If you’re a relatively new cycling fan and you’ve found yourself hooked by the Tour de France, you might’ve heard commentators and journalists talking about the revered “Cycling Monuments”.
The Monuments are five of the most difficult, prestigious, and historic one-day races in men’s road cycling. All take place in Europe and carry a distinct set of challenges and characteristics. Victory in a Monument is among the highest honors a cyclist can achieve.
But what are the 5 Monuments of cycling, and what makes each of them so special?
To get you up to speed with the cycling Monuments, we’ll be covering:
- Cycling Monuments Vs Classics
- Milan-San Remo
- Tour of Flanders
- Giro di Lombardia
- Women’s Inclusion in the Cycling Monuments
Ready for the lowdown on the cycling Monuments?
Let’s dive in!
Cycling Monuments Vs Classics
Despite its importance in modern cycling, the term “Monument” has only come into use in the past few decades.
Until the 1980s, there were eight one-day races that were seen as the most prestigious and historic, earning the moniker of the “Classics”. The original eight were:
- Milan-San Remo (1907)
- Tour of Flanders (1913)
- Paris-Roubaix (1896)
- Liège–Bastogne–Liège (1892)
- Giro di Lombardia (1905)
- La Flèche Wallonne (1936)
- Paris–Brussels (1893)
- Paris–Tours (1896)
However, between the ’60s and the ’80s, La Flèche Wallonne, Paris–Brussels, and Paris–Tours were shortened, interrupted, or otherwise compromised, while a host of other historic one-day races started to describe themselves as “Classics” too.
So, a new term – “Monument” – was born to differentiate the five surviving original Classics from the less prestigious (and often newer) races that had begun to share their label.
Known in Italian as La Primavera (“The Spring”), Milan-San Remo is the first Monument of the cycling season, traditionally taking place on the third Saturday of March.
Milan-San Remo first took place in 1907. The route has changed remarkably little in its 115-year history, running from the industrial northern Italian powerhouse of Milan, down along the picturesque Ligurian coast, and finishing at the fashionable seaside resort of San Remo on the Italian Riviera.
At just shy of 300 km (189 miles), Milan San Remo is the longest cycling Monument, but as the course is relatively flat it is often described as a “sprinters’ classic” due to its tendency to end in a bunch sprint.
However, the short, punchy Poggio climb just before the race reaches San Remo provides an opportunity for rouleurs (strong all-rounder cyclists) to steal a march on the sprinters to claim victory for themselves.
Matej Mohorič‘s stunning win at the Milan-San Remo 2022 was a great example of an all-rounder denying the peloton a sprint finish. Instead of escaping the sprinters on the climb, however, Mohorič inventively used a dropper post – previously a novelty in road racing – to hurtle down the descent of the Poggio and evade the chasing pack for an iconic victory.
- Check out our Complete Guide to Milan-San Remo here!
Tour of Flanders
Known in Dutch as De Ronde (“The Tour”), the Tour of Flanders is the youngest of the 5 monuments of cycling, having first been held in 1913.
It’s the first of the “Cobbled Classic” cycling Monuments, followed by Paris-Roubaix a week later. Long sections of the route pass over bone-jangling pavé (cobblestoned) roads, which provide a uniquely tortuous challenge to riders – especially when wet.
The pavé of northern France and Belgium is not the elegant, smooth cobbles of a tourist hotspot like Paris. The roads faced by cyclists are relics of an era before paved roads, with rough, bulging, jagged cobblestones probably used only by the odd farmer’s tractor outside of Monuments season.
The pavé is what gives the Cobbled Classics their character. The riders themselves might have a love-hate relationship (at best) with the cobblestones, but for cycling lovers they embody the tradition, challenge, and danger that makes the Monuments so special.
Besides the pavé, De Ronde is known for the short but steep hills (“hellingen”) of the Ardennes, which are typically narrow – and inevitably cobbled – forcing the leading pack to fight constantly for position at the head of the race.
- Check out our Ultimate Guide to the Tour of Flanders here!
First raced in 1896, Paris-Roubaix is perhaps the most famous – and the toughest – cycling Monument of them all.
Known not-very-affectionately as l’Enfer du Nord (“The Hell of the North”), Paris-Roubaix has some of the lengthiest and most brutal pavé sections of any race on the cycling calendar. Every meter of progress carries a risk of a puncture, mechanical failure, or a somersault over the handlebars. Many competitors ride road bikes adapted specifically for the race.
“There’s a huge difference between the Tour of Flanders and Paris–Roubaix. They’re not even close to the same. In Flanders, the cobbles are used every day by the cars, and kept up… The other one, it’s completely different. The best I could do would be to describe it like this – they ploughed a dirt road, flew over it with a helicopter, and then just dropped a bunch of rocks out of the helicopter. That’s Paris-Roubaix. It’s that bad. It’s ridiculous.”Chris Horner
When then-cyclocross world champion Roger De Vlaeminck was asked why he was reluctant to compete at Paris-Roubaix, he answered: “At twenty-seven, I’m too young to die.”
