Greg Van Avermaet has undergone a transformation in the past year and a half, going from perennial nearly-man to Olympic gold medallist, two-time stage winner and yellow jersey wearer at the Tour de France and, at last, winner of big one-day races like the GP de Montreal and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
One man hoping to follow in those footsteps is Sep Vanmarcke.
“I’m not one of the biggest talents like [Peter] Sagan, who’s there from when he’s like 18; I’m a guy like Greg Van Avermaet – someone who needs time,” the Belgian tells Cyclingnews at the winter training camp of Cannondale-Drapac, his new and old team.
At 28, Vanmarcke has been amassing a string of near misses that wouldn’t have looked out of place on his compatriot’s results sheet. Hopes were raised by victory at Omloop in 2012 but since then he has amassed no fewer than 18 top-five placings in spring Classics. He has twice been on the podium at the Tour of Flanders (2014 and 2016), and his last four results at Paris Roubaix read: 4th, 11th, 4th, 2nd.
“I’m always there. In the last years I’ve always been top-five or on the podium," says Vanmarcke. "He [Van Avermaet] developed in a similar way, was also always there and just not winning."
“It’s only since last year and especially this year that he’s finishing it off. I don’t put a mirror between us but it’s pretty much the same, and I believe I’m developing the same.”
At 31, Van Avermaet is three years older than Vanmarcke, who is keen to stress that time is on his side.
“To win I just need the age. One day it will come, I guess, I hope. Until then I'll just keep working – I know I’m still developing, still getting better."
“Other guys who are retired like [Peter] Van Petegem and [Johan] Museeuw, they only won their first Classics late. I think Museeuw was 28. Van Petegem was nearly 30. He won three monuments and Museeuw six. So I have time.”
The Classics can be a lottery; they say you have to be strong to win but the variables are more numerous than those find in a stage race. The best rides happen when the stars align and strength combines with circumstance and good fortune in a perfect storm.
For Vanmarcke, the myriad ingredients needed to cook up a Monument victory just haven’t come together – yet.
“There are multiple factors,” says Vanmarcke as he tries to put his finger on the string of near misses. “A little bit not strong enough, not old enough."
"I know I’m good in those races, and other guys see it too, so it’s hard to attack because they know I can finish it off. I also don’t have the fastest sprint – I’m unlucky that guys like Sagan, Van Avermaet, Kristoff, Degenkolb are also really good in those races and I have to get rid of them. It’s not that easy."
"I could have won already. The Paris-Roubaix that I lost to Cancellara, the Paris-Roubaix this year, also Flanders two years ago. I made some mistakes, and for me to have won I’d have needed all the luck on my side but that didn’t always happen. If I get a little bit stronger each year I don’t need to rely so much on luck."
Back to the future
Vanmarcke’s move to Cannondale-Drapac sees him return to his roots. Having come off the famous Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise conveyor belt of Belgian talent, he stepped up to WorldTour level with Jonathan Vaughters' team – then known as Garmin – in 2011.
“I came here when I was 21 and had a great time, but maybe it was also a bit early for the mind – maybe I wasn’t ready yet," he says.
Vanmarcke left for LottoNL-Jumbo and a more familiar, Dutch speaking, environment, but he always kept in contact with the team’s staff during their time apart, and he was never far away from Vaughters’ thoughts.
“During those years Jonathan was always interested, always talking to my management, asking if I was available, saying, ‘I really want him back’.”
Vaughters was the first manager to come in with a concrete offer for Vanmarcke this year, and the Belgian comes in as the figurehead of a Classics set-up that is being treated with increasing care and attention.
“At Lotto we had a good Classics team, but we always missed one or more people in the deep final – the last 30-40km," he says. "I think here I find those people; I find [Sebastian] Langeveld, [Dylan] Van Barle, [Taylor] Phinney, [Tom] Van Asbroek. So on paper there’s a really strong group. You don’t need to be QuickStep or BMC but I think we’ve got a really strong team.”
“Compared to five years ago, I’ve got a lot of experience now. I developed from a young talent to a leader in those races, to someone who can win them. It’s a big difference coming back now. “I developed really well [at Lotto] but now I’ve grown up and I’m ready for the next step.”
Vanmarcke is especially looking forward to linking back up with Andreas Klier, who was a rider during Vanmarcke's first stint at the team but is now a directeur sportif.
“He helped me a lot in those races, giving me knowledge and looking after me. I hope now as a DS he can do the same thing – keep me calm, help make decisions in the final. I still make a lot of mistakes. It’s true, I get nervous. I don’t know why but I make mistakes. So I’m hoping he can make the difference.”
The Monuments may be a lottery but such are the hurdles that must be overcome to win one, they remain very special achievements. Vanmarcke knows he won’t end up with a palmares like that of Tom Boonen but if he can hang up his wheels with just one Paris-Roubaix or Tour of Flanders title to his name, his career will have been an unmitigated success.
“I know I’m not going to win so many big races in my career, but I believe I can win one," he says. "I don't win 10 races a year, but it doesn’t matter as long as I can win a big one - then it’ll be ok. I believe that one it will work out.”