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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda)
Garmin-Barracuda rider in action at E3 Harelbeke
Sep Vanmarcke's assured victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month was one of the standout performances of the early season, but the Garmin-Barracuda rider is keen to keep expectations in check as classics fever clicks into gear in Belgium. After setting Flemish hearts aflutter once again with an aggressive showing at Dwars Door Vlaanderen during the week, he lines up among the principal contenders for victory at E3 Harelbeke on Friday.
"The expectations are obviously there, but that doesn't make me worried or give me a lot of stress," Vanmarcke told Cyclingnews. "I hope I can play for the win again."
Still only 23 years of age, the clinical manner of that Het Nieuwsblad triumph was a further indication of the promise he has shown over the past two seasons. Outnumbered in a five-man break by a brace of riders from Sky and Omega Pharma-QuickStep respectively, Vanmarcke launched a smart attack to whittle the group down to three, before calmly disposing of Tom Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha in the sprint.
"I expected to be in front and ride for the podium and hope that I could fight for the win, but I didn't expect to beat Boonen in the sprint," he said. "Only a few guys can do that and I didn't think it would be me."
While some suggested that Boonen's surprise defeat was explicable by the fact that his main objectives come in April, Vanmarcke quietly noted that he, too, has focused his campaign around performing at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
"It was only my sixth race, and my first after Algarve, so it was also the case for me that Harelbeke, and mostly Flanders and Roubaix were the most important races I was working for. Omloop wasn't a goal, so I guess I was in the same position as him."
In spite of his strong showing at Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, Vanmarcke came away from Waregem disappointed with his 7th place finish. In particular, he was frustrated by the close attention he attracted from his companions in the chase group after attacking the Paterberg with gusto.
"I'm not pleased, I expected more of it and I felt like more was possible too," Vanmarcke said. "When I bridged up with the chase group there was no cooperation at all. They were looking at each other all the time. I also felt like everybody was keeping an eye on me. Pozzato too, I don't know what was going on with him."
The thirteen hellingen of E3 Harelbeke, not to mention the depth of quality of its field, may well play to Vanmarcke's advantage on Friday. "Normally we should survive with a few guys after all the climbs and then in the final it's going to be difficult to set something up."
Cancellara and Flanders
After growing up steeped in the lore of the Muur and Bosberg, the romantic in Vanmarcke was disappointed to see the Tour of Flanders organisers dispense with tradition and shift the finale of De Ronde to a circuit around Oudenarde in 2012. From a more practical point of view, however, he acknowledged that the potentially tougher route should suit his characteristics.
"Before I wasn't happy with the change because it was historical but then when I look at the course, I feel that I will be better for me in the future," Vanmarcke said, although he was quick to stress that he may still be a couple of years short of being a genuine contender for Tour of Flanders victory. "Right now, I might be too young to go for the win, I don't know," he said. "Maybe I need a few more years, we'll see that in a few weeks."
For this season at least, Fabian Cancellara's blistering displays at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo seem to suggest that he will again be the man to beat on the cobbles in the weeks to come. After effectively single-handedly dragging the winning break from the summit of the Poggio down into San Remo, however, Cancellara was pipped in the sprint by Simon Gerrans and Vanmarcke wondered if riding with a little less abandon might have yielded a better return for the Swiss rider.
"He should have won that race, he was definitely the strongest," Vanmarcke said. "I don't know… he should have gambled a bit instead of keeping riding and being second. It's too bad with that condition."
And if Vanmarcke were to go clear with Cancellara after crossing the top of the Paterberg for the final time at the Tour of Flanders, would he sit on his wheel?
"I don't know," Vanmarcke said with a smile. "Like you say, hypothetically… if he's that strong that he keeps on riding, then why not?"