Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) does not lack for podium results in the Classics, and he added another one at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. The 29-year-old Belgian rider finished third and joined winner Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors) and runner-up Mike Teunissen (Sunweb) on the podium in Waregem after a rain-soaked race. With his recent performances, Vanmarcke adds his name to the list of favourites for the upcoming Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
In the post-race flash interview, a mud-clad Vanmarcke was asked about his three candidates for the win in Sunday's Tour of Flanders. He smiled. "That's easy. I haven't won yet, so I offer to be a candidate. Sagan of course, and this guy next to us, Yves Lampaert. He's a big name. He rides really hard. The third is difficult. I hope [it will be] myself," Vanmarcke said.
Dwars door Vlaanderen Yves Lampaert escaped from a five-man lead group in the final kilometre of the race in Waregem. Mike Teunissen was faster in the sprint of four behind, but Vanmarcke narrowly managed to hold off Edvald Boasson-Hagen (Dimension Data).
Vanmarcke wasn't sure if he finished on the podium when being swarmed by the media after crossing the finish line.
"Third or fourth, it'll be close. Was it third? Then I'm satisfied because I didn't feel good today. In that case, a podium is good. Third in a five-man group isn't great, but in this situation, I'm OK with it. I'd love to have won, but I felt throughout the finale that I wasn't going well, that the additional training from [last] Sunday was still in the legs. It's good for [this coming] Sunday," Vanmarcke said.
At the end of the 251 kilometres in Gent-Wevelgem, Vanmarcke tried a late solo move towards the win but was caught and finished 21st. Afterwards, he added 45 extra kilometres to be ready for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, races that hover around 260 kilometres.
"I was surprised that Boasson Hagen was going so well because the last few weeks he wasn't going so well. That means he's hitting peak form right on time. You know that if he's strong that he should be able to dominate the sprint. Mike quickly passed us and then it was a matter of taking Boasson Hagen or not. Luckily I passed him before the line. A podium result is always fun whereas a fourth place would be a bit of a disappointment."
The foul weather conditions didn't bother Vanmarcke too much. "I never got cold. In contrary, I got too warm and had to hurry to get rid of my gear. I wanted to take off my leg warmers too, but there was no time to do it."
Even though the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix are the races that matter the most to Vanmarcke, he tries to win every Classic between the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the vélodrome in Roubaix.
At the start of Dwars door Vlaanderen, he repeated that mindset. "Riders like Peter Sagan can skip this race because they've won so many big races before; I'm not in that position. I don't use this race as training. I don't need to improve my form. I've got good form, and I want to win races. There's enough time to recover and be ready for the Ronde van Vlaanderen."
Vanmarcke said that after the start in Roeselare, the rain kept pouring down on the riders' backs throughout the race, and no one managed to break away before reaching the hill zone after 80 kilometres. It resulted in a hard-fought race of 180 kilometres.
"It was a hefty race. It was probably my worst day of the spring season. I didn't feel strong. I was constantly on the limit. I didn't feel good," Vanmarcke said. "I was there but certainly not the strongest, or among the strongest like in the previous races. I did my share of the work, and I was able to attack but not a lot. I tried but there wasn't enough dash on it," Vanmarcke said.
Vanmarcke showed great form as he survived the scrimmages on the ascents of the Kruisberg and Trieu, at 40 to 30 kilometres from the finish. He was unable to mark the blistering move from in-form top guns Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) on the Trieu, but a few kilometres later he bridged up with 11 others on the cobbles of the Varent street.
"We certainly didn't receive a free ride. We were among the ten strongest riders at that moment. It was often quite tactical. It was sort of weird that many riders were keeping an eye on Valverde. Of course, that's not weird, but it's his first race here, and he's targeted like the top favourite.
"When Tiesj and Greg attacked on the Trieu, Valverde reacted, and I joined his move. Suddenly, he stopped pedalling and I had to brake; they were gone. It came back together. A tactical game unfolded. At the end of the Varent pavé sector, the pace dropped. I figured to have a go and hoped to be joined by Lampaert. He's strong and willing to work. It worked out, and we were co-operating well together until five kilometres from the finish. Then we knew we were saved and it was time to start playing."
Vanmarcke was the first to attack the group on the cobbles of the Herlegemstraat. Just before a mid-section double left-hand corner, he moved to the front and upped the pace. After the corners, he accelerated again, and Boasson Hagen struggled to hold his wheel. Lampaert went flat out to bring him back.
"I know that road well. We're close to my home. I was hoping the others would struggle with the corners because it can be slippery. A bridge follows that section and I hoped they would hesitate behind me," Vanmarcke told Sporza.
Vanmarcke twice finished third in the Tour of Flanders, in 2014 and 2016. Last year he struggled with a stomach bug during the spring season. Nevertheless, he was present in the finale of the Ronde but then crashed out in the fast twisting descent ahead of the Paterberg.