Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) was an outside favourite for Sunday's Tour of Flanders, having twice finished on the podium in the Ronde and once in Paris-Roubaix, but a crash descending the Muur put an end to his hopes for victory.
Vanmarcke moved from the LottoNL-Jumbo team to Cannondale-Drapac this year, hoping to be better supported in his races. A serious crash in the Montepaschi Stradebianche disrupted his build-up towards the Flemish classics, then during Dwars door Vlaanderen, Vanmarcke struggled to go deep. During the E3 Harelbeke he joined the lead group with a fierce acceleration but then started throwing up.
He skipped Gent-Wevelgem and hoped to be OK for Flanders. Vanmarcke appeared to be on good form, riding attentively near the front on the Muur and featuring in a star-studded lead group that formed on the famous climb, despite the finish still being 95 kilometres away.
Forty kilometres later, Gilbert rode away from Vanmarcke and the rest of the group on the Oude Kwaremont. Still, Vanmarcke was in a good position, but that turned around on the descent towards the following Paterberg climb. Vanmarcke lost control of his bike, crashed and took down Luke Rowe (Team Sky) with him. He was clearly in a lot of pain and abandoned the race.
"It’s all going the wrong way during this spring season," Vanmarcke told Sporza, seemingly holding back the tears.
When asked what happened, the 28-year-old blamed the bumpy roads. "It’s my own fault because I crash alone. I get stuck into the section in the middle. My right-hand side is all bruised up and my pinky might be broken. It’s all swollen too. I lost a lot of skin," Vanmarcke said before riding off.
Ken Vanmarcke, Sep's brother and director sportif in the Cannondale team, gave further explanation.
"He got into the space between the left and right lane with his front wheel. Once you start swerving, it's hard to recover."
Regarding the injuries and the chances to start in Paris-Roubaix, the director sportif opted to wait for hospital scans.
"First of all, we need to hope there's no broken pinky. It's all swollen," Ken Vanmarcke said. "On the other side he lost a lot of skin. He'll go to the hospital tonight. We have to wait. The bad thing is that the next major race is Paris-Roubaix, and you're not riding with a suspension system in front or behind. We have to wait.
"He's running into a lot of bad luck during this spring season. Four years ago, we were in a similar situation after nearly breaking his knee in the Tirreno. Then he finished as runner-up in Roubaix.
"After Wednesday, he had the right sensations although he wasn't 100 per cent. His build-up wasn't perfect because he wasn't able to race full-on and train hard for a few days, so you can’t expect top form. During the past few years, he learned to deal with bad luck. It remains hard. If you start your training on November 1, then these are the races you're working for. That makes this knock even harder," Ken Vanmarcke said
A little later, the director sportif switched to a happier mood when Dylan van Baarle arrived at the team bus. The young Dutchman took over the lead role in the team and anticipated the big moves in the peloton before the Koppenberg when joining Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo).
"I'm at a total loss," Van Baarle said. "We weren't lucky with our team but somehow I made it to the front. I had to switch bikes twice. I had to come from behind all the time but luckily the race was wide open so everybody was getting tired. After the first ascent of the Paterberg Felline attacked and before the race Sebastian [Langeveld] and I targeted him as a dark horse, so I didn't hesitate to go with him."
He ended up riding in the chase group behind lone leader and eventual winner Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors). During the penultimate climb of the day, the Oude Kwaremont, Van Baarle was riding behind Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen when they were going full gas on the left side of the road near the barriers.
Van Baarle seemed to lose ground and rode on the right hand side, but then the trio crashed hard.
"I was unable to keep up but told myself to keep riding on the right hand side of the road at my own pace. I don't know how they crashed but I suddenly found myself riding for second place," Van Baarle said.
The Paterberg was the only remaining climb. That's when Van Avermaet and Nikki Terpstra bridged up.
"I knew that if I survived that climb, that I wouldn't be dropped anymore," Van Baarle said.
In the sprint for second place, Van Baarle lost out on the final podium spots. "We came here with the team for the victory, so I worked along. I did notice that I started struggling in the final kilometres. Normally, I'm fast on the line but there wasn't much left in the tank."
Regarding winner Gilbert, Van Baarle was surprised.
"We all knew he was good," Van Baarle said. "We saw that in Dwars door Vlaanderen and the E3 Harelbeke but I didn't expect him to keep it up until the finish. It's his style of racing. Clearly, he was very strong today. I finish fourth and that's a bit sad. We came for the win. That didn't succeed but we got the most out of it."
Last year, Van Baarle finished sixth in the Ronde and this year he confirmed that it wasn't a fluke with his fourth place. Two years ago, Van Baarle already captured a third place in Dwars door Vlaanderen.
The young Dutch rider realises that a classic win might come within his reach in the future. "Of course, I hope it's possible but look at Sep. He's been close at so many occasions, but taking that next step is quite a big effort."