For some of us, there is nothing that shouts “spring is here” louder than the satisfaction of snuggling up next to your TV control and watching the start of the European cycling season. Up to now, we have had to make do with re-runs or less well-known races from outside of Europe. But the first weekend of March, with its cobbled Belgium semi-classic, heralds the build-up to the classics, where sofa cyclists everywhere scream at their TV sets as their favourite riders either attack to victory or tumble to the wayside.

But we all know that watching these races on TV keeps us at a distance from experiencing what it is like to actually be sat in a local bar with the bikes thundering by outside. So, here is the GRAN FONDO guide on how to get the best out of each and every one of these iconic races over the next couple of months, letting you know everything from the best food and drink to accompany each race, through to when you need to really focus on the action at hand.

16871778868_2bc36306a7_o-Paris Roubaix 2016 preview granfondo cycling thomson bike tours Pablo Moreno

Strade Bianche (9th March): White roads, steep hills and amazing food

Couch cyclist pro tips
Location – Tuscany Italy
Commentary language – Italian
Beverage of choice – either a Chianti red wine or Siena-produced La Diana 26 beer
Snack of choice – Either some nice dried Tuscan meats, olive oil on bread topped with salt, or the kids favourite of red wine-soaked bread topped with a pinch of sugar.

What is it: The Strade Bianche is a new semi-classic, which has already grown to mythical status. It sees the classic specialists do battle over sections of the region’s ‘white roads’ that have a similar effect on the race as the cobbled sections do in Northern Europe. But don’t be fooled, this is no flat Belgium musclefest, with the race traditionally taking in around 3,000 meters of climbing and finishing up the wall of a climb in the centre of Siena. This is one for the Ardennes Classic style of rider.

We recommend: Tune in on Rai Sport to get the full Italian immersion commentary, you may not understand a word that is being said but you’ll feel like you’re in Italy before you know it.

Why is it cool: Tuscany in Spring, with the world’s best riders doing battle on gravel roads with steep climbs and rutted out descents, all to the backdrop of those lush green rolling hills that are indicative of the area. Plus, it is an excuse for you to dust off your Tifosi screams of ‘DAI’, drink Chianti, eat beautifully cured meats and experience la dolce vita because you’ll be bored of Belgium style frites, mayo and beer later in the month.

16852147197_cd5d86f0da_o-Paris Roubaix 2016 preview granfondo cycling thomson bike tours Pablo Moreno

Paris – Nice (10th to 17th March): Southbound!

Couch cyclist pro tips
Location – France Central/Southern
Commentary language – French
Beverage of choice – Pastis or Rosé wine
Snack of choice – Socca or Pissaladière for the full immersion

What is it: Traditionally a race for riders to get in shape after a winter of light riding, this short stage race, dubbed the Race to the Sun, can today be classed as the mini Tour de France, where the world’s best put their condition to the test. Lower mountains, crosswinds and time trials, it is a great race to watch.

We recommend: Trying to find a stream from France 1 or France 2 for French commentary and the full immersion in the race, that way you won’t be lost when the director chooses to follow a French rider getting dropped, whilst the top racers are up the road deciding the race.

Why is it cool: Ok, so the mountain top finishes might not be the most spectacular, but the early stages with their typically French crosswinds are where the action normally happens. Enjoy the thrill of watching the race get blown to bits (excuse the pun) from the comfort of your sofa, without having to experience any of the panic that the riders do.

Tirreno – Adriatico (13th to 19th March): How do you take your early season stage races?

Couch cyclist pro tips
Location – Central Italy
Commentary language – Italy
Beverage of choice – Tuscan Red Wine
Snack of choice – Piatto freddo

What is it: A one-week version of the Giro d’Italia, this race goes from the Mediterranean Sea to the Adriatic Sea. And as with the vast majority of the races in Italy, there will be mountains. If there is rain on the forecast then watch out, the roads in this central area of Italy become a skating rink.

We recommend: Other than grabbing the full immersion by tuning into the Italian commentary – there is something so poetic about the way Italians describe races – do not miss stage 5. With a true mountain top finish, it will provide the first fireworks of the season.

Why is it cool: Italy in spring, with bike and mountains. What more could you want?

Milano Sanremo (23rd March): The long one

Couch cyclist pro tips
Location – Northern Italy
Commentary language – Italian
Beverage of choice – Spritz Aperol
Snack of choice – Foccacia

What is it: La Prima Vera, the reason why Colnago has the ace of club as its logo, Milano Sanremo is the first real classic of the season. At 293km it is the longest one-day race on the World Tour Calendar. With a couple of small climbs coming at the end, which seem like high alpine passes with the distance already covered, followed by a fast run into the finish, it has often been the race where climbers battle against pure sprinters for the overall victory.

