Just a handful of riders would have welcomed the unveiling of the cobbled fifth stage of the 2014 Tour de France. Belkin Pro Cycling’s Sep Vanmarcke is likely to have been among them.
The 25-year-old is a member of an elite group of cobbled Classics specialists,
who finished third at this year’s Tour of Flanders, and fourth at Paris-Roubaix. A year earlier, he missed victory in the Queen of the Classics by the narrowest of margins, having duelled with Fabian Cancellara to the finish line.
Belkin Pro Cycling needed a big result at this year’s Tour de France. The spectre of disbandment has hung over them since announcing in the middle of last month that its title sponsor would end its association at the end of the season. The team has set itself the ambitious target of raising €250,000 by July 27 (the final day of the Tour).
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Lars Boom’s victory on arguably the hardest stage of this year’s Tour will have done much to boost the team’s cause. Vanmarcke, perhaps the leading candidate for honours before the stage, did much to assist his team-mate, and applauded as he crossed the finish line.
Let’s take a closer look at Vanmarcke’s steed, which we shot before he rolled out for
stage two from York to Sheffield (the Belgian and his Belkin team-mates rode the Italian brand’s Infinito CV on the cobbles of stage five).
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Ready to race
The Oltre XR2 is Bianchi's flagship bike and barely a year old. It made its debut with the now defunct Vacansoleil-DCM team last June, and when Blanco Pro Cycling became Belkin Pro Cycling, Bianchi replaced Giant as the Dutch team's supplier. Despite the monumental colour clash - Belkin's corporate green is an ill-chosen companion for Bianchi's iconic celeste - the Oltre XR2 remains one of the most attractive machines in the peloton. The 190cm tall Vanmarcke rides a 59cm frame.
Head of affairs
The Oltre XR2 is built around Bianchi's HoC geometry, the moniker a subtle nod to its intended purpose for racing. The sizable 180mm headtube on Vanmarcke's bike (set at a classic 73-degree parallel with the seat-tube) is entirely in proportion with the aggressive geometry of a large frame, rather than the disproportionately tall front end of a smaller machine. Compare and contrast with Bianchi's Infinito CV, the Italian brand's 'endurance' bike (and the machine deployed by Belkin on stage five), where the headtube on a 59cm frame is some 20mm higher.
The power meter market has exploded in recent years, shattering the dominance enjoyed by SRM. Belkin remains the only team in cycling's top tier to use Pioneer's system, which offers independent left-right power analysis, sampled 12 times per revolution. The most significant feature in this image, however, is not the power meter, but Vanmarcke's 36-tooth inner chainring, fitted in the hope of managing the leg-breaking demands of Jenkin Road, the Sheffield climb whose peak gradient of 30 per cent brought the GC contenders to the fore, while shattering the ambitions of those whose talents lie elsewhere - like Vanmarcke.
Vanmarcke's mechanics had also taken the trouble to fit an 11-28 cassette to give him a fighting chance on Jenkin Road, but their efforts were in vain. The Cobbled Classics specialist rolled into Sheffield in 151st place, nearly 16 minutes after stage winner, Vincenzo Nibali. Shimano’s top-tier cassette is at home on Vanmarcke’s machine, which is dressed in a complete Dura-Ace Di2 groupset.
Belkin's saddle sponsor is the venerable San Marco, and Vanmarcke has selected the Regal perch: a carbon platform mounted on a rail fashioned from a mixture of titanium, carbon, and silicone that San Marco calls Xsilite, and which it claims is lighter than titanium. Saddles are an intensely personal choice and an inspection of Belkin's fleet turned up a host of alternative selections from its Italian supplier, including the snub-nosed Zoncolan Open Racing on the steed of Steven Kruijswijck.
Bar to progress
The saddle is not the only contact point subject to personal preference. For a powerful rider like Vanmarcke, who tips the scales at a muscular 76kg in race trim, FSA's 7050-series aluminium handlebar is more appealing than the one-piece carbon Plasma bar-stem combination deployed by 65kg team leader, Bauke Mollema, a man expected to carry the fight to the pre-race favourites in the mountains. Vanmarcke runs a 42cm bar, secured with a suitably pro-length 130mm aluminium stem.
Deeper, wider... faster?
Vanmarcke rolled out for stage two on 50mm rims from Shimano, with his 25c Vittoria treads inflated to 7.5bar (108psi) at the rear, and 7 bar (101.5psi) up front. Vanmarcke's mechanic told RCUK that the team would use 25c tyres throughout the Tour, with the exception of the cobbled stage five, when 28c would become the order of the day. Belkin had compared the performance of 25c and 23c tyres, and found the wider tyre faster, he said, adding that while they had not yet conducted back-to-back tests with 28c rubber, he believed it would be faster again.
The team now known as Belkin (having previously been known as Rabobank, and more recently, Blanco Pro Cycling), will soon be known as Belkin no more. To support the team's funding quest, Tweet #RideTheFuture