There are few riders who have raced through as many eras of Classics rivalries as Sep Vanmarcke. From the famous battles of Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, to the dominance of the likes of Peter Sagan and Greg van Avermaet, to today’s Big Three super talents of Tadej Pogačar, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, Vanmarcke has been through it all. Perhaps most impressively, the 34-year-old has managed to get on the podium throughout the Classics in every one of these iconic eras.
After a season marred with illness last year, in 2023 has seen a return to Vanmarcke fighting for results in some of the toughest one-day races in Belgium. After top-10 finishes in both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Nokere-Koerse, the Israel-Premier Tech rider’s consistency was rewarded in Gent-Wevelgem, where he “won the race for third”, as he puts it, behind Jumbo Visma’s Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte. In an era where the trend in the professional men’s peloton appears to generally be that younger riders are performing at a higher level than ever before, Vanmarcke is proof that the old guard still has plenty to offer.
“At the end of Gent-Wevelgem, I was so happy because last year was so bad and in the spring I didn’t even have the level of an average rider, so that was not motivating,” Vanmarcke explains, speaking a few days before the 2023 edition of Paris-Roubaix. “Last year I said to myself, I want to prove to myself that I'm still a good rider. If I cannot do anything anymore in cycling, then I prefer to stop than to continue. I was happy I could prove for myself that I could still be up there. I'm still valuable in the team, that was a big relief. The Jumbo guys were away and I won the race for third.”
Vanmarcke’s good form continued into the Tour of Flanders a few days ago, where he secured a top-25 finish in a group with the likes of Laporte, Yves Lampaert and John Degenkolb. The Belgian describes his result as “realistic” in today’s peloton, which he notes has changed hugely since his career began.
“Five years ago, I actually predicted what has happened now. I said that in a few years from now, there will be more and more light guys coming to the Classics like climbers or Ardennes guys,” Vanmarcke explains. “In Flanders, over the last 10 years, the course has changed. It's a much harder course than in the past and that was needed. Now, they go faster and faster. For many people, it's even more important to be in front. In the past, it was more the legs that would take control. If you got tired, you would get out of the way and you wouldn't fight so much in the past. Now everybody has better legs than before so they just keep coming back.”
“In the past, we would sprint to the bottom of the climbs in the first part and then block the road. Then on the top, you would go full gas again to stretch out the peloton and this way you create fatigue. In the end, just the big Classics riders, would stay strong because we're good at fighting for position. Now they have changed that so on the flat parts, they go really fast, but also on the climbs, they go from bottom to top, super fast. In the end, it just becomes a long aerobic race, which suits the climbers a lot better. They are used to climbing 30 minutes and one hour climbs.The big power has less impact than in the past. it's just a lot harder for the guys with more weight. Kilos start to count also in these races now.”
Vanmarcke also notes a change in safety standards in the peloton in recent years. The Tour of Flanders this year was plagued by crashes, notably an incident that caused over half the peloton to crash with over 140km remaining,
“I was just in front. I was one of the lucky ones who didn't get involved and actually I didn't get involved in any crashes. I was stuck behind some crashes but in the end I managed to get through safely,” Vanmarcke comments. “It's always been dangerous but in my career it has been getting more and more dangerous. There's less respect than in the past. The level of all the riders, not only the leaders, but all the riders has gone up. So everybody can keep fighting because they have the engine now. It's getting more crazy. Also on the road, I felt in the past riders were pointing out the danger to each other and now I don't see this anymore, which is a bad change.”
Many people have blamed the big crash in De Ronde on Bahrain-Victorious rider Filip Maciejuk, who swerved into the peloton after aiming to move up on the outside of the bunch. The 23-year-old ended up hitting a bog of water which caused him to lose control right at the front of the peloton, leading to a domino effect behind. Since the accident, some have been calling for Maciejuk to face further sanctions from the UCI, a sentiment that Vanmarcke disagrees with.
“I think they all went pretty hard on him, to be honest. His mistake had a huge impact on the whole peloton and the result was that more than half of the peloton went down. That was bad but it was never his intention to hit anybody. He was not even trying to fight somebody, he was just making the mistake by going through the grass and he ended up pretty bad taking the whole peloton down” Vanmarcke says.
“If they speak about how he should get a suspension because his behaviour is not correct, then I don't agree because in the peloton, many dangerous things happen and the outcome was just really bad. He was like a catapult thrown into the peloton because he didn't expect there to be so much water in the grass. I think they can close the case now and go on. He will take more safety next time. I saw he is only 23 and a second year pro, so maybe he doesn't have enough experience and got a bit too excited for this race. It just made one mistake and it had the outcome that half of the bunch went down, that was enough punishment for him.”
Looking ahead to Paris-Roubaix in a few days' time, Vanmarcke explains that he expects a similar level of hectic and chaotic racing. It’s exactly ten years since the Belgian rider finished second in the Hell of North behind Cancellara, and he is hoping to secure another strong result in 2023.
“I expect a long fight for the breakaway and from then on riders will try to be in front if they feel they cannot make it to the final with the best guys. So I think from the moment we start the cobbles that will be continuing, full gas racing. It's just the style that we race now,” Vanmarcke says.
The Belgian rider also mentions how much equipment has evolved in recent years to make the brutal cobbles of Paris-Roubaix more comfortable for the peloton. From road bikes with suspension, to the tyre pressure adjustment systems that some teams will be using for the first time this year, technology has developed immeasurably.
“It doesn’t make it easier because they will only go faster with this. My opinion is that we shouldn't get access to all the comforts. There are rules for time trials, there are rules for road racing. It seems like with Roubaix there are no more rules,” Vanmarcke says. “I don't like the way you see the suspension on the bikes and adjusting the tyre pressure. These things change cycling more into Formula One than a cycling race when you have your bike and it is up to you what you can do with it. Now you can adjust everything. It's a pretty big advantage if the system works well compared to the rest of the peloton.”
Even with some teams having technological advantages, Vanmarcke says that he will rely on his experience to help him fight for a podium in the Roubaix velodrome. “Experience can make a big difference. It's in the small things where you can make changes and decide things quickly, like where to position yourself well, and where you can sit behind,” he says.
“If riders don't know the course or the way of racing perfectly, they will sprint to the front where it's not really needed and waste energy. That's where an experienced rider keeps the energy and saves it for later. Also sometimes I know I have to get in front somewhere and other riders think that it is still 100km to go. But then I know the next 20k Im will save energy if I sprinted to the front before. These things are super important. The big riders get away with it but if they would have more experience, they would get even better.”
Despite the dominance of teams like Jumbo-Visma and the discourse around the Big Three which has been rife this season, Vanmarcke is confident and doesn’t doubt his potential to fight for victory.
“The race is made on the cobbles and tactics. In the past I was always close and I always feel good in this race. All the nine editions that I did, I was four times in the top four, so you can only say I have a chance,’ he says. “To be on the podium again is my dream.”