The 100th edition of the Tour of Flanders turned out to be the return at the highest level in the Spring classics for Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo). The 27-year-old Belgian rider became the next big Belgian thing for the Spring classics ever since his win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2012. He performed at the highest level in 2013 and 2014 with a second place in the 2013 Paris-Roubaix and a third place in the 2014 Tour of Flanders.
Last year the logical next step didn’t follow and doubts came. This year he bounced back with a second place in Gent-Wevelgem and a good performance at the E3 Harelbeke. On Sunday he cracked the podium in Flanders once again, finishing third behind the untouchable world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and a strong Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo).
It’s clear that Vanmarcke will gain a lot of confidence to perform at his best in Paris-Roubaix next week. The man needs no motivation as he announced this week that he was getting married in August and is expecting a baby in September.
“I never had better legs at the start of the race," he said. "Two years ago my legs were feeling better deep into the finale though."
Together with Sagan he approached the final climb of the day at 15 kilometres from the finish, enjoying a bonus of 15 seconds over an unleashed Fabian Cancellara. While Sagan kept a steady rhythm up the Paterberg there were problems for Vanmarcke. He nearly parked his bike on the short, steep cobbled climb.
“I had the same feeling," he said. "I suffered a lot on the Oude Kwaremont to keep up with him. On the Paterberg I was thinking, ‘I can keep this up until the top’, but when I stood on the pedals at the steepest section I completely cramped. I was happy to make it to the top. I knew that if I would reach the top ahead of Cancellara then maybe we would be able to come back. Having cramps at that moment said enough.”
Vanmarcke has never hidden his desire to win a Monument. He knows the chances to win are limited even though he has many more years to reach out for victory in Oudenaarde or Roubaix. Nevertheless, he was able to accept his third place as a good outcome of his race. Before the race was halfway Vanmarcke had been on the ground twice and his crashes weren’t the only things that bothered him, as it turned out.
After his two crashes he switched bikes after tackling the long Paddestraat pavé stretch at more than 100 kilometres from the finish. A few moments later there was the crash that took out pre-race favourite Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). That was a good crash to avoid. Despite his new bike Vanmarcke needed about 40 more kilometres to get back in fighting spirit as he was bothered by a slightly higher saddle position. It’s telling how he’s been modifying his position until the last moment before the race.
“Today a lot of things were going wrong in the middle of the race," he said. "For 60 or 70 kilometres I was wasting energy due to crashes and because I rode out of position. Ahead of the race I adapted my saddle position on my first bike but it wasn’t done on my second bike. There was never time to do that. Only at about 70 kilometres from the finish it was possible to drop it. For a long time I was in an awkward position. My team-mates managed to get me back in position while I managed to make a switch in my head. Physically I suffered a lot though and that’s why I’m happy to get on the podium.”
Vanmarcke featured in a breakaway group that anticipated the Koppenberg, offering him an easier fight for positions and a slightly more comfortable ride up the cobbles on the Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries and Taaienberg climbs. After the Taaienberg all the big guns were present in the first peloton.
At about 35 kilometres from the finish Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) accelerated away on a seemingly easy section. Sagan was well positioned and marked the Polish rider's wheel. It seemed like a copy from their attack in E3 Harelbeke, where Kwiatkowski went on to win the race. The duo quickly had a gap and Vanmarcke was the only rider who tried to bridge up to the duo.
“Once I was back in the race I did everything right," he said. "Their move was identical to Harelbeke. They were the strongest riders too and went the same way. I thought to myself, ‘I have to close this in one effort’. Peter saw it happening and accelerated. I knew I had to go until the limit but I had to get there. I sensed that it was the decisive moment in the race. Behind us they were hesitating.”
Vanmarcke managed to close the gap and was the only rider able to hold on to Sagan’s wheel. That is, until the Paterberg where he was the last rider to see Sagan’s rear wheel.
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