TAVIRA, Portugal (VN) — Sep Vanmarcke’s lithe six-foot-two frame was twisted up like a pretzel in the back of a small, Euro-style camper van to change clothes after completing the final time trial at the Volta ao Algarve (Tour of the Algarve) last weekend.
Hardly the glamorous setting expected for the man many call Belgium’s next great classics rider.
The Blanco rider unfolded his arms and legs to climb out and consider his immediate future.
Within days, the 24-year-old would be lining up as defending champion at Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Circuit Het Nieuwsblad) to open the Belgian racing calendar.
“It’s going to be a special day,” Vanmarcke said. “I am not sure I will be able to win again, because the goal is to be good for all the classics. I will try.”
There is a lot of expectation on Vanmarcke this season. Many are already hyping him as a future winner of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) or Paris-Roubaix. His high-profile move from Garmin-Sharp to Blanco (formerly Rabobank) only raised the stakes.
It’s something he says he’s not losing too much sleep over.
“This is my fourth year as a pro. I still have a lot of time to race,” he said. “For Flanders or Roubaix, I cannot say it, mostly it’s guys of 30 or over 30 who win it. I am only 24. We have to see if I am already strong enough for six-and-a-half hours on cobblestones, but if it’s winning or podium, it’s a big difference.”
That’s not to say that Vanmarcke is not motivated. Quite the opposite.
His ambitions include Flanders and Roubaix, the ultimate test for any classics specialist, but he’d be quite happy to settle on any podium’s top spot in the northern classics run that begins this weekend and continues through the “Hell of the North” on April 7.
“I hope to win one of the classics or semi-classics this year,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in myself. I know I can do it. I am stronger than last year, because I am a year older. I worked well. I’ve had no injuries. I haven’t been sick, so I should have a better level than last year.”
Vanmarcke received a huge confidence boost last year with his thrilling Het Nieuwsblad victory against wily veteran and 2010 winner Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and a resurgent Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
Vanmarcke raced beyond his years and finished off the sprint with panache to claim a massive victory to kick-start what many believe could be the beginning of a great classics career.
“It was a very special victory,” he said. “Beating Boonen and Flecha in the sprint; being strong in the race, not just lucky that I won it. Everything that came together. It gave me a lot of confidence in the next races.”
Garmin picked up Vanmarcke following solid results in 2010 with Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator, when he was second at Ghent-Wevelgem and the Circuit Franco-Belge, and he quickly proved his worth. In 2011, he was 20th in his Roubaix debut and just missed the podium with a fourth-place result at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and later survived a harrowing fall into a ravine at the Vuelta a España.
Yet Vanmarcke took an offer from Rabobank, now Blanco, because he says the team had a more concentrated focus on the races he likes: the classics.
“I am still young and I wanted the team that I could best develop. Here, they are doing everything for the classics,” he said. “The team is very professional. I do not say that Garmin isn’t, but I had a feeling that I needed to come here to become a better rider.”
His move to his new team has been marked with controversy. RadioShack-Leopard contends it had entered a verbal agreement with Vanmarcke last spring, only to see him settle for Rabobank.
His move to the Dutch team came just as the long-term sponsor Rabobank decided to walk away from cycling in the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.
Rumors of Rabobank’s dirty past also continue to haunt the team, but money is in place to pay salaries this season while management scrambles to find a new title sponsor.
Vanmarcke says all the off-bike drama hasn’t fazed him.
“Is it affecting us? Not really. When Rabobank left, everyone is very motivated to find a new sponsor. Already the results are very good,” he said. “Everybody is confident that we can find a new sponsor if we continue like this. We can only hope it will go on. Everyone works together well.”
Vanmarcke’s future is now as the classics season clicks into gear this weekend. He will have a heavy racing schedule all the way through Paris-Roubaix.
After Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne this weekend, he will race Strade Bianche (White Roads) and Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy, skip Milano-Sanremo, and ramp up for an intense three weeks of racing in Belgium and northern France.
He knows those roads like the backs of his hands. He was born in Kortrijk, Belgium, and lives in nearby Waregem.
“I started racing on those roads and watched those big races over and over again,” he said. “Flanders and Roubaix, those are the big ones. Those are the races I dream of the most.”
Vanmarcke is hoping someday to turn those dreams into reality. Perhaps it could come true very soon.