Marty Jemison on the Importance of the European Spring Season
I was recently asked, “What did the races leading up to the Spring Classics mean to you”?
After nearly two days of thinking about it, my response is: Everything. Pure and simple, I loved to race my bike, and the harder the races were, the better. The harder the races, the less time my mind had to wander. The Classics demand more focus than other races in the world, and I liked that. If you’re a bike racer then you’ve had moments in the pain cave. In the Classics, time in the pain cave lasts for hours and hours.
To start this blog I went back to look at some of my results, which I found here:
It’s an interactive list and the results tell the story. The notable spring European races are true Power tests, and as such, if these races don’t mean everything to you, you’ll get spit out the back of the peloton. The races leading up to the Classics are hard, but we all know that when you arrive at the best races in the world, there is more talent and riders who are peaking and there is going to be war. The Classics are like legalized war amongst men – during the Spring Classics, we were like modern gladiators fighting tooth and nail on bicycles.
As I neo-Pro with WordPerfect I remember the excitement and anticipation before my first semi-classic. I was focused on proving to my team that I had value and deserved my contract. In the end I got a good result and caught a lot of attention because Omloop het Nieusbald was stacked with big hitters.
Then, I suffered badly in Paris-Nice, although I finished 32nd and 28th in ‘97 & ’99, respectfully. Each year we made it to Nice, my engine had been transformed and was starting to fire. It takes hard stage races like this to prepare yourself for what is coming up.
As much as you fine-tune and open up the engine, in races like Paris-Nice for example, it all goes to whole another level in the first Classic: Milan-San-Remo. MSR is the longest Classic and takes nearly 7 hours to complete. There is at least an extra hour of time in the pain cave over any stage in Paris-Nice, but because of those 8 days of intense racing, mentally and physically, you’re ready for MSR’s 298kms day. That’s nearly 185 miles, with an average speed close to 45kph or 28 mph.
When was the last time you averaged 28 mph for over one hour? In Milan-San-Remo it’s done for nearly 7 hours. If a race like this doesn’t mean “everything” to you, you’ll get spit out of the peloton, and likely spit out of the sport.
The Classics in Belgium are harder than Milan San Remo. It takes the beating of MSR and more racing and training to be ready for what’s waiting up North. After another tune-up stage race like Catalunya or Basque, along with a semi-classic or two, you should be prepared for the northern battles that lie ahead.
I’ve done all of the Classics, but I like certain races more than others. I prefer the Tour of Flanders over Paris-Roubaix, because of the cobbled climbs. Out of 200 riders, I’m much better on the cobbled climbs over the flat cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. In 2000, I made the early break in Paris-Roubaix for nearly 120kms and this made the race bearable, and, enjoyable really. It was an honor to be wearing the U.S. National Championship jersey and showing it to the world all the way to the Arrenburg Forest. See a video clips here:
Tour of Flanders 2000: Marty leads the Peloton
My favorite spring races are: the semi-Classic Fleche Wallone, and the Classic, Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I improved my results in these each year, and finally, in 1999, I took 2nd place in points behind Michel Bartoli for the combined results by placing 19th in Flech Wallone and 18th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. LBL is often argued as the hardest of the Classics, so cracking the top 20 means you’re throwing/ducking punches with the best riders in the World. I had a good week.
Fleche Wallone clip:
Hammer down on La Redoute 1999
Amstel Gold usually comes after the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The first 150-200kms of this race scare me the same way being in the peloton across the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix does. However, the dangers of Amstel Gold come from the ‘traffic furniture’ found throughout Holland. Loosely translated, traffic furniture refers to all of the tight round-abouts, curbs, gutters, sign posts, bike paths and all the other kinds of urban concrete for motorists and bikes. It makes stressful racing, especially if you were not born and raised in that part of the world.
I survived and avoided the many crashes that occur in Amstel Gold just to be in the mix as the race reached the hilly sections in the last 50kms. This was a big relief, but the stress of the first 200kms always took its toll, and I just didn’t have the legs for a top 20 in the final.
In 1999 I did every Spring Classic: Milan San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold, which I believe really pushes the human limit. I only counted 3 other riders that did all those races that year. Usually the teams split their riders who prepare for and do 2 or 3 Classics before taking a much-needed rest. However, as I said, I loved to race my bike, and the harder the races, the better. I guess that includes a program: the harder the better. But as I look back on it, I believe it was a little over the top.
For most riders who will race the Tour de France in July, it’s okay to completely destroy yourself in the Spring Classics and then take a rest before focusing on France.
Thanks for reading.