(Though, given he went on to win Paris-Roubaix four times, De Vlaeminck clearly felt the shot at glory was worth risking his neck for!)
By the time they reach the finish line at the iconic Roubaix Velodrome, the riders who have managed to survive the course are caked in mud, dirt, and sweat, looking “as though they’ve been passed through the drum of a cement mixer.”
The winner receives a single cobble mounted on a plinth as their trophy – despite the fact they’d probably rather never set eyes on pavé again.
Despite winning the 1981 Paris-Roubaix, five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault reserved a special hatred for the pavé of northern France. “Paris-Roubaix”, he once snarled to a journalist, “is not a bicycle race – it’s a cyclocross… C’est une connerie! (It’s bullshit!)”
Perhaps the greatest testament of all to the allure of Paris-Roubaix came from Dutch rider Theo de Rooij, speaking to CBS just after he crashed out of the lead at the 1985 edition.
“It’s bollocks, this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping … it’s a pile of shit.”
Would he be back for next year’s edition, the presenter asked?
“Of course – it’s the most beautiful race in the world!”
- Check out our Complete Guide To Paris-Roubaix: The “Hell of the North” here!
The oldest Monument of all, La Doyenne (“The Old Lady”) was first raced in 1892.
Liège–Bastogne–Liège is usually the last of the Spring Classics, taking place in late April in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. Like the Tour of Flanders, it’s famous for the short, steep hellingen climbs, and is raced across a long, arduous course.
From the starting point in Liège, the route opens with a fairly straightforward 95 km (59 mile) cycle southwards to Bastogne. From there, the difficulty builds incessantly as the race takes a twisting 163 km (101 mile) route back to Liège, taking on as many of the region’s sharp, punishing climbs as can be squeezed in.
Four-time Liège–Bastogne–Liège champion Moreno Argentin said of the race:
“Riders who win in Liège are what we call fondisti – men with a superior level of stamina. La Redoute [one of the course’s toughest climbs] is like the Mur de Huy in that it has to be tackled at pace, from the front of the peloton. The gradient is about 14-15%, and it comes after 220 kilometers, so you don’t have to be a genius to work out how tough it is…
“Liège is a race of trial by elimination, where it’s very unlikely that a breakaway can go clear and decide the race before the final 100 km. You need to be strong and at the same time clever and calculating. In this sense, it’s a complete test of a cyclist’s ability.”Moreno Argentin
Because of the many climbs in the latter stages of the race, Liège–Bastogne–Liège is one of the cycling Monuments that tends to favour climbers over sprinters, providing an opportunity for Grand Tour contenders to add a Monument to their honors roll.
- Check out our Complete Guide to Liège–Bastogne–Liège here!
Giro di Lombardia
Poetically nicknamed the Classica delle Foglie Morte (“The Classic of the Falling Leaves”), the Giro di Lombardia is the only cycling Monument to fall in the Autumn rather than Spring.
The course snakes around the stunning surroundings of Lake Como in the Italian Alps. Though the exact route changes frequently, it always features its most famous climb – the gruelling Madonna del Ghisallo – in its finale.
Because of the challenging course and the difficulty of the climbs towards the finish line, the Giro di Lombardia is another of the cycling Monuments that favours strong climbers.
The race cemented its legendary status between the 1930s and ’50s, when Italian cycling icons Fausto Coppi, Alfredo Binda, and Gino Bartali thrilled crowds by engaging in bad-tempered duels year-after-year around the course’s many climbs.
- Check out our Complete Guide to the Giro di Lombardia here!
Women’s Inclusion in the Cycling Monuments
All of cycling’s Monuments have been slow to embrace the inclusion of women’s cycling.
The women’s Tour of Flanders has the richest history of the women’s cycling Monuments, having run continuously since 2004. It takes place on the same day as the men’s race on a slightly shorter course, though still takes on many of the same climbs and pavé sections.
Similarly, the other Belgian Monument has a women’s race that takes place on the same day on a modified course – the Liège–Bastogne–Liège Femmes. This Monument is younger that the Tour of Flanders, having only run since 2017.
The final women’s Monument is the Paris–Roubaix Femmes, which had its inaugural edition in 2021. There was also a women’s edition of Milan-San Remo from 1999, named the Primavera Rosa, but it was cancelled after the 2005 race.
British racer Lizzie Deignan was the first to win the “Triple Crown” of women’s Monuments, having won ‘Ronde van Vlaanderen’ in 2016, Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2020, and the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes.