When the Tour de France course was announced back in October, multiple riders were pleased to see a Paris-Roubaix stage on day nine. Sep Vanmarcke was certainly among those riders. The 29-year-old Belgian is one of the best in the world on pavé, finishing in the top 10 in nearly all of his recent Paris-Roubaix starts.
Jean-Patrick Nazon won the sprint after a mixed Flanders-Roubaix Tour de France stage in 2004, and Lars Boom won an epic rain-soaked mini-Paris-Roubaix stage in 2014. One year later, Tony Martin surprised the peloton in Cambrai. Vanmarcke surely would love to add his name to this list. The chances that it will happen are small, though, as Vanmarcke is riding this Tour in service of team leader and last year's runner-up Rigoberto Uran. When asked if that would also be the case in the stage to Roubaix, Vanmarcke was clear.
"Yes," he told Cyclingnews without hesitation. "Personally, it would be great to ride for myself because it's one of the few opportunities to have a chance on a Tour de France stage win. Three months ago they already told me, even before the spring Classics. If I didn't agree, then I didn't have to take part in the Tour. I know my position. I'm not worrying about it. It's clear. I prefer that over being notified only on Saturday evening."
The 2012 winner of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad doesn't mind working for Uran, as he pointed out that the Colombian rider isn't only the team leader in the Tour de France, but also a good teammate in general.
"He creates a good ambiance in the team," Vanmarcke said. "He's very relaxed. He's there in the race when he needs to be there. He doesn't ride into the wind with us when it's not necessary. That's pleasant. From that perspective, we're spoiled with a good leader."
There are few riders in the current peloton who hold a better record on the pavé classics like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, but it's clear that he's not a winner. He finished as runner-up in the 2013 edition of Paris-Roubaix, and he finished third in the Tour of Flanders both in 2014 and 2016. With that experience in mind, it's clear Vanmarcke knows how to judge the chances of Uran in Sunday's stage.
"After Liège-Bastogne-Liège, we did a recon of the Roubaix stage," Vanmarcke said. "He's going well over the cobbles. No problem at all. He's good at it. The battle in the race is something else. We've got to hope that he's in front of the peloton when it matters, and that he can stay away from the crashes. Otherwise it'll be a lot of chaos."
Vanmarcke usually is the team leader himself during the spring Classics, so he was asked if he was able to settle in the role of domestique at the Tour de France.
"Firstly, Uran was runner-up in the Tour last year," he said. "It's logical that they target the yellow jersey this year. It's logical that they don't target anything else. You've got to do everything for that one goal. Secondly, I've been trying the last few years over here and it's been good for top-10 results, but it's hard to get the win on this level.
"Before the race, I knew this would be my role, and I'm OK with that. It's actually fun to do it that way. I've done it in the past, working for Mollema and Ten Dam. I did the lead out for Groenewegen. Now it's for a climber with a realistic chance on the podium. It's fun."
Vanmarcke talked with Cyclingnews while warming down at the team bus after the rolling stage to Quimper on Wednesday. Around him, several languages were being used but none of them was Dutch.
"No problem," Vanmarcke joked. "I speak Spanish, Italian. No, luckily the main language in the team is English, unsurprisingly, for an American team."
He seemed much more relaxed than during the busy weeks amidst the spring Classics.
"I'm quite good, I'm getting into the rhythm," he said. "Every day I'm feeling better. [Wednesday] was a hard day. In this Tour, it's all for Uran. In the past, I would've chased a top-10 result in a stage like Wednesday, whereas now it's a working day. It’s different but good too. For now, all is good.
"Sometimes it's hectic, like on Tuesday with the late crash," he continued. "Luckily, it worked out fine. [On Wednesday] we were always well positioned with enough riders. There's a lot of riders who will stay in the peloton as long as they can. Normally, a rider doesn't get dropped if he's able to follow. Many riders had a task, just like me. Then you stay there until your leader is safe, and that was the final kilometre today. Once we get to the mountains, it'll be different."