Not many had heard of Sep Vanmarcke before his huge win this weekend against Tom Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
The 23-year-old proved wily beyond his years to beat Boonen and Flecha, two experienced veterans who have some impressive results on their palmares.
The “omloop” is Vanmarcke’s first pro win and confirms what many who closely watch the Belgian talent pool already knew, that the 6-foot-2 rider is a budding classics specialist ready to make a splash.
“I hope to win a big classic someday,” Vanmarcke told VeloNews.com in an earlier interview. “Those are the races grow up watching all your life. To be one day in the middle of a big battle on the cobblestones is everyone’s dream.”
Vanmarcke did just that at the “omloop,” rattling over the cobbles and riding into winning position and helping to force the action when the heavy moves came late in the race.
The race is hardly the distance of Paris-Roubaix, nearly 80km shorter, and comes a month before the top favorites will be hitting full stride in time for the monuments, but the victory will give him a huge boost of confidence at a key moment of his career.
Already in 2010, riding for TopSport Vlaanderen, Vanmarcke rode to second to Bernard Eisel in Gent-Wevelgem, a race that’s even more prestigious and challenging than Het Nieuwsblad (ex-Het Volk).
That result captured the attention of Jonathan Vaughters and the other sport directors at Garmin, who have been quick to pick up rising Belgian and Dutch talent and giving them a long leash.
Martijn Maaskant, fourth in the 2008 Roubaix and fourth in the 2009 Tour of Flanders, and Michael Kreder, a winner of two stages and second overall at the Tour Mediterranean, are other young Benelux riders under the Garmin banner.
Vanmarcke made the most of his first full season with Garmin last year, riding to fourth at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, 20th at his Paris-Roubaix debut and surviving a harrowing crash during the 2011 Vuelta a España, called by many the hardest Vuelta ever.
Perhaps nothing provides a better testament to Vanmarcke’s grit and potential in the harrowing northern classics in how he handled that Vuelta crash. Vanmarcke was forced over a guardrail after another rider crashed in front of him and he bounded virtually unnoticed into a deep ravine as part of a breakaway effort coming down the Cat. 1 Puerto de Ventana.
“I just went over it and fell like 40 meters. I am thankful that there were trees, those helped to stop me,” Vanmarcke recounted to VeloNews.com “Five more meters there was a river, I was lucky I didn’t fall into that. I am pretty surprised that I didn’t break anything or something worse. (Karsten Kroon) also fell, he only fell 10 meters down. It was a very dangerous corner. I felt I was so lucky, because when I crashed I didn’t think I would survive this. I was just flying straight down.”
Vanmarcke said he was so far down into the ravine that no one knew he was down there. Only when officials came to the aid of Kroon did anyone realize that the Garmin rider had fallen off the road.
“I didn’t think anyone heard me. I was yelling. After five minutes, someone came down to help me. They knew Kroon crashed, they came down for him, and I started to yelling, they noticed that I was down there as well,” he said. “They had to help pull me up by using trees. It was too steep to climb out. I had already tried before to climb up and I kept falling down again. I really needed help to get up.”
Not only did Vanmarcke finish the stage, but he rode all the way to Madrid. So perhaps the thought of bashing over the cobblestones for six hours seems a little easier to Vanmarcke than catapulting off a Spanish mountain pass.