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Monuments men: Why the classics sweep is so hard

To win any one of cycling's five monuments is a huge feat, but it is nearly impossible in the modern era to sweep them all.

GENT, Belgium (VN) — Paolo Bettini tried. So did Johan Museeuw. Oscar Freire won three world titles on a trot but couldn’t translate that success into the classics.

One of cycling’s most treasured milestones — the monument sweep — has stood the test of time. Only three riders — Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, and Roger De Vlaeminck — have pulled it off. Since then, generation after generation has fallen short of winning all five of cycling’s so-called monuments.

“It’s maybe the hardest thing to do in cycling,” Museeuw said. “If someone could do it, they would be a part of history. I could never win a race like Liège or Lombardia. It proved impossible for me.”

This Sunday, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step) is hoping to pedal closer to the history books if he can pull off a miracle win at Paris-Roubaix.

Gilbert won’t be a front-line favorite, especially since it’s only the second time in his career that he’ll be starting Roubaix. But the 35-year-old Belgian has made cycling’s “monument sweep” a goal at the tail-end of his stellar career. With three of the five monuments already checked off, Roubaix is sitting there for the taking.

“I am still hungry in these classics,” Gilbert said Sunday. “I have been close to the victory this spring. I know Roubaix is complicated, but I feel I have the legs.”

If lightning strikes, Gilbert would pull closer than any rider since Sean Kelly in the 1980s and 1990s to the elusive five-win monument’s club. Five riders have won four monuments, with Kelly coming close with second in Flanders on three occasions after winning the others.

Quick-Step brought a number of champions to an event prior to Tour of Flanders, including Mark Cavendish (far left, lower row), Johan Museeuw (third from left, lower row), Paolo Bettini (second from right, upper row), and Oscar Freire (far right, lower row). Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Last week, Quick-Step flew in some of its legendary riders for a press conference ahead of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Among them were Museeuw, Bettini, and Freire. VeloNews spoke to all three about why it’s so hard to win all five of cycling’s most important one-day races.

“Winning these big races is hard,” Freire said. “I had won three world titles by the time I was 27, and everyone said I could win more. Things happen and you miss a few opportunities, and then you cannot win.”

Freire, now 42, only won one monument — Milano-Sanremo on three occasions — and posted top-15s in Liège, Flanders, and Lombardia. He never even bothered with Roubaix. His bid to win a record fourth rainbow jersey also fell short.

“You can see the level is so much higher now across the classics,” Freire said. “Look a rider like Sagan. He is so talented, he should have won three or four times Flanders, but today, all the teams bring a rider who can win. It’s good for the sport, but it makes it harder to win.”

The monuments have evolved into cycling’s most prized races for a variety of reasons. Prestige and notoriety grew up around the longer-distance, 250km-plus races that have a historic place in cycling. Only the strongest and best riders win on the punishing, six-hour races. It’s how legends are measured.

The monuments are also among the most elusive races to win. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), two of today’s biggest classics stars, only have won one each.

[pullquote attrib=”Paolo Bettini”]“You saw Nibali finally win Sanremo after trying for many years. The odds say you cannot do it. Those who have the balls can still win a big race.”[/pullquote]

Today’s generation features a few multi-monument winners. Gilbert leads with three. John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) is the last to win two in the same season, with Sanremo and Roubaix in 2015. Niki Terpstra just won his second monument Sunday, with Flanders to go along with his 2014 Roubaix. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who raced Flanders on Sunday and is targeting Liège later this month, also boasts two monuments with two wins at Lombardia and one with his dramatic win in March at Sanremo. Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) has won both Sanremo and Flanders.

“It’s exciting to see riders like Gilbert and Nibali trying to do it,” Bettini said. “That’s one thing that is missing in today’s cycling. We don’t see the big champions taking risks anymore.”

Bettini knocked off three — one Sanremo and twice each at Liège and Lombardia — but he could never master Flanders (a career-best of seventh in 2006) and, like Freire, never raced Roubaix.

“Today’s racing is more calculated,” Bettini continued. “You saw Nibali finally win Sanremo after trying for many years. The odds say you cannot do it. Those who have the balls can still win a big race.”

Nibali’s ability to crossover between stage racing and one-day monuments makes him stand apart. Most of today’s peloton is much more specialized in their focus, be it sprints, stage racing, or classics. Nibali is the exception. It’s rare to see a rider like Nairo Quintana or Chris Froome lining up in a monument, while a classics rider like Sep Vanmarcke is never going to ride into the top-10 in a grand tour.

Vincenzo Nibali
Niki Terpstra and Vincenzo Nibali were an odd couple off the front of Tour of Flanders. The Italian is one of the few grand tour winners who can contest the one-day races as well. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Another hurdle to the monument sweep is the dramatically different style of racing required for each event. Flanders and Roubaix involve more power and brawn, while Lombardia and Liège favor the lithe and explosive climbers. Sanremo is a lottery where the occasional classics specialist can surprise the sprinters. Fabian Cancellara won across three monuments, including one Sanremo with three times each at Flanders and Roubaix.

A rider like Museeuw, who also won the world road title, could shine on the cobbles — winning three times Flanders and Roubaix — but was too burly to have a prayer in the Ardennes.

“The teams are more specialized these days,” Museeuw said. “Even during my career, the teams and riders were becoming more focused on classics or on grand tours. No one is capable of racing across all these types of terrain.”

Courses have also evolved over the decades, but the spirit and essence of each monument remains true to itself. The number of pavé sectors at Paris-Roubaix has ebbed and flowed over the years, but the race remains a “Day in Hell.”

On Sunday, Gilbert will try to ride closer to cycling heaven. His Quick-Step comes in as heavy favorites. Terpstra and two-time runner Zdenek Stybar should be first in line. But just as Nibali reconfirmed at Milano-Sanremo, cycling doesn’t always follow the script. Gilbert has a chance to win.

“It’s hard to say if I am going to go there and race for the win,” Gilbert said of his highly anticipated return to Roubaix. “Roubaix is such a special race. This team is the best team to be on if you have ambition in the classics. This is why I am here, and why I signed a new contract. I think we are experts of classics.”

If he does pull off the miracle, he’ll join the likes of Kelly with four monuments on his resume. All that would remain would be Sanremo, the most “casino” of all the monuments.