Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) will head into Friday's E3 Harelbeke and Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem with the confidence of a podium performance at Omloop het Nieuwsblad in his pocket and a strong team on the road to help him up the hellingen of Belgium and over the pavé of northern France.
"E3 is a hard and honest race," Vanmarcke said in a statement released with the team's roster announcement.
"The many hills on a short period make it very hard. The distance from those sections until the finish is still 30-40km, so it's not easy for attacking on the hills and staying in front. That's where it gets interesting for sprinters as well. If they can survive, they still have a chance to come back."
Vanmarcke was 23rd in E3 last year, finishing nearly two minutes behind the lead trio in the fifth group on the road. But his podium place this year at Omloop and a solid week of racing at Tirreno-Adriatico have left him with good morale and good condition heading into the weekend of racing.
"It's one week before the Tour of Flanders, so you have to be strong in E3," Vanmarcke said. "The opening weekend was good. Everybody did his job. There is always space for improving, but also, the condition of everybody should be on its best by now, so that should give the extra we need.
"I had a week of recovery and specific training," he said. "I should be on a good level again."
Vanmarcke will have the backing of a hearty roster for the northern classics of Belgium, with Mitch Docker, Sebastian Langeveld, Sacha Modolo, Taylor Phinney, Tom Scully, and Tom Van Asbroeck on the roster for E3. Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem sees a slight change, as Dan McLay replaces Van Asbroeck.
Vanmarcke has twice been second at Gent-Wevelgem, in 2016 and 2010, and he's twice been third in Tour of Flanders, in 2016 and 2014, but he hasn't climbed to the top step of a Belgian Classic since winning Omloop in 2012. He's targeted the spring races again this year, hoping to add the elusive victory.
"These races are the most beautiful and interesting races of the year for me," Vanmarcke said. "Hard, honest, history, drama, and of course - cobbles, which suit me very well. I already have a lot of experience, so I know how to go into the races. For sure, I'm always very excited, but I'm not nervous anymore. Years ago, I sure was. Now it's just some good tension and focus."
Sport director Andreas Klier said EF Education-First-Drapac have several cards to play, depending on how the races unfold.
"Obviously, Sep is in good shape and we will see how those races develop," Klier said. "We shouldn't forget that we have Sacha as a backup, and therefore we are not forced to make an early decision. Let's see what influence the races, the circuit and the weather will have on tactics."
EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale for E3 Harelbeke: Mitch Docker, Sebastian Langeveld, Sacha Modolo, Taylor Phinney, Tom Scully, Tom Van Asbroeck, Sep Vanmarcke
EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale for Gent-Wevelgem: Mitch Docker, Sebastian Langeveld, Dan McLay, Sacha Modolo, Taylor Phinney, Tom Scully, Sep Vanmarcke