Sep Vanmarcke has come to the end of his first season at Israel Start-Up Nation, and his 12th as a professional, reflecting on another year of ups and downs, though confident that he and his Classics teammates are a stronger lineup than many fans and onlookers may think.
This year, the 33-year-old specialist enjoyed a cluster of solid cobbled results early in the season – third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, fourth at Le Samyn, and fifth at the Tour of Flanders – but suffered another day of bad luck at the delayed Paris-Roubaix in October, finishing down in 23rd.
However, for his team it was a different story as ISN showed their collective Classics strength for the first time on that wet day in northern France. Tom Van Asbroeck and Guillaume Boivin ended their race in unexpected eighth and ninth places, with Boivin unlucky to crash out of podium contention late on.
Speaking at ISN's post-season camp in Tel Aviv earlier this month, Vanmarcke hailed the collective strength of his new teammates, noting that it was the first time they were able to show their potential on the cobbles.
"At this moment last year I had to do interviews where the journalists were saying that the EF team wasn't strong enough for the Classics," Vanmarcke told Cyclingnews.
"Now I was saying that we have much stronger riders than you think, but they just have to make the step forward and there's potential and it's the first time they could show it.
"I was really happy, too. Because of my bad luck I wasn't totally in the front where I should've been and wanted to be, but they stepped up and they could do it. I was really proud of that as a teammate. I hope they can get that level also – and for sure they have the mental strength to do it – to do it next spring and we can have more options to play," he said about Paris-Roubaix.
"Tom [Van Asbroeck] I already knew for years, but it's just about time that he got in a good position to fight for himself. Guillaume [Boivin] is really strong – in Flanders he helped me incredibly well. Since June he had a really high level and he managed to keep it until the end. For him also it's the first time he could prove that he could do it in big races for himself."
Three bike changes, two crashes and a puncture saw Vanmarcke end up 6:21 down on the winning group in Roubaix. He rued the luck that followed him around in the latter part of the season, which also saw him hit the deck four times in the Vuelta a España and departing on stage 16.
"In the summer I was really good," he said, noting his three podiums and eventual third place at July's Settimana Italiana. "I liked my level and condition, but yeah everything went wrong, not only in Roubaix but also in the Vuelta. I had a lot of bad luck, so I don't know why. It was a coincidence I think, being in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
"I don't want to waste my energy on it now. It's easy to say that I can't handle a bike, but I think I can handle a bike pretty well. Or that I'm unlucky with all the punctures but some have the reason that when I had to go in the side because a rider crashed there's not much you can do. But yeah, it helps to make yourself stronger, eh?"
As ever, next year will see Vanmarcke target the same set of goals. For pure Classics specialists, the season revolves around April, meaning that a season can be almost fully judged just a few months after it has begun.
To the surprise of nobody, Flanders (a 13th attempt) and Roubaix (number 10) are the main goals, with Vanmarcke saying that his experience helps during the cobbled Monuments. However, despite recording power numbers as good as he ever has, matching up to the stars of the younger generation such as Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) is still some ask.
"It's always the same, of course. I think that the Classics are my core business, and they will be until I stop racing. It's the same and together with my teammates we hope to get results and fight for wins. Normally after the Classics the focus will go to the Tour de France.
"It's true that you see some situations a lot better. You don't stress or get nervous when some things happen, some situations, and you see more of what's going on in the peloton, that's true. On the physical part, I would say I still have the same level or even I score better numbers than in the past. But let's say the new generation have gotten a lot stronger. I cannot take the race in my hands like I used to do but with the extra knowledge and experience this levels up also," the 33-year-old Belgian said.
"But when some guys like Van Aert and Van der Poel can shoot their strong bullets then for me it's not possible to follow. It doesn't mean that I can't win or can't be there in the final, but if they go on a steep climb then they're too explosive for me to immediately follow. That's something to keep working on."
Adding Nizzolo and adding belief that they belong
Israel Start-Up Nation will next year be welcoming a number of new big names to the squad, including Italian sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo. The 32-year-old comes on board to add a top-level sprinter to a solid lead out train, with Milan-San Remo and six or seven sprints at the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France among the obvious goals.
But in addition to those sprint-focussed events, the Italian is also looking to add his talents to the team's Classics squad. Last year he took second at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, while this year he finished fourth at the Classic Brugge-De Panne and second at Gent-Wevelgem.
His signing adds a new dimension to a Classics squad which has only recently come to the forefront of the discussion for the cobbles. Nizzolo's was a transfer that both Vanmarcke and team directeur sportif – and 1988 Paris-Roubaix winner – Dirk Demol had asked for, the pair said.
"I was already working for four years with Nizzolo at Trek and it's already two years that I've asked the team to take him but he had a contract and you have to respect that. I'm super happy that he joined," said Demol.
"In the Vuelta I was speaking to [team manager] Kjell Cärlstrom about a lot, and I also said I think we need a key sprinter because we have a strong train ready," Vanmarcke added. "I said out of nothing that I think Nizzolo would be a good option for us because he could also be there in the Classics – we saw in the last years he was there.
"For example, if he was there with me and Tom or Guillame who can step up, then we can play cards with him as the fast man. Kjell said 'yeah, we're speaking to him' and in the end he came to our team so I'm really happy that he joins us because he can make us stronger for the Classics."
Nizzolo's arrival will only add to the team's strength throughout April, though he's not expected to be in the mix in the likes of Flanders of Roubaix, races which he hasn't targeted in the past and which he himself told Cyclingnews would be too close to the Giro d'Italia to properly attack.
"I don't expect him to be there in Flanders-Roubaix but every other race in the spring – starting from San Remo – he will be there," said Demol. "We will have him for several one-day races in the north. I have so much confidence in him. And then with Sep, Tom, Guillaume and surrounded with some good teammates because you always need one of two riders to do the dirty work."
The Belgian said that the key to success in the Classics is believing that they belong up there at the front of races battling with the likes of the powerhouse QuickStep team, and the headline-grabbers Van Aert and Van der Poel.
"We were somehow a team of let's say underdogs. Nobody was expecting that ISN would control the races. But we had some freedom and when you have those chances you have to go and grab it," Demol said.
"Going from Sep and what I've seen from Boivin and Van Asbroeck, if you believe more in yourself, you're going to be there. Period. This is what was missing sometimes. We have to be ambitious, we have to have that confidence, we have to go, we have to take our chances.
"From what I've seen from Boivin and Van Asbroeck and also having Nizzolo on board for some Classics – I'm confident we're going to be there. I don't want to say that we're like a QuickStep or whatever, but with adding Nizzolo and with what we learned from this year, we can be ambitious."
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Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content on Cyclingnews and takes on live race text coverage throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Tro-Bro Léon, Strade Bianche, and the Vuelta a España.
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