From peak Merckx and Hinault’s recovery from canine calamity to Cooke’s Ronde romp, six of the most memorable Classics
1) 1981: Hinault hits a dog and wins Paris-Roubaix
It’s probably fair to say Bernard Hinault was not in the best of moods as he approached the final few kilometres of the 1981 Paris-Roubaix. “The Badger” was not exactly known for his cheery disposition and not exactly a fan of the infamous pavé of northern France. And in the preceding bone-rattling 250km he had been off his bike six times after a series of crashes and punctures.
Hinault braked hard but still hit the dog and crashed. Gruson, perhaps realising just who it was he had brought down, made one of the sharpest (and smartest) exits in sporting history. Hinault clambered back on to his bike and, steam now whistling from his ears, tore off after the leaders.
Francesco Moser had won the previous three editions, while Roger De Vlaeminck had won four before that and had his teammate Hennie Kuiper with him. But none could deny Hinault. He was back to them well before the velodrome and held his rivals at bay to take his first and only Paris-Roubaix win. “Paris–Roubaix is bullshit,” said a cheery Hinault afterwards.
2) 1910: four riders finish Milan-San Remo
For the 71 riders shivering on the startline in Milan on 3 April 1910, the forecast brought bad news. Heavy snow had been reported on the Passo del Turchino, the climb about halfway between Milan and the finish nearly 300km away in the coastal town of San Remo. Several riders opted not to start.
Eugène Christophe, the French cyclo-cross champion, had other ideas and was not far from the lead as the ascent of the Turchino began. The snow was so thick the racers were forced to push their way up the mountain. Christophe, numb and stiff, reached the tunnel at the summit in second.
A local man scooped him up and took him to his inn, where he was soon joined by Van Hauwaert and third-placed Ernest Paul, who had lost a shoe somewhere but hadn’t noticed, such was the cold. While they gathered round the fire, “I saw four riders go by, or at least four piles of mud,” said Christophe, who despite the protestations of Paul and the innkeeper, opted to head off in pursuit wearing a pair of the innkeeper’s trousers.
With 100km to go he was back in the lead, one he held on to despite taking the wrong road into San Remo. He was the first of only four official finishers and spent the next month in hospital.
3) 1907: Giro di Lombardia goes Wacky Races
This will come as a shock to some – in the history of bike racing, not every race was won in a manner that was entirely above board. Take the 1907 edition of the sole autumn monument, the Giro di Lombardia.
Giovanni Gerbi had won the inaugural Race of the Falling Leaves in 1905 and, though mechanical problems scuppered his defence in 1906, in 1907 he was back on the startline.
Eight hours later Gerbi crossed the finish line in Sesto San Giovanni well ahead of his rivals. But as those rivals arrived so did the accusations. Gerbi’s supporters had blocked a level crossing, preventing his (mostly French) competitors from progressing. Officials eventually managed to sort things out but riders then found the road strewn with tacks.
Despite the delays, Émile Georget began to close in. “Crossing the hill at Como, he was only four minutes behind,” writes Peter Cossins in the excellent Monuments. “Suddenly, though, a group of cars shot past. It stopped 500m ahead of the Frenchman, the occupants jumped out and scattered more nails on the road.”
There were further accusations – Lucien Petit-Breton was punched while one French rider claimed to have seen an Italian car pulling a rider with a whip. Gerbi was relegated to last place and handed a six-month ban. His nickname – “the Red Devil” – wasn’t just down to the colour of his jersey.
4) 2010: Cancellara storms to Ronde van Vlaanderen victory
Ronde van Vlaanderen – the Tour of Flanders – used to be blessed with one of the great one-two finishes of the Classic calendar. Tweaks to the course may have taken the edge off a little but once upon a time the steep cobbled climbs up the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg were still close enough to the finish to often prove pivotal.
In 2010 Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara reached the Muur – which touches 19.8% at its steepest – neck and neck. Boonen was the home favourite, the Belgian champion, and in search of his third Ronde win; Cancellara, the reigning Swiss champion, already had a Paris-Roubaix and a Milan-San Remo under his belt, plus a stack of Tour de France stage wins, a world time-trial title and an Olympic gold. Something had to give.
It gave on the Muur. The ferocity of Cancellara’s attack on one of the short climb’s steepest sections left Boonen and the TV cameramen trailing in his wake.
Cancellara said afterwards: “When I get old, to be able to say to young riders: ‘At the Ronde I attacked on the Muur, left Boonen behind and won alone …’”
But cycling being cycling Cancellara’s unbelievable effort was, to some, just that. Accusations of mechanical doping soon followed. “It’s so stupid, I’m speechless. I’ve never had batteries on my bike,” said Cancellara when asked about whispers of motorised assistance. “Believe me, my feats are the result of hard work.”
5) 1971: Merckx wobbles at Liège-Bastogne-Liège … but wins anyway
By the spring of 1971 the 25-year-old Eddie Merckx had already won the Tour de France (twice), the Giro (twice), Paris-Nice (three times) and eight Monuments. His ninth, the 1971 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, was one of his best – one of the Merckxiest wins of Merckx’s career.
He arrived inon the back of what for Merckx counts as a slump – illness meant he missed out on victory in Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde, and he was still far from 100%. With 90km to go he began to chase the breakaway, alone. With 60km to go he left the break behind. But with 30km to go he began to crack.
His countryman Georges Pintens attacked but more in hope than expectation so he must have been somewhat surprised to find himself closing in on Merckx on the final climb of Côte de Thiers. The ailing Merckx eased up, ate a sandwich, plonked himself on Pintens’ wheel, then destroyed him in the sprint.
“All that made Merckx great is there in that win,” writes William Fotheringham in Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike. “The aggression, cavalier bordering on foolhardiness; the disregard for tactical niceties; the clarity of mind when things went against him; finally, the absolute need to win.”
6) 2007: Nicole Cooke wins women’s Ronde
The relationship between the Monuments and women’s cycling seems to be improving steadily if slowly. Ronde van Vlaanderen has had a women’s race since 2004 and Liège-Bastogne-Liège introduced one in 2017. But, on the other side of the ledger, the Primavera Rosa – the women’s Milan-San Remo – came to an end in 2005 after seven editions and we’re still waiting for a women’s Paris-Roubaix. It’s all the more surprising given that the link between women’s cycling and the Classics goes back more than 100 years – Alfonsina Strada rode two editions of the Giro di Lombardia in 1917 and 1918.
For her 2007 victory in the Ronde, Nicole Cooke channelled a bit of that 1971 Merckx. Such was the strength of her Univega Raleigh-Lifeforce team that they had the 164-strong field shattered by the second of the 11 climbs. Karen Thurig launched an attack, Cooke chased her down and they climbed the Muur together before the British rider forged ahead on the Bosberg. A pack of five – including Thurig – closed her down again but Cooke had reduced her rivals down to just Zulfia Zabirova by the final straight. The 2004 winner had no answer to Cooke’s sprint.
“Women’s cycling developed a lot later, and doesn’t have the history going back hundreds of years like the men’s, so to be racing on the same course, the prestigious factor of the men’s race counts almost double for the women,” Cooke told Cycling News.