There are some iconic races in the cycling calendar. With the history of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, the mountain ranges of the Pyrenees and the Alps, and the passion for the sport in several countries, these events are unforgettable experiences with plenty of tough challenges along the way.
Here, we have listed the most prestigious and essential races that are on many cyclists’ bucket lists. There are ‘The Big 6’ sportives, which are hugely popular one-day mass-participation races; 5 ‘Monuments’, which are professional tour races with options for amateurs to experience the course; and then there are 2 of our favourite ‘Classics’.
The Big 6
Course: Full: 312km/193 miles (5050m/16,568ft total elevation gain); Medium: 225km/139 miles (925m/13,034ft); Short: 167km/103 miles (2475m/8120ft)
This is seen as one of the most challenging sportives on the circuit, going around the island of Mallorca. Most of the climbing takes place early on in the race on the Tramuntana range, where you will ascend the Puig Major, Col de sa Pedrissa and Col de Feminina. In recent years, the course has been adapted to make it a closed-road route. You will be well supported throughout, with 6 feed stations along the way, and the effort will be rewarded with stunning views around the island and through old towns such as Arta. There is a tough 14-hour cut-off for the race, but there are shorter options at a distance of 225km or 167km if you want a shorter event that still contains some serious challenges.
Course: Full: 205km/127 miles (3840m/12,598ft total elevation gain); Short: 130km/80.8 miles (1871m/6138ft)
This is known as the ‘Queen of Granfondos’. Starting on Italy’s east coast, the Nine Hills of the course’s name provide some serious challenges. Some of the steepest sections reach a gradient of 18%, but you will create some spectacular memories along the way. The race has a rich heritage, and will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020. To honour the 40th anniversary of Nove Colli in 2010, the world-famous Giro d’Italia used part of the course. The race is famous for its hospitality and for taking in a variety of Romagna’s most picturesque countryside. In the past, the 12,000 spaces have sold out within 4 minutes, so this is not one to be missed.
Granfondo Stelvio Santini:
Course: Full: 151.3km/94 miles (4058m/13,314ft total elevation gain); Medium: 137.9km/85.7 miles (3053m/10,016ft); Short: 60km/37.3 miles (1950m/6398ft)
This brutal course starts in Bormio and makes the most of the steep climbs of the Alps. Although the race’s tagline is ‘Know Your Enemy’, there are in fact two enemies you should know about: the first major climb comes just over the halfway mark, from Tovo up to the infamous Mortirolo, and ascends 1200m in only 12km. After a steep descent, the race then finishes with a leg-busting 1500m climb up to the Stelvio Pass on the Swiss border. The Stelvio is one of the top bucket list climbs for many cyclists, so this event is hugely popular for the mountain goats out there.
Course: Full: 174km/108 miles (5180m/16,995ft total elevation gain); Short: 13km/8.1 miles (1100m/3609ft)
This cyclosportive is known fondly in France as ‘the Old Lady’ and includes some of the most legendary and challenging mountains covered in the Tour de France. The Col du Glondon, Col du Telegraphe, and Col du Galibier are iconic enough, but the most famous climb is the final Alpe d’Huez, with its iconic 21 hairpin turns. Finishing this event will require serious dedication and determination, but you will receive full bragging rights in the cycling community. The short option two days before focuses just on Alpe d’Huez, and sees some competitive, speedy hill-climbing.
Maratona dles Dolomites:
Course: Full: 138km/85.7 miles (4230m/13,878ft total elevation gain); Middle: 106km/65.9 miles (3130m/10,269ft); Short/Sellaronda: 55km/34.2 miles (1780m/5840ft)
When you read that the course takes in seven mountain passes in the Dolomites, it’s no wonder that the race’s theme is the mix between wonder and angst. Most of these climbs individually are tougher than you’d find in any race, so when they are placed back to back, you’re going to be left with sore legs. The Passo Giau is perhaps the toughest climb, seeing as it ascends 922m in only 9.9km (that’s an average gradient of 9.3%), but it rewards you with incredible views down into the Ampezzo basin. If the long climbs haven’t emptied the tank enough, the ‘Mür dl giat’ (‘the cat wall’) is a short 360m burst up a slope with a 19% gradient. It is lined with supporters, food stalls, and musical entertainment, and is one of the main attractions of the race.
L’Étape du Tour:
Course: 177km/110 miles (3570m/11,713ft total elevation gain) [NB This is for the 2020 edition, in Nice]
Although the course for this race changes every year, whatever the route you know you will be in for a serious challenge. The event allows for amateur cyclists to have a go at one of the famous stages of the Tour de France. You will probably be taking in one of the iconic climbs in the Pyrenees or the Alps, and you will benefit from the same closed-road conditions that the professionals receive. Joining the peloton of 15,000 participants will make you feel like one of the legendary yellow jersey winners you’ve always watched on tv.
