Belgian pavé specialist Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) hasn't been spared from bad luck in his most recent spring classics campaigns. Last year he suffered with a stomach bug that kept him from racing the classics at his usual top level.
This year, Vanmarcke kicked off his campaign on Friday by featuring at the bottom of the pile-up that occurred in a massive crash 110 kilometres from the finish of E3 Harelbeke. The Belgian ended up riding behind a second group that was a minute behind the first peloton.
Quick-Step Floors upped the pace and never let the chasers to get back to the front of the race. Nikki Terpstra finished it off for the Belgian team with a solo move, while Vanmarcke fought his way back to the first chase group, claiming a seventh place in Harelbeke from the group that sprinted for second.
Shortly after crossing the line in front of the Forestier stadium in Harelbeke, Vanmarcke reflected on his hectic day, and his thoughts went immediately to the crash. TV images of the incident showed most of the EF Education First-Drapac riders crawling up from the ground.
"We had all the bad luck in the world with our team," Vanmarcke said. "We were well positioned near the front. We were there with six or seven guys on the ground. I thought the race was over. I had to wait until the pile on top of me was gone. They had to take me out of there because I was stuck. Before I got going again a few minutes had passed by."
Meanwhile, two pelotons were up the road and Vanmarcke seemed to be out of contention to play a role in this race. That wasn't the case, though.
"It was a full-on chase," he said. "The teammates delivered a strong job to bring me back. We pulled hard and didn't hesitate. There wasn't a moment to recover for me. I never had a good moment in this race because I felt pains in my back and hip."
In the finale, Terpstra's teammate Philippe Gilbert led a group of 10 rider home 20 seconds behind the solo winner. Vanmarcke finished behind Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo).
"At the end of the race I was completely dead," Vanmarcke said. "On all the climbs everybody wanted to go but was looking at each other. I knew I had to go flat out on the climb. I paid the price for that after the climbs because the others then accelerated. Good, that way we made it back near the front."
On the Paterberg, Vanmarcke was suddenly back in the picture as he was leading the chasing peloton back into touching distance of the main group behind leaders, Terpstra and Yves Lampaert. At 25 kilometres from the finish, Vanmarcke bridged up with pre-race favourites Van Avermaet, Benoot and Gilbert, but Terpstra was still up the road.
"In the final kilometres I had nothing left in my tank," Vanmarcke said. "It was a good training. Terpstra? It was going super hard in our group, so it's impressive to see that he's staying ahead.
"On to the next one," Vanmarcke said, trying to shake off his bad day. "I expected more from this race. Thinking about how long I've been on the ground I think I got the most out of it. [Teammate Sacha] Modolo was in front and he waited for me and worked hard. Hats off to him. Getting a top-10 result is a small consolation. It's a pity, but I'm happy to have made it back in the main group."
On Sunday, Vanmarcke will line-up for the start in Ghent-Wevelgem, where he managed a second place in 2010 and 2016. Next week, Vanmarcke will be one of the contenders for victory in the Tour of Flanders, a race in which he finished third in 2014 and 2016.