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Sep + Sergio

In an unlikely combination of Belgian brawn and Colombian crosswind ability, Sep Vanmarcke and Sergio Higuita formed a formidable partnership at the recent Paris-Nice. We caught up with both riders to find out what kept their truck and trailer formation rolling and how they are dealing with the current break in racing.

A prestigious prize in its own right, Paris-Nice is also a stepping stone for riders targeting the Grand Tours later in the season. But in a spring campaign cut short by the coronavirus, this year’s Race to the Sun was the last before a break in play that could last some time.

Though Maximilian Schachmann took the overall, it’s the image of EF Pro Cycling’s Sergio Higuita, unmissable in the colours of Colombian champion, that will last longest in the memories of many fans. From the windswept opening stages across the plains of northern France to the Saturday summit finish, Sergio was an ever-present at the business end of the race.

Riding high in the top ten overall throughout the week, Higuita eventually finished on the podium in third – another hugely encouraging result for a rider still in his first year at WorldTour level. Recently, we caught up with both riders to reflect on a job well done and look ahead to the races that may – or may not – be to come.

“Last year I only raced a few races with Sergio,” said Sep, pausing for thought. “Paris-Nice was the first time I worked for him as the leader. I didn't know how he would behave in a nervous peloton on a crosswind day because most climbers have a bit less confidence and acceleration. That means they lose the wheel a lot.”

But since bursting onto the scene at last year’s Tour of California where he took second place overall, Higuita has shown that he’s far more than a featherweight climber. He is a consistent performer in time trials and finished fourth in the U23 World Championship road race in Yorkshire, showing that it takes more than a bit of bad weather to throw him off. Paris-Nice was further evidence of his all-round ability.

“The help of my team was absolutely fundamental during the early stages of Paris-Nice.”

– Sergio Higuita

Reflecting on the race, Sergio had this to say: “The roads in Europe are much more complex than Colombia – very narrow and windy. The weather is always a factor too - the wind can be very strong at points. I've had some good experience with cross winds in previous races, but the help of my team was absolutely fundamental particularly during the early stages of Paris-Nice.”

Even before the start, Higuita had help from a teammate and compatriot Dani Martínez who took a spectacular win atop the Col de Turini in last year’s Paris-Nice. “Yes, he had told me all about this race,” Sergio revealed with a trademark smile. “Dani helped to prepare me psychologically on how to face it, because it's a really tough race every single day.”

Once the race began, it was over to the team’s stable of Spring Classics specialists to protect their Colombian leader. Sep led the charge: “The first three days of Paris-Nice are always stressful with crosswinds, rain and cold conditions. This year was no different but between me, Tom Scully and Alberto Bettiol, we kept Sergio towards the front of the race every day.”

“Hearing that Sergio is ten years younger than me did make me feel old.”

– Sep Vanmarcke

A good teammate’s work does not finish at the end of the race and, as Sergio told us, his EF Pro Cycling colleagues played a key role in keeping him cool and collected between stages too.

“I was sharing a room with Alberto Bettiol, a super classy cyclist who has a great atmosphere about him. He is a guy that brings happiness to the room and helps me to stay calm. My relationship with Sep too is very good. What I like most about him is his personality, he's a good person, humble and experienced.”

For his part, Sep is quick to return the compliment even though Sergio makes him feel self-conscious about being in his thirties. “When I heard Sergio is 10 years younger than me, I did feel old. But I don't mind. In fact, when you're working with a huge talent like Sergio, and he's a nice guy, you really want to help him through the race.”

Asked how Higuita’s ability in crosswinds compared to that of other GC riders he’d ridden with, Sep was unequivocal: “It was like he was glued to us,” he exclaimed. “Wherever Tom and I went, there he was! He did everything we said and when we wanted or needed to move, he trusted us and followed.”

“That makes our work so much easier and as the supporting rider you also feel more important when your leader follows you no matter what. In the end, you try harder and suffer more, just so that he can stay in the front.”

So just what is that Sep does to keep his leader well placed at the front of the peloton? Hand signals? No sudden accelerations? We asked him how he rides in support of a teammate.

“It's always easier when you know each other well, then you can adapt to how your leader likes to ride. Echelons can happen any time, so it's important to race aggressively and be on top of the game at all times. Of course when you’re working for somebody, you have to make sure you don't only bring yourself to the front, but him on the wheel too.”

“That means you have to create more space, so he can also pass. After a corner, you don't sprint before you know he's still on your wheel, and when the crosswinds start, you don't go right to the side of the road, but you leave a little space to make sure your leader is out of the wind.”

He might leave a gap when riding in support of a teammate but when it comes to the Spring Classics, Sep doesn’t give an inch. With the early April date of the Tour of Flanders now just around the corner, how does the Belgian feel knowing that, for the first time in over 100 years, ‘De Ronde’ will not run?

“Of course it's sad as a Classics rider, that’s for sure,” he sighs. “But I don't want to complain in these tough times. There are far greater problems at the moment than bike riders who can't compete at their favorite race.”

On the topic of which race is his absolute favourite, Sep refuses to choose: “For me, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are equal. Roubaix is more famous internationally and it suits me a little better, but Flanders is my home. The atmosphere the Flemish fans create is exceptional – both races are my favourite.”

Nobody knows when racing will resume but both Sergio and Sep are relaxed about maintaining momentum. Sergio intends to enjoy his podium placing at Paris-Nice, relaxing a little and training at home. Now an experienced campaigner, Sep concurs: “Because we don't know when racing will be possible again, I will let my condition drop a little bit. I will keep training to stay in shape and make sure that I only need 2-3 weeks of specific work to be ready when we are allowed to race again.”

“Of course it's sad that the Classics are cancelled but there are far greater problems at the moment than bike riders who can't compete at their favorite race.”

– Sep Vanmarcke

Asked when he thinks he might be back in action, it’s clear Sep has not given up on the 2020 Classics season just yet. “Racing the Classics later in the year would be special, for sure,” he said with a wry smile. “Of course, I’d prefer it to be April, but if it means we can still race the Monuments, I would be happy to race them in autumn. No problem.”

EF GONE RACING

In the bus. At home. In the team cars and on top of mountains. EF Gone Racing is a YouTube series that takes you on the road with the team from the world’s most prestigious road races to off-grid adventures on the alternative calendar. Subscribe to Rapha’s YouTube channel now to watch all episodes.
 

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