March 19, 2015 by Irish Peloton
The Hardest Monument Classic
Which classic is the hardest?
It’s an impossible question to answer definitively as the topic will always be somewhat subjective. How do you define ‘hard’? Hills? Cobbles? Wind? Rain? Speed?
Perhaps a good place to start is to rule out all of the classics that are not considered to be one of the five monuments – Milan San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy. After all, they’re considered to be above all the others for a reason.
While finding a definitive answer may be impossible, it is possible to find anecdotal evidence backing up the claim of each of these five races.
In his recent autobiography ‘Hunger‘, Sean Kelly makes the case for the race he won in 1984 and again in 1986. He writes “Paris-Roubaix is the hardest single-day test a rider can face”.
His compatriot Nicolas Roche in his own book ‘Inside the Peloton‘ refers to the other cobbled monument in such terms. Roche writes “I told team management that I hadn’t ridden a race in seven or eight weeks, I couldn’t be expected to ride the Tour of Flanders, possibly the hardest one day classic on the calendar”
Mark Cavendish, winner of Milan San Remo in 2009 has said about La Primavera “It’s a long race and the easiest to finish but hardest to win because every one of the 200 starters has a chance.”
In a 1966 edition of L’Equipe, the oldest monument of them all is heralded. “For 12 years, we’ve been waiting for such an exploit by Jacques Anquetil – to win a classic one day race. In Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the hardest, most demanding of them all, he finally filled the gap in his palmares.”
Finally, the Tour of Lombardy, considered (unsurprisingly) by former race direcotr Angelo Zomegnan to be the most difficult. He says “It is the hardest Monument. Our claim is that hard is great. Lombardy is not a classic to be taken lightly.”
When comparing a relatively flat, cobbleless race like Milan San Remo with the pavé-strewn courses of Roubaix and Flanders or with the relentlessly hilly terrain of Liége or Lombardy, there’s never going to be a correct formula to figure out which one is the hardest. But there are certain empirical data which can be derived from taking a good hard look at the results lists over the years.
Let’s take the last 50 years worth of monument classics and see if we can get an indication as to what the right answer might be.
One indication of which race is the hardest could be whether it is possible for a debutante to win the race. If someone who has never ridden the route or contested the finale before can rock up as a first-timer and take the victory then surely that’s a sign of a race being easier than one which takes years learn the difficulties and nuances of it before being capable of winning it.
Number of debut winners in past 50 years
|Milan San Remo||5|
|Tour of Flanders||4|
|Liege Bastogne Liege||5|
|Tour of Lombardy||5|
Paris Roubaix is the only monument classic where no rider has won the race in the last 50 years having never ridden it before. The other four races have all been won in this period by debutants such as Mark Cavendish, Jacky Durand, Evgeni Berzin and Damiano Cunego.
This leads us on to another, slightly more complex measure of difficulty – how many editions on average does a cyclist need to take part in before they taste victory in each of these races (again, this data only pertains to the last 50 years).
Average number of editions ridden before victory
|Milan San Remo||3.42|
|Tour of Flanders||3.52|
|Liege Bastogne Liege||2.75|
|Tour of Lombardy||2.21|
Again, the data suggests that Paris-Roubaix is harder than the other monuments. The low figure of 2.21 suggests that the Tour of Lombardy is the easiest to win. However for this race only, this figure could have more to do with the fact that it comes at the end of the season rather than being grouped in the Spring with the rest of them.
To expand this data out further once more, we can consider categorising what the best previous result of each winner of each monument was prior to the year that they won it.
Number of winners whose best previous result was:
|Worse than 10th||Worse than 20th||Never finished|
|Milan San Remo||18||15||7|
|Tour of Flanders||15||8||4|
|Liege Bastogne Liege||15||12||5|
|Tour of Lombardy||15||8||5|
Once again it is clearly Paris-Roubaix which looks to be the hardest race to take part in. Or in other words, it is the race which takes the longest to come to terms with, which could be seen as a measure of difficulty. The only three riders in the last 50 years who have won Paris-Roubaix having never previously finished in the top 20 are Jean-Marie Wampers (previous best 26th), Dirk Demol (33rd) and Felice Gimondi (64th). This is also something which has not been done for a long time, as Wampers is the most recent winner of these three, taking his victory back in 1989.
Of the other four monuments, it looks to be the Tour of Flanders which slightly shades it in all three tables. Incidentally the four riders who have won the Tour of Flanders in the past 50 years who had never previously finished the race were Jacky Durand, Rene Martens, Cees Bal and Dino Zandegu.
So out of our five original anecdotes it seems that Sean Kelly was the most accurate with his assertion that Paris-Roubaix is the toughest of them all, and having finished on the podium of all five races a total of 13 times, Kelly would be in a better position than most to make up his mind about such things.
*If anyone would like to know a breakdown of these figures or the identity of the riders behind the figures, just send me an email or catch me on Twitter and I’d be more than happy to oblige.