Sep Vanmarcke lined up for last year's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as an emerging Classics talent but one largely unfettered by undue external expectation. One cool disposal of Tom Boonen later, however, and Vanmarcke became the focus of sharper scrutiny from a home press always eager to probe the lines of succession to Belgium's Classics throne.
Twelve months on, as he returns to the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to defend his title, Vanmarcke's status as a potential king-in-waiting could be marked by the number of emissaries from the local media who gathered at the Blanco Pro Cycling team hotel on the outskirts of Ghent on Friday afternoon.
"I'm pretty much the same rider but for sure I'm more confident now," Vanmarcke told Cyclingnews. "I feel good, I feel strong and since last year, I know I can finish it too so that's given me a lot of confidence."
The off-season saw Vanmarcke make the switch from Garmin-Sharp to Blanco, and definitely step up to the status of a definitive team leader, a role he will share with Lars Boom during the cobbled Classics.
Boom has enjoyed a fine start to the campaign, winning stages at the Tour Mediterranéen and the Tour du Haut Var, but Vanmarcke insisted that the pair would have no problem in dovetailing their efforts this spring, starting on Saturday at Het Nieuwsblad.
"We're both in good shape. Lars has already shown it in his results and I know I'm in good shape myself," he said of his own efforts at the Volta ao Algarve. "It will depend on how we feel tomorrow and in the weeks to come. We'll see day by day, and during the race we can decide who should lead. And then if we're in the final with two, we take it in turns to attack.
"We shared a room in training camp so we talked about it then. I think everything will go well."
A Flemish soul
Indeed, after two years at Garmin, an American team with an international bent, Vanmarcke confessed that he was happy to have returned to a squad with a Dutch-speaking nucleus. "I felt confident with everybody straightaway; if I sat down for the table with anyone, I could talk with anyone," Vanmarcke said.
"With Garmin, it was nice that we had a lot of different nationalities but it also felt like there were more ‘islands' in the team. I just feel like it's a closer group here and a better bond, maybe because we all speak Dutch."
Not that there aren't some language barriers still to be negotiated. The peculiarities of Vanmarcke's Flemish dialect have been met with no small degree of mirth by his Dutch teammates, even if he says that he, too, is left perplexed by some of their expressions.
"I have to try and speak the ‘proper' language, but I'm getting used to it, and it will also be better for the Belgian press too," Vanmarcke joked. "There are some words that I think sound stupid when they say it, but the opposite is also true. Sometimes during a race it could be pretty hard to understand each other alright, so I'll need to enunciate really well…"
If Vanmarcke has made the effort to cross borders linguistically, his preparation remains resolutely Flemish. Virtually all roads around his Waregem home lead to the cobbles and hills of the Flemish Ardennes, to such an extent that a Christmas morning training ride with his brother morphed into a reconnaissance of the route of the Tour of Flanders, including the Koppenberg and Oude Kwaremont.
"I live in the area, just 10 kilometres away from Oude Kwaremont," Vanmarcke said, downplaying his yuletide workout. "It wasn't planned in advance, I just wanted to do some hills with cobblestones. I always train with my brother and we said ‘why not do a recon as well?' We picked Flanders and I guess people think it's special that I trained on Flanders on Christmas day. But really - I had to train, I had to do the hours and I had to do some hills, so why shouldn't I do a recon?"
Although he picked out Ian Stannard (Sky) as a young rider who could begin to carve out a niche for himself on the cobbles this spring, Vanmarcke limited himself to suggesting "the guys everyone writes about" when asked to name his possible rivals at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
Fittingly for a son of Flanders, Vanmarcke seems to feel it is rash to make any telling assessments before a pedal has been turned in anger at Opening Weekend. "You just can't compare these races to Algarve, Majorca, Qatar and Oman," he smiled.
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