Sep Vanmarcke’s turbulent year got a lot smoother.
The 34-year-old Belgium native ended a three-year drought from the top of the podium by outsprinting four competitors to capture the inaugural Maryland Cycling Classic in Baltimore Sunday evening.
Vanmarcke, a member of Israel-Premier Tech, overtook Neilson Powless, Andrea Piccolo, Toms Skujins and Nickolas Zukowsky and crossed the finish line in 4 hours, 34 minutes, 45 seconds. The win was his ninth career victory and first since the Bretagne Classic Ouest-France in western France on Sept. 1, 2019.
“It’s been a while since I won a race,” Vanmarcke said while wearing the coveted yellow jersey donned by the winner. “It’s already been a few years ago that I was always on top of the game, and now that I’m older, it’s not that easy anymore with all of the young riders. That’s pretty nice to finally win a race again.”
The triumph was welcomed by Vanmarcke, who said he had been plagued by knee problems in the winter, a spate of illnesses in the spring and bruised ribs that prevented him from competing in the Bretagne Classic Ouest-France in late August.
“So I was disappointed, but I guess maybe the extra rest I had to take was good for today,” he said. “So I’m happy to get back to victory like this, and it’s very motivating for the last weeks in the season.”
Vanmarcke was part of a group of 12 cyclists who broke away from the peloton at almost the midpoint of the race in Baltimore County. That pack included EF Education-Easypost’s Magnus Cort Nielsen, Powless and Piccolo; Israel-Premier Tech’s Jenthe Biermans and Vanmarcke; Trek-Segafredo’s Skujins and Simmons, Team BikeExchange-Jayco’s Nicholas Schultz and Alexandre Balmer; Zukowsky; Team Medellin-EPM’s Robigzon Leandro Oyola; and Team Novo Nordisk’s David Lozano Riba.
The same 12 riders entered the city circuit and stayed together until the penultimate lap when Powless, Skujins, Vanmarcke and Zukowsky pulled away. Piccolo, Powless’ teammate, caught the foursome on the final circuit.
Vanmarcke trailed all four in the final straightaway before finding the energy to mount a comeback at the intersection of E. Pratt and Market streets in Baltimore City. Vanmarcke said he bided his time before making his final push.
“I tried to keep the guys who attacked close to me,” he said. “It worked out. I had to play very tactical, and in the last 200 meters, I had to go all-in, and I just made it to the finish line.”
Zukowsky, who rode with team Human Powered Health, placed second, and Powless, the top American finisher in the 2022 Tour de France who rode with team EF Education-Easypost, finished third. The pair was listed as finishing at the same time as Vanmarcke.
Skujins was just one second behind the trio, placing fourth. Piccolo was five seconds behind Vanmarcke to round out the top five.
Sunday’s event was the first for Powless, a 26-year-old native of Sacramento, California, since the Tour de France. As pleased as he was with his performance, he regretted not making a move before Vanmarcke did.
“I was in a pretty good position with Piccolo leading it out,” Powless said. “Unfortunately, I got boxed in when those two guys came around, and I just didn’t have any more space to sprint. I just left it too long. That’s my fault. I should have gone sooner. I had good legs, and I thought I was going to be fast enough to beat those guys, and I may have been if I had a clean run at it. But I just didn’t time it right.”
Simmons, a 21-year-old member of the U.S.-based Trek-Segafredo and a Colorado native, was the King of the Mountain leader after winning the first and third of three mountain stages in Baltimore County.
Sunday’s race started at 1:30 p.m. at Kelly Benefits in Sparks, traveled north of Butler, skirted the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line, circled Prettyboy Reservoir twice, moved southward down the eastern edges of Upperco, Boring and Glyndon and climbed a total elevation of about 7,500 feet before entering Baltimore City.
In the city, the cyclists made four laps of a 7.4-mile circuit featuring 19 turns and short climbs through districts such as Fells Point, Washington Hill, Old Town and Mount Vernon. The circuit was generally bounded by St. Paul Street to the west, Pratt Street to the south, North Broadway to the east and East Lafayette Avenue to the north.
Sunday’s event was the only road race in the United States sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling’s world governing body that also endorses, among others, the Tour de France. It was the first UCI-sanctioned race in the U.S. since the Tours of California and Utah were held in 2019.
The Maryland Cycling Classic received glowing reviews from some of the cyclists.
“I think they did super well, really well,” Powless said. “It felt like a nice atmosphere, and there were a lot of fans. Everyone was really friendly. It seemed like there were a lot of fans out there giving us support. Nobody was honking at us or anything. Everyone was super friendly. That can go a long way, especially with the guys coming from Europe. They see all of these big, scary cars, and then they roll down the windows and are like, ‘Yeah, go EF!’ and then they’re like, ‘Oh wow, OK, that was pretty cool.’”
Added Simmons: “As an American rider, it’s nice to race at home. It was a short travel here instead of flying to the other side of the world. To hear American fans and the announcements in real English, it’s something nice. It’s my first time racing as a professional in the U.S., and I really enjoyed that, and I hope there’s more to come.”
Terry Hasseltine, president of Sport and Entertainment Corp. of Maryland, which owns the event, said the plan is to convince the UCI to allow the Maryland Cycling Classic to add a women’s race next year and then another day of racing to the 2024 version. Attendance numbers were still in flux, but Hasseltine was encouraged by the competitors’ positive remarks.
“They’re catching onto the whole intent of this thing,” he said. “We wanted to bring them out, show the people what can happen, and then allow them to embrace it. So when you hear people on the streets chanting back at the riders, it just makes you feel really good about what we just did.
“We just put on a world-class cycling event in the city of Baltimore and Baltimore County over the last five hours, and here we are celebrating the good stories about how this thing brought communities together and how it brought people downtown and how it brought people out to the county to watch this race. When it’s all said and done, people got a chance to see world-class athletics down here.”