Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is a race that has been dominated by Belgians – with 56 wins in 71 editions – but the riders from the heartland of the Classics were all left frustrated on Saturday at two common enemies: a stiff headwind and a decided lack of cooperation.
Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) was the one who did most to try and break down those barriers but in the end he was hamstrung in a finale where tactics counted for more than physical strength.
The 29-year-old was part of a strong group that formed after the Berendries climb, but the easterly wind meant the bunch would arrive as one at the foot of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the focal point of a new race route that revived the old Tour of Flanders course.
Vanmarkce was the chief aggressor on the Muur, going clear over the top, but the headwind made it impossible to maintain an advantage – even between there and the Bosberg, never mind the 12km run to the finish line in Meerbeke.
"On the Muur I knew I had to go full gas to split the peloton and suddenly I was alone, but it was too difficult to stay away with the headwind," Vanmarcke told reporters in Meerkbeke.
"Even though [Zdenek] Stybar came across, it was still too hard against 10 guys."
On the run to the line, Vanmarcke found himself in a group with favourites such as Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) but, crucially, three riders from Astana in Michael Valgren, Alexey Lutsenko, and Oscar Gatto.
Astana duly started attacking and Valgren made the winning move with two kilometres remaining. Vanmarkce mustered up one final roll of the dice and set off in doomed pursuit, but had to settle for third as Lukasz Wisniowski (Team Sky) pipped him at the line, just ahead of the peloton.
"Afterwards, the cooperation wasn't great. There were too many guys from Astana. They immediately attacked and it became tactical," Vanmarcke said.
"I decided in the last kilometres to give it a few shots and not wait for the sprint. I hoped they would wait for a second and I could be gone, but Stybar immediately came to my wheel then after that I think Valgren attacked immediately and they stopped. And he was gone. I knew immediately – it was like 'ok that's it'. I couldn't go again because I just went. Then I waited for a second and when I recovered I went again, and they were waiting a little bit but I was dying because I hadn't recovered from the previous attacks."
For Vanmarcke, it's another podium placing to add to the collection. If Van Avermaet has thrown off the tag of 'Belgian nearly-ma'’ in the past couple of years then perhaps its Vanmarcke taking up the mantle.
He has twice finished on the podium at the Tour of Flanders and three times in the top four at Paris-Roubaix as well as a host of other near misses in the spring Classics. His one major scalp remains his victory at the 2012 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and he was third here last year, too, along with fifth and fourth in his two previous participations.
"One guy from Sky caught me on the line but that's all right," he said. "Second or third, it's all right. Either it's winning or it's being on the podium, and I'm on the podium so that's ok."
After giving an anti-doping sample Vanmarcke left Meerbeke in a team car with a smile, but podiums are unlikely to continue to provide consolation deeper into the spring.
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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