The number of cycling races organized seems to grow each year. Alongside the UCI World Tour there are the tours of Europe, Asia, Africa and America and the growth of the sport has gone hand in hand with increased popularity and media attention. The inauguration of new races has been highly successful but some older, established races are also benefiting from a boost in coverage. With large World Tour squads, wild card places and well-run junior divisions competition remains high across the calendar. Here are five of the best races you might not have been watching.
Last year Strade Bianche was one of the best one-day races and is almost unrivaled amongst races less than ten years old. For these reasons you may in fact have watched the race – but if not then now’s the time to start. Its selling point is the unique white gravel roads of Siena and they pose a threat in the second half of the race, as well as creating a wonderful spectacle for the viewer. The race, formerly known simply as ‘Eroica’, was given a boost in prestige by a Fabian Cancellara win in 2008; a month where he swept through Italy winning Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan – San Remo. Last year we saw plenty of action when the roads turned white and were ultimately treated to an exciting finish between Zdenek Stybar, Alejandro Valverde and Greg Van Avermaet. The trio went toe-to-toe up a short climb through the Piazza del Campo with Stybar taking the win. There are scarce few places nicer to finish a bike race.
Vuelta a Pais Vasco
Spanish stage races quite happily tear up the rule book. Gentle stages to bookend the race? Nope. Flat time trials? Rarely. At least one sprint stage? No promises. They don’t even seem to grade the climbs in the usual way. Some of these traits are creeping into the Vuelta a Espana but it’s at both Catalunya and Pais Vasco where Spain’s ideals are most obvious. The Vuelta a Pais Vasco is essentially a week of hard climbing in the Basque country. Anything that resembles a bunch sprint will be contested by a unique breed of sprinter and last time out we saw Fabio Felline win from a bunch after no less than six categorized climbs. The beauty of Pais Vasco is seeing climbers fight for seconds nearly every day and even the time trial is usually uphill. The race is positioned awkwardly between Ronde and Roubaix but guarantees an entirely different brand of racing.
De Brabantse Pijl
If the Amstel Gold Race is the step-brother of the famous Walloon pair, De Brabtanse Pijl is a cousin who left town and doesn’t call much. The race finds little media attention placed between Belgium’s most famous classics but fits perfectly as a transition between the cobbles of Flanders and the hillier Ardennes. Its calendar location helps attract a multitude of leading riders with the classics men happy for the extra day of competition. Brabantse Pijl has all the ingredients needed for an exciting race with form and fitness adding an extra splash of unpredictability. With short climbs, the odd section of cobbles and a flat enough finish for the fast men, the race is well worth a watch.
Arctic Race of Norway
Alongside cycling’s greatest nations, Norway has been collecting wins in the sport with increasing frequency over the last ten years. If Thor Hushovd’s victories put the nation on the map then the wins of Edvald Boasson Hagen and Alexander Kristoff have cemented the country as a respected player. In 2013, Tour de France organizers the ASO set up the Arctic Race of Norway and by 2015 it had been bumped up two levels to the 2.HC category. The four day event will usually include one for the sprinters but the middle stages will tackle some serious gradients. The race sits in select company at four days long and Norway’s wonderful landscape is distinct from the races of Southern Europe. Thankfully for the riders the race takes place in August but you could be forgiven for wondering what a move to the winter months would look like.
In 1876 less than a dozen riders set off for a race from Milan to Turin and in 2016 a fair few more will compete in that same race. The race has been given the moniker ‘the oldest bike race in the world’ and is unfortunate to sit below San Remo and Lombardia in the pecking order of Italian races. The route is relatively simple with the Superga climb the focal point and currently the host of the final kilometres of the race. It’s a proper climb too, conquered by a host of big names including Alberto Contador in 2012. As a one day race there’s very little to gain from conservative tactics and the best Milano-Torino finishes can resemble a flat-out race up a mountain. Last year’s line-up was pretty impressive and a tweak in the calendar could see Milano-Torino join the World Tour.