Tour de Flanders:
Course: Full: 229km/142.3 miles (2160m/7087ft total elevation gain); Long: 174km/108.1 miles (1853m/6079ft); Middle: 139km/86.4 miles (1497m/4911ft); Short: 74km/46 miles (919m/3015ft)
Starting in Antwerp and finishing in Oudenaarde, the We Ride Flanders event allows 16,000 amateur cyclists to try out the long course the day before the professionals take it on. The first 90km of the race is relatively flat, but from there the route is characterised by short, sharp climbs on cobbled streets. The three steepest climbs are Muur-Kapelmuur (maximum gradient of 19.8%), Koppenburg (22%) and Paterberg (20.3%). On your recovery the next day, it will be satisfying to switch on the tv and know what the pros are going through.
Course: [Professional Only: 257km/159.7 miles] Amateur Challenge: 172km/106.9 miles (890m/2912ft total elevation gain); Medium: 145km/90.1 miles (551m/808ft); Short: 70km/43.5 miles (241m/791ft)
Some people give this race the positive name of ‘The Queen of the Classics’, others give it the more brutal, and perhaps more realistic, name of l’Enfer du Nord (‘The Hell of the North’). This route is not particularly hilly, but it is most famous for the difficulty of its cobbled sections. Over a fifth of the race (54.5km to be exact) is paved with setts, including the mythical ‘Carrefour de l’Arbre’ and ‘Trouée d’Arenberg’, so riders must rely on technique and power to get through these stages. The race in fact starts 80km north of Paris, in Compiègne, and has a grandstand finish in the velodrome of Roubaix on the Belgian border.
Course: Long: 279 km/173 miles (4500m/14,764ft total elevation gain); Medium: 167km/104 miles (2647m/8684ft); Short: 85km/53 miles (1250m/4101ft)
This is the oldest of the five Monuments, established in 1892, and as such it is also called La Doyenne (‘the Old Lady’). It is known as one of the toughest courses in the world for both its distance and its numerous steep climbs. The route travels through the Ardennes, going fairly directly from Liège to Bastogne (95km) and then winding back to Liège (163km). There are 12 significant climbs, some of which are long and with sizeable gradients. The most iconic is Côte de la Redoute, where the gradient is 8.9% on average across the 2km, but some of the steepest sections go as steep as 20%. The Belgians are known for their passion for cycling, so there will be great crowds cheering you on when times get tough.
Milan San Remo:
Course: Full: 301.8km/187.5 miles (1987m/6519ft total elevation gain)
Often called La Primavera (‘The Spring Classic’) or La Classicissima, this is the longest one-day cycling race in the world. Compared to the other ‘Monuments’, the course is relatively flat. The professional race starts in the iconic Piazza del Duomo in Milan, travelling through Lombardy and Piedmont, before the route’s main ascent comes after 140km with the Passo del Turchino. After descending from here, the remainder of the race takes place on the stunning Ligurian coast. The amateur option the day before, Gran Fondo Milan, goes a few km further than the official race. Despite being the longest, the relative flatness of the course means that the race is seen as a sprinter’s classic.
Course: 243km/151 miles (c.4000m/13,123ft total elevation gain)
This is the final monument of the cycling season, and although it takes place in the same region as Milan San Remo, it is almost its exact opposite. Taking place in Autumn, it is called Classica delle foglie morte (‘the Classic of the Falling Leaves’), and is seen as a climbers’ classic due to its demanding climbs. The course varies, but it takes place on the shores of Lake Como, ensuring beautiful views as a reward at the top of intense climbs. The famous Madonna del Ghisallo climb is a mainstay of the race and the route usually includes the daunting Muro di Sormano, which terrifyingly has a gradient of 27% at some stages. The amateur race takes place the day after the professionals, if you haven’t been put off by watching them struggle.
Course: 110km/68.4 miles (1,940m/6,365ft total elevation gain)
The Paris-Nice race, known as The Race to the Sun, is the first European event on the world tour calendar. The challenge follows the final stage of the multi-stage race, staying on exactly the same route that the pros will take on the next day. The circular route, starting and finishing in Nice, includes some difficult climbs, but also provides incredible views looking out over the Mediterranean Sea.
Course: [Professional: 184km/114.3 miles] Amateur Long: 139km/86.4 miles (1350m/4429ft total elevation gain); Short: 86km/53.4 miles (950m/3117ft)
The route, which starts and finishes in Siena, is famous for its white gravel roads. While these make the race more iconic and picturesque, they also make it more challenging. The gravel of the Tuscan countryside covers over a third of the classic route (63km), and not only slows you down but threatens to puncture a tire. The race only started in 2007, but has quickly grown in popularity, cementing itself into the cycling calendar.
The list of best cycling events in the world:
- Mallorca 312
- Nove Colli
- Granfondo Stelvio Santini
- La Marmotte
- Maratona dles Dolomites
- L’Étape du Tour
- Tour de Flanders
- LBL (Liège–Bastogne–Liège)
- Milan San Remo
- Il Lombardia
- Strade Bianche