In the absence of Tom Boonen, a nation has turned its lonely eyes to Sep Vanmarcke ahead of Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. Sporza’s straw poll of Belgian former Ronde winners on Saturday morning pointed to him as the favourite, with Eddy Planckaert, Peter Van Petegem and Edwig Van Hooydonck all plumping for the LottoNL-Jumbo man.
The dissenting voices were those of Johan Museeuw, who picked Zdenek Stybar, and Eric Vanderaerden, who selected Jens Debusschere, albeit for sentimental reasons. "I hope he wins in the national champion’s jersey because I did that 30 years ago and it’s a great feeling," Vanderaerden explained.
While Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) and Stijn Devolder (Trek Factory Racing) will all expect to be in contention deep into the finale, Vanmarcke seems the Flandrien most likely to triumph in Oudenaarde, in local eyes at least. "He’s the only rider who can make the difference on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg," Van Petegem reasoned.
Certainly, few riders tackle cobbled hills with quite the same grace as Vanmarcke, but while he has consistently been the strongest man on the hellingen in Flemish races over the past two years, he has no winner’s bouquets to show for his efforts in the Classics since his triumph at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad three years ago. Despite his strength in the Ronde finale last year, he had to settle for third place in the four-man sprint in Oudenaarde as Fabian Cancellara carried off the spoils.
The trend has continued so far in this cobbled campaign. Vanmarcke’s vicious acceleration on the Paterberg at E3 Harelbeke was interrupted by a broken cleat, although he impressed even on one leg on the Oude Kwaremont, he ended the day in 5th place. He was in the winning break at Gent-Wevelgem two days later, but wound up in 6th place.
"No, that hasn’t affected my morale," Vanmarcke said of those results at his pre-Tour of Flanders press conference in midweek. "Apart from [Geraint] Thomas who finished first and third, nobody did better than me in the two races last weekend. I was still 5th at E3, and without my shoes problems I would have been in the top three, and then I was 6th in Wevelgem. It’s not bad, there were other favourites who finished seven minutes down that day…"
An exhausted Vanmarcke reportedly began hyperventilating after climbing aboard the LottoNL-Jumbo bus at the end of last Sunday’s storm-hit Gent-Wevelgem, though he insisted that the incident would not affect him this weekend. "I’m good for Sunday," he said. With both Boonen and Fabian Cancellara out of the Tour of Flanders through injury, a more open race is anticipated compared to the first three editions on the new finale over the Kwaremont and Paterberg. Although Vanmarcke is bullish about his own finishing speed – after all, he beat Boonen in the sprint to win Omloop in 2012 – he acknowledged that he will need to rid himself of a sprinter of Alexander Kristoff’s calibre before the finish in Oudenaarde.
"There are a certain number of favourites and I’m one of them," Vanmarcke said. "I’ve prepared well all winter and I’m in form, I just hope I’m spared the bad luck I had at Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche and Harelbeke.
"I’ll need to drop Kristoff, and of the others, Thomas is the man to beat – Sky have a very solid team. But I don’t feel inferior to anyone and the advantage is that our team doesn’t have to carry the weight of the race."
Vanmarcke does, however, carry the burden of home expectation, even if it is a load that he claims to bear lightly. "It’s only normal that there is pressure: I put myself under pressure as well," he said. "Already since last year, I feel that I can win this race."