spread out the peloton meaning Milan - San Remo typically ends in a mass finish, giving the edge to strong sprinters.
Sprinter Mark Cavendish, pictured left, won Milan - San Remo in 2009.
2. Ghent - Wevelgem
After years of a traditional midweek run between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, starting in 2010 Ghent-Wevelgem has been held in the last weekend in March after Milan - San Remo.
First held in 1934, the favors sprinters due to its flat finish after a series of difficult climbs. Like the other spring classics, windy cold weather is often a factor, and the challenging, cobble-stone hills occuring through the course often spread out the peloton. Recent winnners include Oscar Freire (first 2008; third place 2007), Thor Hushovd (first in 2006) and Tom Boonen (winner 2004; third in 2003). George Hincapie took third in 2002 after winning Ghent-Wevelgem the year before.
3. Ronde van Vlaanderen -- Tour of Flanders
Held every spring in April, the week before Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders is noted for the rough conditions its riders face, which offer every bit as much challenge as their fellow racers. Steep climbs and cobbled roads combine with frequently cold and rainy weather to create a memorably miserable racing experience.
Held in Flanders, Belgium, this race draws thousands of rabid fans that line the route, and who in the past seem to have inspired hometown racers to legendary performances, including Belgian racers such as Johan Museeuw, (the "Lion of Flanders" who won the race three times), Tom Boonen (two wins), and most recently Stijn Devolder, winner in 2008 and 2009.
4. Paris-Roubaix - "Hell of the North"
Paris-Roubaix, or "Hell of the North" has run every year since 1896 except during World Wars I and II. As one of the spring classics, it's typically held the week following the Tour of Flanders. Despite its name, Paris-Roubaix no longer starts in Paris; since 1968 the start city is Compiegne, northeast of Paris, with the finish still in Roubaix.
The race is famous for its rough terrain, muddy tracks and yes, cobblestones, meaning flat tires and other mechnical breakdowns are common. American George Hincapie is known for the string of bad luck he's had in this race. Hincapie slipped and fell into a ditch in 2002 as he battled for the lead; a broken fork knocked him out in 2006 with 45 km to go, and a flat in 2009 took him out as well.
5. Amstel Gold Race
The Amstel Gold Race, named for sponsor Amstel Brewery, is the main cycling race held in the Netherlands. First held in 1966, much of the route runs through the Limburg region in southern Holland.
Like the other spring classics, the route is hilly and challenging, with many sharp twists and turns as it criss-crosses the countryside. Additionally, much of the race runs through heavily populated areas, meaning riders have to manuever around parked cars and roundabouts, while keeping a sharp eye out for speed bumps and other traffic devices that suddenly appear in the course. Narrow roads and steep climbs (up to 20% grade) make this a nerve-wracking ride for participants, but the thousands of Dutch spectators who turn out love every minute.
6. La Flèche Wallonne
Typically following on the Wednesday after the Amstel Gold race, La Flèche Wallonne is held in Belgium midweek right before the Liège-Bastogne-Liège. With a total length of just under 200 km (approximate 124 miles) through the Ardennes mountains, the current version of the course starts in Charleroi and heads east to Huy, with a finish up the steep Mur de Huy, with grades as high or higher than 15% during several portions of the climb.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the second spring classic in the Belgian Ardennes, was first run in 1892 as a race for amateurs. In 1894, it became a race for professionals, and today is held in the same week as the Amstel Gold race and La Flèche Wallonne. The route goes from Liège to Bastogne and back, with a total length of 258 km/160 miles.
The first leg of the race is a relatively uneventful 95 km/59 miles, while the return is a rugged 163 km/101 miles where most of the climbing takes place, and helps spread out the riders.
Belgian Eddy Merckx has the most wins of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, while recent winners include Andy Schleck (2009), Alejandro Valverde (2006, 2008), and Paolo Bettini (2000, 2002).