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Q&A with Sep Vanmarke: Belgian sets sights on Classics

The Belgian still dreams of winning the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, but he revels in his role on the EF Pro Cycling team, and was only too happy to see his Italian teammate Alberto Bettiol storm to victory in Flanders, in 2019.

Ever since his breakout win at Het Nieuwsblad in 2012 in front of a certain Tom Boonen, Belgian Sep Vanmarcke has been one of the most consistent classics riders when it comes to the great cobbled races of Northern France, and Belgium. And it comes as little surprise as the 31-year old who was born in Kortrijk, nearby the French border, and grew up in Flanders.

Cobblestones, it is safe to say, are part of his DNA. And yet, Vanmarcke is still in search of his first Monument victory. But while he still dreams of winning the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, he revels in his role on the EF Pro Cycling team, and was only too happy to see his Italian teammate Alberto Bettiol storm to victory in Flanders last year.

Sep Vanmarke at the 2020 Tour de la Provence
Sep Vanmarke at the 2020 Tour de la Provence. Photo: James Startt

VeloNews caught up with the always amiable Vanmarcke at the Tour de la Provence, a favorite early-season race for him. We talked about being at one with the cobbles and dealing with the setbacks that only these brutal races can shell out. But one thing is clear, with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the season-opening classic, now only days away, Vanmarcke is as motivated as ever. Count on him to once again be a key player.

VeloNews: Sep, I often run into you here at the Tour de la Provence, as you’re are getting ready for another assault on the classics season. And you appear as ready as ever?
Sep Vanmarcke: Yeah, I am actually starting a week later, as I didn’t do the Étoile de Bessèges this year. But for me it is the same. Last year [in 2019] Bessèges was really easy racing, so I don’t feel like I missed anything really. But I am here, now, and then will do Haut Var. And then it is off to the opening weekend.

Sagan and Vanmarke
Peter Sagan follows Sep Vanmarke at the 2018 Tour of Flanders. Photo: James Startt

VN: Last year you had a bit of bad luck in the classics, but without a doubt you remain one of the most consistent guys on the cobbles for the past decade. Do you have a sense from the training of where you are coming into the classics? Are the numbers enough, or are you a guy who really needs the racing?
SV: Well, you want the racing. Looking at the numbers you can already know a lot about where your condition is, but you need the racing. I don’t need a lot today, but I need a little bit more than I did a few years ago. Four of five years [ago] I would just do Algarve before Het Nieuwsblad, but now, as I am getting a bit older, I like to have a little bit more racing in my legs before the first classics. The team likes it if I do a little more racing, and if you do more racing, you just have a little bit more confidence about where your form is. I mean between the Tour de la Provence, and Haut Var, it is still only seven race days. Regardless, I am looking forward to the opening weekend.

VN: Well it is safe to say that the cobbled classics always bring out the best in you. They just seem to inspire you like no other races?
SV: Yeah. I don’t know why. It’s my home ground of course. It’s what I grew up on. It’s what I am best at. I just love it so much.

VN: Do you train on the cobbles a lot?
SV: It’s funny but not that much. In the past I did yes, but today there are so many training camps that really we only ride the cobbles on the recons. It always takes a day or two to get the good feeling again, but then you are back.

Sep Vanmarke, Bernard Eisel, and John Degenkolb on the Arenberg cobbles sector of the Paris-Roubaix
Sep Vanmarke, Bernard Eisel, and John Degenkolb on the Arenberg cobbles sector of the Paris-Roubaix. Photo: James Startt

VN: Even with all of your experience, riding on the cobbles still takes a couple of days for you to adjust?
SV: Oh yeah. It’s just like with climbers. I know how to ride the cobbles, but let’s say it always takes one or two days to get the good feeling again, to get the good feeling back, to get your bike dialed in, and get that feeling where you are [at] one with the cobbles.

VN: In 2019, the classics really didn’t go your way, although the team had great results winning Flanders with Alberto Bettiol.
SV: Yeah, last year I crashed in E3 Harelbeke and landed on my knee and didn’t train for 10 days until Flanders. And then I had a mechanical in Roubaix. That was frustrating because I was in the lead group going into the Carrefour de l’Arbre [the last, crucial, cobbled sector]. My derailleur went to the 11 and got blocked. And that is just too big of a gear on the Carrefour. It was really disappointing I have to admit. I was still in the lead group fighting for the win. I felt good. I am not saying I would have won, but I was sure that they wouldn’t drop me. Philippe Gilbert [the eventual winner] was actually on my wheel when it happened. He saw I was having problems and then he went away. But without that problem, nobody would have gotten away without me. I am sure of that. Again, I am not saying that I would have won. But I would have sprinted for the victory. That was painful.

VN: How do you get over something like that? I mean chance plays such a big role in the classics and you constantly have to deal with bad luck…
SV: Yeah that’s true, and it is something that you just have to accept. Modern cycling is all about climbing and sprinting now. The classics offer us a few chances. But it all comes in a short period, over just a few weeks. And if anything happens, like last year with my knee, well, your whole classics season is done. That’s hard! You really need to focus. You really need to do everything right from November on until April and hope for the best.

Sep Vanmarke and Fabian Cancellara
Sep Vanmarke follows Fabian Cancellara in the 2013 Paris-Roubaix. Photo: James Startt

VN: Bettiol, obviously had a huge breakout year last season. And you played a role in his success in Flanders, attacking early, perhaps even bluffing a bit. What impresses you the most about Alberto?
SV: Hmm, I don’t know. He is just a really big talent. I hear media and fans say “where did you come from?” But what people didn’t always see is that he already had a few years where he had some really strong rides. Back in 2017, when Rigoberto Uran was second in the Tour de France, Alberto was pulling at the front in the mountains when there were maybe only 15 guys in the front. And he is not a climber! But when he is on, he is a really strong rider. So he had it physically, but mentally everything needs to be perfect. And when it all came together, well, those are the kind of results he can do. Alberto has really stepped up, and now with him and with Sebastian Langevelde and Jens Keukeleire we have a four-man group that, in theory, goes into the final together and has many cards to play. That is what you need to do today. That is modern cycling. And it is exciting to work together with guys at that level.