Twelve months ago, in the absence of the injured Tom Boonen, Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) approached the Tour of Flanders carrying a large share of home expectation but he fell well short of expectations on Flemish cycling’s day of days.
This time around, Vanmarcke has enjoyed a rather more low-key build-up to the Ronde and he continued his preparations with an 8th place finish at E3 Harelbeke on Friday, in the elite chasing group that formed behind winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff).
Vanmarcke survived the first major shake-up of the contenders on the Taaienberg – “Cancellara, Boom and I had to go on the cobbles a lot on the Taaienberg instead of the gutter, but we managed to get back to the front,” Vanmarcke explained, but he admitted that he simply didn’t have the strength to follow Kwiatkowski and Sagan when they pressed clear on the smooth climb up Karnemelkbeekstraat with 30 kilometres remaining.
“There were only two riders who were able to climb that fast: that was clear,” Vanmarcke said. “There was a headwind and I didn’t expect much to happen. When they attacked there was a bit of hesitation. I was at the back of the group, but the two riders from QuickStep weren’t able to close it down. If a [Zdenek] Stybar in top form can’t close it down, then I don’t need to bother trying. I didn’t have enough left in the tank at that moment.”
Etixx-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere would later decry the tactics of rival teams in the chasing group, accusing them of riding for third place – and WorldTour points – rather than making a genuine attempt to peg back Kwiatkowski and Sagan. With no LottoNL-Jumbo teammate in the group, Vanmarcke said that he was reluctant to work.
“In our group, three Etixx-QuickStep riders were working,” he said. “It wasn’t up to me to pull. There were some teams with two riders, as well, and they weren’t working, so I wasn’t going to work for sure."
“In the sprint I hoped to finish close, I had the legs to do it. I was marking [Matteo] Trentin but he was blocked in the sprint and I was way too late. But fair enough, it’s a place of honour, somewhere.”
In a revealing press conference on the eve of E3 Harelbeke, Vanmarcke admitted that he struggled to cope with the expectation thrust upon him this time last year. “I put too much pressure on myself and there was too much stress,” he said on Thursday. “Now I'm more relaxed, and I know my time is yet to come."
From the outside, Vanmarcke, the Waregem native who has been known to train on the Tour of Flanders course on Christmas morning, seems decidedly traditionalist in his approach to the first two Sundays in April, but he employed the services of a sports psychologist after his setback last year, when he was surprisingly dropped on the Taaienberg.
"It might be a taboo in Flanders, but I'm not ashamed that I work with a sports psychologist,” Vanmarcke said. "It can’t hurt to call in some help every now and then. It's not that I'm visiting his office, but he helps me to deal with certain situations. We just talk a lot."
After E3 Harelbeke on Friday, meanwhile, Vanmarcke sounded an optimistic note about his prospects at the Tour of Flanders a week on Sunday. The 27-year-old was laid low by illness in the build-up to Milan-San Remo but felt improvement on home roads.
“To stand a chance next week, then I’ve got to be slightly better than today. I was on my limit on the climbs but I always made the break, so that’s positive,” Vanmarcke said. “It’s still possible to improve. There are still ten days before Flanders and it’s two and a half weeks to Roubaix.”
Watch the video below for the full list of our riders to watch at Gent-Wevelgem and let us know who you think will win in the comments below.
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