The Monuments - The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races by Peter Cossins is a superbly readable account of the five great one-day races that start and finish the core of each season.
It's commonplace in these days of cycling renaissance to meet some skinny prat down the pub who will start banging on about the comparisons between the 'dreary procession' of the Grand Tours and the 'purity' of the Classic one day races.
Said prat will drop vague hints that they were in Belgium in the 1980s to race a little themselves and hammer home their superior knowledge by name dropping so many obscure Flemish riders' names in quick succession they sound like a Chinese cabbie coughing up a fly.
The defence against such posturing is finally here. The Monuments by Peter Cossins will give you all the ammunition you need to hold your own against the prat in the pub – or at least fling enough trivia back to hold your own.
Cossins uses 410 pages to cover a total to date of 527 races so it's a long read, but luckily a very rich read. Cossins is a veteran of ProCycling magazine and Cyclingnews.com and he knows how to grab the attention and separate the wheat of some year's races from the chaff of others.
The five Classics are, in annual date order, the four Spring Classics: Milan-SanRemo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (LBL). The fifth is the autumn classic, the lyrical and beautiful Tour of Lombardy or Tour of the Falling Leaves which is now run in October.
The oldest is Liège-Bastogne-Liège, started in 1892 as a retort to the arduous 521km Bordeaux-Paris and the just plain silly 1,000+ km Paris-Brest-Paris founded the year before.
Cossins runs the histories in order of race age, starting with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 'La Doyenne' or grand old lady of the calendar. It certainly helps to establish a chronology for the riders that took part and if you're familiar with cycle racing history there are plenty of riders that you'll recognise from other histories of the Grand tours: the Dick Dastardly of Italian racing's early years Giovanni Gerbi; the elegant yet tragic Coppi; and the masterful Merckx who won 19 titles in all.
There are also the lesser known greats such as Marcel Kint (named the Black Eagle for his beaky nose and black jersey) and Ferdi Kubler (the Eagle of Adiswil - because of his beaky nose and er, because he came from Adiswil in Switzerland.)
This is where you can hone your knowledge of the Rick's; the long list of fantastic Flemish champions that sound like made up Spinal Tap style 1970's rock album producers: Roger De Vlaenminck, Johann Museeuw, Rik Van Steenbergen and Rik Van Looy. The best name of all is Rik Van Slycke - now a sport director for the Omega Pharma QS team.
Cossins' skill is his ability to distil the volume of incidents concerning each race into a readable story, not just in terms of the winners and losers but also the changing routes of each race and their personal political histories. Each race is split into four chapters which, in general, cover the genesis of each event; key periods and races either side of WWII; and the progression of the races into the modern age.
The two world wars scuppered the three Northern races on the whole. The Nazis encouraged the Tour of Flanders to continue in WWII and Italy's peripheral position in WWI and Mussolini's ego in WWII saw that Milan San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy continued uninterrupted, for Italian riders at least.
However, Coppi was in a POW camp in North Africa and it transpired after his death in 2000 that Bartali was using his fame and training rides to carry messages for the Asissi Underground resistance and helped jews flee Northern Italy.
Cossins seems quite peeved that the Liège-Bastogne-Liège was cancelled in 1944 and 1945 by the small matter of first heavy bombing of Liège by the Allies and then the aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge in the wooded Ardennes.
If you've ever wondered why Liège, even now, looks as attractive as Warrington on a wet wednesday - then it's partly the fault of the RAF and the USAF.
The routes themselves were subject to change, either at the vagaries of the organisers or the local authorities, or for safety concerns. Paris-Roubaix was in real danger of running out of cobbles in the 1960's and 1970's as Belgian councils began to Tarmac over the troublesome stones. The Tour of Flanders classic climb of the Koppenberg was so rutted it was lost between 2002 and 2007.
The Tour of Lombardy's route seemed to change every year as the Italians fiddled with the start and finishing towns and new climbs surfaced, were surfaced and then abandoned again. It's had nine different start and finish towns over the years and even its date was reconsidered more than once. Left purposely late in the season as a last chance for riders to win something and impress the sponsors, moving it any earlier left organisers with the fear that another race might steal the 'end of season' spot. It has recently settled down as a stable favourite with riders again as the post-Worlds pro rider wrap party to the season.
The classic moments are covered well; Hinault's 1980 epic win of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in a snow storm for instance. It's interesting to learn that Hinault didn't intend to stage a lone breakaway for 80km through appalling weather to win. Surging past the breakaway Hinault upped his pace simply to stop others joining the group but he worked too hard and looked upon looking around to see if any of his fellow breakaway riders were ready to assist with with the pace-making he found himself alone. He was bitterly cold by the time he got back to the team hotel and knew enough about hypothermia and frost bite to empty the piping hot bath his team mates had prepared for him and run a cold one to begin a more gentle long, slow thaw.
Whilst Paris-Roubaix is a grunting exercise in power and positioning The Tour of Lombardy throws up the most interesting tales of what the Italians might call gamesmanship and what others might generously call shenanigans. Always packed with partisan fans who would block the progress up the climbs of non-Italian riders, in 1987 nobbling the opposition seemed to extend to the organisers themselves.
The Italians desperately wanted Gianbattista Baronchelli to win and coincidently the race organiser's car bumped into Sean Kelly and took him off the bike. 'I got up, chased back to the group and the eye-balled race director Torrani. He looked ahead as if nothing had happened,' said Kelly. He continued in the understated Kelly fashion: 'I was starting to think we had a situation on our hands.'
Complete with an appendix of race facts and results, The Monuments is a triumph of readability: fine tales very well told. The Monuments leaves you without doubt that the these races stand as opportunities for all riders. They're a test of graft and offer the chance for any rider to break free of team orders for a day and in straitened circumstances, make the right decisions in a split second to become a classics champion. Win any one of the five and your name is synonymous with class. However drab your palmares might be as a domestique you have won a classic and you stand apart for ever.
There was a piece of tragic trivia I gleaned from The Monuments that I didn't know before and it stands as a reminder of just how dangerous a choice of career professional cycling was in the last century and to some extent still is. What have Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Sean Kelly got in common? Aside from each being at least three times winners of the Tour of Lombardy all three champions lost a brother to bicycle racing.
Bartali's brother Giulio died in a race on June 14 1936, the year that Bartali won the Giro and the Tour of Lombardy. Bartali seriously considered quitting cycling.
Serse Coppi won Paris-Roubaix in 1949. Or rather, he was awarded joint first place after a mix-up at the finish resulted in three other riders getting to the line by climbing over the seats in Roubaix velodrome. After months of international wrangling between the French and Italian racing authorities and the UCI, he and André Mahe were declared joint winners. He died in 1951 after crashing in the final sprint of the Giro del Piemonte, when his wheel was caught in the tracks of the Turin tramway.
Kelly's older brother Joe was killed in a bike race in Ireland in 1991. 'I wanted to quit, his death had destroyed me,' said Kelly. 'I went back to the bike because it's my job, just for that reason.' Two months later Kelly won the Tour of Lombardy for the last time.
Masterful account of the five classics that should become a classic itself
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Peter Cossins The Monuments - The Grit and the Glory of Cyclings Greatest One-Day Races
Size tested: Paperback
About the tester
Age: 47 Height: Weight:
I usually ride: A 20 year old Condor Italia on the school run. My best bike is: Condor Moda Ti - summer bike
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every week I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding,