2017 was Sep Vanmarcke’s annus horribilis. Was there a more miserable cycling image than his interview at the finish of that year’s Ronde? In the descent towards the Paterberg, his front wheel caught in a concrete crack and he was thrown to the ground. Instead of stepping into an ambulance, Vanmarcke rode back to the finish via back roads, doubled over in pain, with a broken finger and a right side covered in blood and road rash. His ripped jersey hung in strings and pieces round his exposed chest. A chunk of misery on wheels.
And then that Sporza microphone and the cynical sentence: “Just what you needed right now.” That spring had – once again – started promisingly. At the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, he was the only one, along with Greg Van Avermaet, who could hold onto the wheel of the unleashed world champion.
“At the top of the Wolvenberg, Sagan asked me to take a turn, but I was chucking up on his wheel. It was the first time I experienced that. I wasn’t on super form because I hadn’t done much intensity training. That meant I had to go very deep to keep up with him. It’s scary seeing those images: going that deep. Still, that third place was uplifting. I knew I still had a big improvement in fitness coming. Now I know that this was when my stomach problems played up for the first time.”
Those troubles were the result of two crashes in the Vuelta a Valenciana. Then it only got worse. Another spill at the Strade Bianche. Quashing the pain at Tirreno. Illness at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Puking about twenty times at E3-Prijs Vlaanderen. Inevitably pulling out of Gent-Wevelgem. And then that horrific crash in the Ronde, which definitively sent his spring season into oblivion.
“Before, I would have had a mental breakdown after all that bad luck. Not this time round. I’ve learned to put the setbacks into perspective. My wife and daughter helped me to control my thoughts,” he says.
But his crash really touched people. He had lots of gestures of compassion. ‘Wow, Sep, what a horrible crash!’ He shrugs his shoulders. “It wasn’t the first time I hurt myself like that. But when it’s live on screen, people feel it more directly. I’ve had worse crashes. At my first and only Vuelta in 2011, I fell into a ravine. That was really bad. I was in a big lead group of 20 riders. On a sketchy descent, I took 40 seconds out of the others with the Italian [Daniele] Righi. Not a single motorbike could keep up, that’s how technical it was.
“We plunged recklessly into a gentle bend until Righi saw that it completely doubled back on itself. He panicked and slid to the ground. I kept going, crashed into the barrier, flew over it and fell 40 metres. On the way down, I hit half a dozen trees, the last one breaking my fall. Otherwise I would have ended up in a river. I was covered in needles and my body was bruised all over. No one had seen me fall, no one heard my calls for help. But in the group behind us, Karsten Kroon came off on the same corner. People saw him crash. When they got him, they found me.
“It was too steep to climb back up on my own. Using branches, people formed a chain to pull me up. I grabbed my bike on the way. Once up, the adrenaline was still pumping. I hadn’t broken anything and climbed back on the bike. It was only then that the shock kicked in – I could have been killed. The realisation led to a mental collapse. I couldn’t even ride at 30 km/h. Every turn was terrifying, I sat shaking and crying on my bike.
“The team car took me to the last gruppetto, where Stijn Devolder and Andreas Klier were riding. They pushed me all the way up the final climb. I’ll never forget that: Stijn wasn’t even on my team. But he could see I was in complete shock. That crash had a big impact on my career. Since then I don’t dare to descend like I used to. I can still manage sitting on a wheel. But put me at the front and we will lose time because I don’t trust a single blind corner anymore. I don’t have that handicap in the Flemish Ardennen though: I know them by heart.”
It took until May of that horrible 2017 for Sep’s stomach to get back to normal. He did everything to prepare for the summer, but the cycling gods still had some sledgehammer blows up their sleeves. At the Belgian national road race in Antwerp, Oliver Naesen snatched the champion’s tricolour jersey from Sep’s hands with a last-gasp jump.
“That jersey could have saved my season. There was only a centimetre in it. I’d rather not be in the finish photo than lose like that. Naesen deserved that jersey but when I saw him in it, I still beat myself up. My only consolation is that I made no mistakes. My brother Ken told me to go early and that was the right choice. I threw my front wheel forwards at the right moment. I couldn’t have been flatter on the bike. But I fell just short. Before, I would have asked myself why that had to happen to me again. Not any more. I’ve learned to put those negative thoughts behind me. Those nationals were the proof that I was back.
“People have often accused me of riding with blinkers and only focusing on the cobbled Classics. My heart beats stronger for those races, which means I push that little harder in training. But this time I was dead set on proving that I could perform in the summer and the autumn too. And I did. Alright, I didn’t win any races, but…”
He lists his 2017 results off the top of his head. Five top fives in the Tour of Austria and winner of the points jersey. Fourth at the RideLondon Classic. Fourth in Plouay. Eighth in Montreal. Tenth in Quebec. Two top tens at the Eneco Tour. “It was my best summer ever. Still people thought my season was a total flop. Those who say I only aim for the spring also clearly only judge me on the spring.”
“The new Boonen”
Flashback to the 2012 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. In a three-up sprint, a breathless and flailing Boonen had to bow to the 23-year old Vanmarcke. It was his first big win, the first of many, people thought. A year later, he loses narrowly to Fabian Cancellara in Roubaix and is added to the list of potential Boonen successors.
Six seasons on, his palmarès looks bleak. Under the Omloop, he has added a stage win and the GC at the Ster ZLM Toer. The third stage at the Tour of Norway. The third stage at the Tour of Alberta. The GP Impanis.
Sep is no Tom. And he never thought he was. It annoys him that the bar is set as high for him as for Boonen, Gilbert and Van Avermaet.
“After the 2017 Omloop, I was criticised for dragging my feet in the last kilometres. Before that the three of us had rotated full-on to keep away from the chasers. When the lead reached a minute, I heard in my earpiece: ‘Stop working, Sep.’ It’s not my style. Sagan and Van Avermaet got angry immediately, so I took a turn again. But think about it: I was en route with the world champion and the Olympic champion. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to play some poker? Why am I always measured against those top riders? ‘You never win,’ they say. Okay, I never win. So don’t put me at the same level. I’m an underdog.
“If you look at it positively, I’ve podiumed at three monuments – De Ronde, Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem – and had 18 top fives in the Classics. But if you look at me as a winner, I come up short. I was talking about it with Jens Keukeleire at the Tour of Guangxi. He was runner-up at Gent-Wevelgem and everyone sprinkled him with praise. When it’s me, it’s not good enough.”
Maybe his youthful win at De Omloop was a poisoned chalice? He doesn’t see it that way. “Even if I never win again, that race will always be on my palmarès. Beating Boonen in the sprint was the best thing that could happen to me. Thanks to that, teams saw me as a leader with the capacity to sprint at the end of a hard race. Other riders have to spend years riding with their nose in the wind to get that status. I gained the confidence of the team immediately, which gave me the chance to live up to those results.”
But Sep is no Tom. Boonen spent his career riding for the Real Madrid of Classics cycling. Vanmarcke picked smaller teams [like EF Education First and LottoNL-Jumbo], where he could be the undisputed leader. Cohabiting with rival stars seemed too complicated. Sep doesn’t like chess-like manoeuvres and manipulations – he is too straightforward for that.
Maybe there would be a Monument on his palmarès if he had gone to Quick Step, in the role of the sniper. Like Niki Terpstra winning in Roubaix. The way Devolder won De Ronde twice. And Yves Lampaert in Dwars door Vlaanderen.
But Sep brushed off Patrick Lefevere. “You still had Terpstra and Stybar under Boonen. Where would that leave me in the pecking order? They had too many options.”
No, Sep is no Tom. Boonen was a a star in the peloton with an emperor-like aura, Sep is a hard worker who has to fight for his plot of land. Boonen forced his luck, Sep needs to get lucky. Boonen is a peacock who shines in a group, with a long tail of loyal followers. Sep is a maverick who prefers to train alone. When Boonen parties, it’s with debauchery; Sep keeps it modest. Boonen was the image of unquestionable self-confidence. Always ready with an explanation, even after the event. He laughed off setbacks. Armoured through and through. Sep can be desperate and show deep pain. The inner struggle is even engraved on his forehead, like cracks in the Flemish tarmac.
When Boonen was denied a fifth Roubaix by Mat Hayman [in 2016], he said “shit”, had the dust wiped off his face and climbed onto the podium with a smile. When Sep lost to Cancellara in Roubaix, he cried his eyes out. But the biggest difference: Boonen was a shrewd killer. When he was the best, he won. Vanmarcke lost races where he had the best legs.
Like the Hayman edition Boonen should have won. On the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Vanmarcke rode Boonen – boom – off his wheel. He took 50 metres, dug in for another couple of kilometres before being munched up again. “Boonen played it smartly. He immediately dragged everyone along behind him, even after the Carrefour,” Vanmarcke says. “Because of that, Boasson Hagen and Stannard didn’t hesitate for a second. It was one against three – hopeless. If Boonen had started looking at the others instead, I would have been off. I was probably the strongest on the day, but the finish isn’t at the end of the Carrefour. Otherwise I would already have won Roubaix.”
In the heart of Kempen [Boonen’s home on the Belgium-Netherlands border], they’re convinced Sep paid his compatriot back by boxing him in the velodrome sprint. “Bullshit,” he reacts sharply. “I wasn’t even pissed off at Boonen. He was perfectly entitled to go after me. If the Belgians can’t even chase each other in those races, what’s the point? Even Greg Van Avermaet didn’t wait for his best mate Oliver Naesen at the E3-Prijs. That’s racing.
“But Boonen didn’t lose that sprint because of me. He’d already won races from much tighter spots. I came up next to him, but if he’d nudged me with the shoulder, I was gone. When Hayman launched the sprint, I was already going backwards. Boonen had the space to race, but didn’t gain a centimetre on Hayman. Look at the pictures: he was just stone dead and had no sprint left, just like me.”
Meanwhile, he has learned to live with the label of being a stupid racer.
“Maybe I miss the right instinct,” he admits. “But I’ve rarely had a team that could put messed-up situations right. Boonen did have that luxury. And in the sprint he was almost unbeatable, so you make less mistakes. I had to match up to Sagan, Van Avermaet, Degenkolb, Kristoff… As it happens they’re all a tad faster than me, which meant I had to race ‘dumb’ to lose them.
“But I’m sure I’ve made mistakes. In that 2013 Roubaix where I got second, I have Cancellara by the balls. In the last turn, he comes round above me. If I hold him there he has to brake to dive inside. But what do I do? I start sprinting 200 metres from the line! This gives him the space and he can pass me in the last 20 metres. If I wait till 150 metres to go…
“Before that, I’d already given him the mental upper hand. He asked how I was feeling. I was young and naive, and answered that I was knackered. So dumb! Soon after that he attacked, four kilometres from the line. I had to give everything to get back on his wheel. After that attack I was too quick to take a turn again. He signalled once with his hand and that was enough. I should have said: ‘You work it out.’ My lack of experience did me in. It was my first big finale, up against the best rider of the era. A couple of years before, I was still sat in front of the television dreaming of performances like that.”
“I spent half a year re-riding that lost Roubaix against Cancellara in my head. I’d lie in bed, muscles tightening up because I was busy sprinting again in my thoughts. Other losses and tactical mistakes keep churning in my head too. In 2014, I rode my best spring ever. Six top fives in the six cobbled Classics. No one has performed like that since. But I was dominated by a feeling of disappointment because I hadn’t won. It was never good enough.”
He was up against his Swiss nemesis again in the finale of the 2014 Ronde van Vlaanderen. On the Kwaremont, he clings on in the Swiss man’s slipstream, while Boonen and company are dropped. On the Paterberg, he matches Cancellara again. Together they nab the breakaways Van Avermaet and Stijn Vandenbergh. When the duo sneak away again, four kilometres from the line, Cancellara shows signs of weakness. He seems to want to go after them, but then starts to play poker. Vanmarcke can’t hold his nerve and closes the gap. “Otherwise I would have lost a guaranteed podium place. Vandenbergh would have been fourth anyway. But if we waited too long, it would have cost too much to bridge.
“In a fraction of a second, I decided to jump out of Cancellara’s wheel. I don’t believe I lost the race there. It was the sprint that went wrong. There was a tailwind: Cancellara took it on and won. I should have started sprinting earlier, but because of the fatigue we all delayed the moment. In a finish like that, you can’t think clearly any more. I know it: you have to dare to lose. I lack nerve in that department. My team-mates bury themselves for me. So I feel it’s my responsibility to pay them back with a good result, and I don’t like gambling with that. But I’d rather exchange all my places of honour for one big race win.”
This is an edited version of the article originally published in issue 21 of Bahamontes. A longer version of this translation was published in Rouleur 19.1