Coming into the 111th edition of Paris-Roubaix, most riders would have signed on immediately to be able to finish as the runner-up behind Fabian Cancellara. However, the actual runner-up, Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco), cried tears of disappointment after being beaten by Cancellara in a two-man sprint on the Roubaix velodrome.
"Before the race, I would've been ok with second, but not if you're leading the race at 200m from the finish, and then still with 50m to go. Maybe in a few weeks I'll be happy, but now I'm not," said an emotional Vanmarcke.
"I won't sleep for a couple of nights, and I'll keep riding this sprint again and again. I know everybody will be proud, and I should be proud too but I'd much rather have won."
"Cancellara couldn't get rid of me on the cobbles nor later with his attack at 4km from the finish. The last kilometres, I really started to believe in getting the cobble [trophy] and that makes it really painful that he passed me in the last 20 metres. He was beatable. I came as close as half a metre, so it was possible to beat him but I didn't manage to do it."
Vanmarcke is suited for the northern one-day races. Though only 24, the Belgian rider already has an outstanding record. When he debuted as a pro in 2010, he sprinted for the win in Gent-Wevelgem, falling just short behind Bernhard Eisel but holding off Philippe Gilbert, George Hincapie, Daniel Oss and Jurgen Roelandts. In 2011, he made his debut in the Hell of the North as part of the Garmin team with Thor Hushovd and Johan Vansummeren. Young Vanmarcke did most of the work until deep into the finale, which eventually ended in win for Vansummeren and a 20th place for himself. Afterwards Vanmarcke told Cyclingnews that he believed he could come back and win Paris-Roubaix.
His 2012 kicked off in a promising way when he did what seemed impossible, beating super star Tom Boonen in a two-man sprint at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Bad luck in the form of illness ruined his participation in Paris-Roubaix a few weeks later, and he finished on a distant 84th place. One year later, it seemed like Vanmarcke wouldn't even take the start in Paris-Roubaix. The timing was disastrous, just ahead of the Spring Classics.
"I became a cyclist for these races. I'm know I'm good at them. Three weeks ago, I couldn't even walk. In Tirreno-Adriatico [stage 5], I crashed on my knee. First surgery seemed necessary, but then it became clear that Paris-Roubaix was still possible," Vanmarcke said.
He turned the unfortunate situation around and focused on nothing but Roubaix. The pressure on the team was on the shoulders of Lars Boom, who featured in the decisive breakaway too, but lost contact after a tactical battle with Cancellara.
"I wasn't mentally fresh, because of all the training blocks I did the last few weeks, but I was hungry to make up for a ruined Spring Classics season. Today I was good. I had a couple of flat tyres, and I had a crash before the Arenberg forest, but then in the final I was there."
"Four kilometres from the finish, I started to believe. He attacked. It was close, but I managed to stay with him. Mentally that gave me wings. Before that moment, my only concern was not getting dropped," said Vanmarcke.
"He asked me a couple of times how I felt. The only thing you can say then is that I was fucked, and I was pretty sure he was, too. I knew I could not drop him," Vanmarcke said.
That may not really have been the case since Cancellara said that he was happy not to get dropped by Vanmarcke as he was going backwards on the cobbles. "The only thing I wanted was to get with him to the track. I know he is stronger, but in the sprint I had a chance. Everybody can win a sprint after 260km, but why did I start the sprint?" Vanmarcke wondered.
"I got him trapped. The only thing for which I'm blaming myself now is that I started my sprint then and there. It was ok to go at 170m, but actually I didn't have to start the sprint. The longer I waited, the more the win was mine. Then why did I? Nerves probably... no experience, I don't know. I know I should be super proud that I finished in second place, but the only thing I feel right now is disappointment."
What the future will bring is unsure. It's clear that Vanmarcke will always make a goal of Paris-Roubaix and most other Spring Classics. With his team's future uncertain, he may be riding for another team in future years, but in the meantime, he has other priorities.
"Now I'll let my knee rest," he said. "Afterward, I hope to make the best of the second part of the season." Vanmarcke has struggled in the second half of the season in previous years.