We recommend: Dipping in and out of this one. It takes a while to ride 293km, even at World Tour speeds, so unless you’re looking for an excuse for a mid-afternoon snooze we suggest tuning in when the riders hit the Cipressa and Poggio, where all the action takes place. The rest of this race is really the wearing down process, and we don’t see any need to watch that unless you’re a fan of watching paint dry!

Why is it cool: Can the climbers attack hard enough to break the sprinters? Can the sprinters hold on during the climbs to be able to win? Is someone going to crash on that horrid descent off of the Poggio? Or will someone like Cancellara do a flyer and catch everyone unawares? 293km opens up all of different kinds of possibilities and that’s what makes MSR great.

17058055872_a9d7eb2cb0_o-Paris Roubaix 2016 preview granfondo cycling thomson bike tours Pablo Moreno

E3 BinckBank Classic (29th March), Gent – Wevelgem (31st March): Finally, Flanders and cobbles

Couch cyclist pro tips
Location – Flanders Belgium
Commentary language – Flemish
Beverage of choice – Belgian Beer
Snack of choice – Frites Mayo

What are they: Finally after all the time dodging spring’s harshest conditions it is time for the big men to dust off their grimaces and do battle on the classic Belgian cobbles. Both E3 and Gent Wevelgem are great races to watch, getting you ready for the two pillar stones of cycling that take place on the following two weekends.

We recommend: Clearing your schedule, finding a live stream and watching these races from start to finish. These are races that can change in a matter of corners and you need to make sure that you are watching them, whilst sipping on a Belgian beer naturally, from start to finish.

Why are they cool: Cobbles, corners, small roads, crosswinds, Belgian fans, big men, oh and did we not mention the cobbles. In our opinion, these races have all the ingredients to make for a perfect couch cyclist experience.

16949183740_b8eb69872c_o-Paris Roubaix 2016 preview granfondo cycling thomson bike tours Pablo Moreno

Ronde van Vlaanderen (7th April): Belgian Kings are made here

Couch cyclist pro tips
Location – Flanders Belgium
Commentary language – Flemish
Beverage of choice – Belgian Beers
Snack of choice – Frites Mayo/Waffles/Anything fried

What is it: The day when new Kings of Flanders are crowned. For many, it is hard to choose between Flanders and Roubaix as the best Cobbled Classic race. Flanders with its short, steep cobbled climbs brings something different to the table. For any Belgian rider this race is bigger than the World Championships: if you win this race your career is complete.

We recommend: Finding a live stream from start to finish because this race deserves it. For the full immersion invite a group of your friends around, let them get drunk and wave Lion of Flanders flags whilst screaming, HOP HOP HOP at your screen.

Why is it cool: It’s Flanders FFS. If you need to ask why it is cool then you shouldn’t even be allowed to ride a bike.

17136559105_0d0469e4b8_o-Paris Roubaix 2016 preview granfondo cycling thomson bike tours Pablo Moreno

Paris Roubaix (14th April): The Queen of the Classic, welcome to the Hell of the North

Couch cyclist pro tips
Location – North West France
Commentary language – French
Beverage of choice – Belgian Beer
Snack of choice – Frites Mayo

What is it: The Queen of the Classics, the Hell of the North, a day when bikes and riders do battle not only against each other but also against the 60 plus kilometres of eyeball-rattling cobblestones. Starting around 100km east of Paris and finishing in the iconic velodrome in Roubaix, this is the last chance for anyone who has not marked their place in the 2016 Cobbled Classic campaign.

We recommend: Go in for the Belgian beer and food choice for this one. Why? Because it is on the border and many true Flemish bike fans have taken this race to be their own – we’re sorry but the French just can’t do beer and fries like the Belgians, but their cobbles aren’t bad. Also, we suggest keeping an eye on the early stages of this race and making sure your live stream doesn’t stop to buffer every five minutes. Even though the race does not hit the first section of pave until 90km into the race, these first moments of the race are normally full on as a break attempts to form.

Why is it cool: Flat, long and bike-destroyingly tough, this is not called the Hell of the North for nothing. A race that French and Belgian racers alike will destroy themselves to win, the relentless pounding that the sections of cobbles give to the rider is what makes this race amazing. Also, read as per Flanders, this is Roubaix FFS, go and hang your head in shame if you don’t know why this race is cool.

16948615058_2eee43fc4e_o-Paris Roubaix 2016 preview granfondo cycling thomson bike tours Pablo Moreno

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Words: Phil Gale Photos: Pablo Moreno / Thomson Bike Tours