It doesn't require the keenest of eyes to see the EF Education First-Drapac rider's strength on the cobbles, but what's more difficult to envisage is a situation in which he wins De Ronde on Sunday. That's largely due to the Belgian's sprint, with which he has a poor track record.
Twice at Paris-Roubaix and once at the Tour of Flanders he has missed out on victory in a small group sprint, and it has happened at other smaller races, too. With Vanmarcke, you get the sense that if he's going to win, it would have to be alone, and for that to happen many stars would have to align.
Vanmarcke, however, defended his sprint in his pre-Flanders press conference on Friday, where it was announced he'd signed a new two-year contract with EF-Drapac.
"Since last year I worked a lot on my sprint, especially in the summer also," he said. "This year, Wednesday was actually the only time I could do a sprint in a finale. Gent-Wevelgem was different, Omloop I finished alone. So Wednesday was the first time for a real sprint, but that was after 180km… In the past, I figured out that after 250km I can be pretty fast.
"It was always never enough to win, but always to be second and third," he added, though he hadn't forgotten about the one piece of evidence that flies against the rest: the 2012 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Arriving in the final few hundred metres in a three-man group, few would have fancied him over seasoned sprinter Tom Boonen, but he waited for his compatriot to open the sprint before jumping on his wheel and coming around him resoundingly.
"I just need one day like Omloop 2012, where I beat Boonen, who seemed unbeatable," said Vanmarcke. "If I have that day then I can beat a lot of guys."
EF Education First-Drapac team manager and coach Jonathan Vaughters backed up his rider's ability to sprint, and suggested the reason it has gone against him more often than not is due to a psychological – rather than physical – shortcoming.
"It's not that he can't sprint. He's actually pretty good after 250 kilometres – and that sort of sprint is sort of who's stronger. We haven't actually seen him sprint after 250km for a few years. At Dwars we saw him sprint but that's a 180km race, it's just a totally different beast," Vaughters told Cyclingnews.
"For sure his peak five-second and 10-second power is higher than it used to be. But he's got be able to use that skill at the right moment. With Sep, it's not a horsepower thing; it's a timing, instinctual thing."
It's clear that, for Vaughters, mentality is the major factor when considering how to unlock the full extent of Vanmarcke's potential, or at least translate it into victory.
That's why he chose to put a new contract in front of him in the middle of the Classics, in the week leading up to Flanders.
"My bet on signing Sep before the Classics was this; it will put his mind at ease and he'll take some chances now and be unpredictable. Sep, he's kind of a nervous character, and beforehand his mindset was, 'well, my contract is coming up and I don't know what's going on with this team or whatever, so If I get third place, that'll definitely get me a contract for next year'. So he was sort of willing to play it safe, because he's really a family guy, he's about being a provider for his family, and I think he wanted to play it safe with results to make sure he got the contract to support his family.
"Now he's got that in the bag, he can say, 'ok I'm going to play it a little bit riskier, I'm going to wait, or attack earlier, or whatever – something unpredictable. And doing that, I might end up eighth, but I also might win, as opposed to playing safe and taking second or third'. So I think that ease of mind will allow him to take the risks needed to win."
A solid but unspectacular spring so far
Vanmarcke has had a solid if unspectacular 2018 Classics campaign so far. After finishing third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the end of February, he fought back after an early crash to finish seventh at E3-Harelbeke before finishing with the front group at Gent-Wevelgem. In Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday he attacked on a flat sector of cobbles and formed the decisive four-man selection, though he had to settle for third as Yves Lampaert outfoxed the rest of them in the final kilometre.
"Wednesday was the last race to find out how good you are. The whole spring Classics I've felt good, so I feel ready," Vanmarcke said.
"I don't know if I'm underestimated. That would be nice – I should probably say I'm really in bad shape and I can't follow anything, but no, I'm in good shape. I'm going to Flanders with two podiums in the pocket, and that gives lot of confidence, but there are many guys that are really good. I don't know – it's up to you to decide."
Vanmarcke has showcased time and again his ability to go deep into the race and it would come as no surprise to see him there in the finale once again on Sunday. But in the end, it is up to him to decide what do to once he's there in order to bridge that gap to the top spot of the podium.
"You have to be careful with Sep, you can make him nervous really easily. Just keep it simple – that's the key. Sep overthinks things on his own so there's no reason to force that," said Vaughters.
"He's one of those guys that you just need to stand there and go 'you know what, we believe in you'."
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