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The best ride at Harelbeke is the one no one saw

Sep Vanmarcke hit the deck with five other EF-Drapac teammates midway through E3 Harelbeke, but fought back to finish seventh.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — The best ride in Friday’s E3 Harelbeke was the one no one saw.

In a dramatic inverse of “now you see him, now you don’t,” Sep Vanmarcke clawed himself back into contention Friday after being out of TV camera range most of the day.

Vanmarcke hit the deck with five other EF Education First-Drapac teammates on the La Houppe descent midway through the race and lost an eternity as they untangled bikes, bodies, and wheels. Rather than throw in the towel, his teammates dragged big Vanmarcke from worst to almost first. The Belgian eventually sprinted to seventh.

The herculean effort only came into focus when Vanmarcke suddenly pedaled into the lead chase group on the Paterberg with about 25 kilometers to go. Where the hell did he come from? EF-Drapac sport director Andreas Klier said he’s never seen anything like it.

“We had six out of seven on the ground,” explained EF-Drapac sport director Andreas Klier. “What they did, how fast they switched from nowhere and totally down to believing in the victory and doing everything they could to achieve it is like nothing I have ever seen in my career.”

The 29-year-old Vanmarcke came into Harelbeke intent on reclaiming his spot as one of the main classics contenders. After an illness-plagued 2017 campaign, Friday’s race was an important test following a promising third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February.

Things quickly went off the rails. The EF-Drapac captain was caught up in the disastrous mid-race pileup that blocked the road. The race rode away as the team scrambled to reassemble. Klier urged the team to defy the odds.

“What I remember was standing next to Sep, and the first rider was ready to leave,” Klier said. “I said, ‘No one leaves here. We wait until Sep clicks into the pedal and then we all go.’ Sep said no. He tried to get his teammate to go. He didn’t need a wheel. Where would we go? The race had gone away.”

Vanmarcke and Co. put their heads down and stubbornly pushed on. Despite being banged up and more than five minutes behind the fast-advancing nose of the race, the team started to pull. And pull, and pull, and pull.

The team found allies in Astana, and the two squads found common interest in their shared misery. Vanmarcke was suddenly back in the front group, turning what might have been another disappointment into a performance that could lift spirits going into the northern monuments.

“I have never seen a team performance such as the one today,” Klier said. “No one is sitting here with his head down. They’re all enthusiastic. They know it’s not normal what we did today.”

Despite some bumps and bruises, Vanmarcke will race Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem. Seventh place never tasted so good.