Sep Vanmarcke is being counted amongst the favourites ahead of Sunday's Tour of Flanders after a series of top-five finishes in recent one-day cobbled classics.
Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Tom Boonen have been given the best odds ahead of the event but Vanmarcke is a close fourth with the bookmakers on 12:1 odds.
And the Belgian has much reason to believe based on his results this season. In four one-day classics in March, the Belkin rider has claimed four top-five finishes. He was fourth in Omloop Het Nieuwsblab, Third in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, fifth in E3 Harelbeke and fourth in Ghent-Wevelgem.
Belkin's sports director, Nico Verhoeven, is pleased with his team's results so far this season. “The first races have gone well,” he said. “We had some bad luck at Harelbeke, where Sep had a flat tyre and had to change bike at a crucial point of the race. That's why he missed the breakaway of the first four riders. The big goal is to try and win one of these classics.”
Tom Leezer, Maarten Wynants and Lars Boom have been instructed with the task of helping Vanmarcke in the final kilometres of the classics, first Flanders and then, a week from Sunday, the Paris – Roubaix.
In last year's Paris - Roubaix, Vanmarcke managed to follow Cancellara for the last 15 kilometres but lost out in the sprint in the velodrome finish.
The Belgian feels that the likes of Cancellara and Boonen face much stiffer competition in this year's classics.
“Maybe in the past we had three riders contesting the final,” he said. “We have 10-12 riders who can do it now.”
Sky's Geraint Thomas, Philippe Gilbert and Niki Terpstra are amongst those believed to be in with a shot together with Vanmarcke.
The 25-year-old is under no illusion about how hard it will be to win ahead of the favourites and is happy to play down his chances against Cancellara and Boonen, who have five Flanders titles between them already. Vanmarcke, who continues to train with his with his postman brother, claims he is not in the same bracket.
“I don't think so. I am not on that level, nor will I ever be at that level,” Vanmarcke said. “They are so strong and they have won so much. I think I am a little bit below them, but all I can do is try to work harder and beat them.”
In his mid-twenties, Vanmarcke does not feel he is in any rush to reach the pinnacle. The young rider won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with Garmin two years ago and a failure to take either Flanders or Paris – Roubaix would not be catastrophic. He insists he is still learning.
“I am always riding my bike, I love the cobbles,” he said. “Year by year, I get better and better.”
Tour of Flanders 2014
When: Sunday, April 6
Status: UCI WorldTour
Tour of Flanders 2014: TV schedule
Sunday April 6, 11.30-16.00, Tour of Flanders LIVE, British Eurosport & HD
Sunday April 6, 18.30-20.00, Tour of Flanders highlights, British Eurosport & HD
Sunday April 6, 21.30-23.00, Tour of Flanders highlights, British Eurosport 2 & HD
Tour of Flanders 2014: Teams
Ag2r La Mondiale, Androni Giocattoli, Astana, Belkin, BMC Racing, Cannondale, Cofidis Credit Solutions , Europcar , FDJ , Garmin-Sharp, Giant-Shimano, IAM Cycling , Katusha, Lampre-Merida , Lotto-Belisol, Movistar, MTN-Qhubeka, NetApp-Endura , Omega Pharma-QuickStep, Orica-GreenEdge, Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo Bank, Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise, Trek Factory Racing, Wanty-Groupe Gobert
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