GENT, Belgium (VN) — Ask Sep Vanmarcke about his chances to win Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and the humble Belkin star shakes his head, insisting he’s not yet on the level of the five-star favorites.
Ask anyone else, however, and the big Belgian bubbles right to the top of any list of favorites for Sunday’s 98th Ronde.
At 25, Vanmarcke is ready to challenge for victory against Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick), and Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
“We think Sep’s now at that level of Boonen, Cancellara, and Sagan,” said Belkin sport director Nico Verhoeven. “The big goal is to try to win one of them [Flanders or Paris-Roubaix].”
Vanmarcke’s rugged facial features betray his youthfulness, yet in five professional seasons, he’s steadily established himself as a legitimate contender for the northern classics.
A victory at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2012, where he beat a top-form Boonen, and second last year on the velodrome at Paris-Roubaix to Cancellara, a result that Vanmarcke admits continues to haunt him, have signaled that a breakthrough monument victory is only a question of time.
Yet when asked by VeloNews if he compares himself to Cancellara or Boonen, Vanmarcke shook his head with a smile.
“I don’t think I am on that level, or I will ever be at that level,” Vanmarcke said. “They are so strong, and they have won so much. I think I am a little bit below them, but all I can do is try to work harder and beat them.”
Vanmarcke hasn’t won yet this year, but he’s been the most consistent among the top favorites in the opening classics, finishing in the top five in all four one-day races he’s started. The 6-foot-3, blonde-haired rider from Waregem is hoping to trade in that dependability for the top spot on the podium. Whether it comes this Sunday or next week at Paris-Roubaix, he doesn’t care.
“My form is good. In the [four] classics I’ve done, I’ve been top five. I am looking for the victory, of course,” Vanmarcke said. “There are a lot of people talking about the win. … We’ll see.”
Vanmarcke is the leading light among a new generation of young Belgian riders starting to make an impact in the classics. While others, such as Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), are still waiting in the wings, Vanmarcke is ready to make his mark.
He has a touch of old-school hard-man attitude about him, a throwback of sorts to the grizzled Belgian cobble-eaters of the past. He used to work at a meatpacking plant in the morning, and then train in the afternoon, racing on weekends to chase his dreams of turning pro. Growing up just 15 kilometers from the Oude Kwaremont climb helped form an early love for the bumpy stuff.
After two seasons at TopSport Vlaanderen, Vanmarcke joined Garmin in 2011 thanks to a close relationship with ex-pro and Garmin sport director Eric Van Lancker. Some promising results, including fourth at E3 Harelbeke and 20th at Paris-Roubaix, revealed his potential. The confirmation came a year later, when Vanmarcke was the only rider to beat Boonen straight up in his otherwise sterling 2012 classics run capped by a second Flanders-Roubaix double.
That Omloop victory put Vanmarcke on the map, and although he’s only won two races in his pro career, many already see him as one of Flanders’ “big four,” on the same level as Boonen, Cancellara, and Sagan.
“Belkin has a very strong team, and cannot be counted out for victory,” said Cannondale boss Roberto Amadio. “We have seen Vanmarcke very strong this season. He is a top danger man.”
In 2013, Vanmarcke transferred to Netherlands-based Belkin, where he’s developed into an outright leader for the classics team. Lars Boom shares leadership duties, but with the former cyclocross world champion nursing an injured elbow from Paris-Nice, Vanmarcke is the team’s best option over the next 10 days.
“We also have Lars Boom in our team. He had some problems, so his condition is not top, but he was also a rider who is close to the top five,” Belkin’s Verhoeven said. “The team spirit is very good. Everyone is working together for the victory.”
In fact, Belkin’s major classics push, and a nice pay raise, were big factor’s in Vanmarcke’s decision to leave Garmin. The Dutch team is built around Boom and him for the classics, and nearly everyone agrees that Belkin has one of the deepest, strongest classics squads going. With those resources comes pressure.
“My team is working 100 percent for me,” Vanmarcke said. “They believe in me, I believe in my chances, so there is more pressure.”
With a strong team and equally strong motor, Vanmarcke is one of the few riders who can stay with the likes of Cancellara or Boonen when they punch the accelerator.
A painful knee injury from a crash at Tirreno-Adriatico marred the Belgian’s 2013 classics campaign, yet he still managed to finish second at Roubaix, losing out in a match sprint after going punch-for-punch with the Swiss all the way to the track.
This year, Vanmarcke is stronger, wiser, and healthier, so that highly anticipated monument victory could only be a question of days, rather than months or years.