I wasn't kidding when I said this would become a project. Nor was I just trolling Ursula. It's real. N.b., the entries can be pretty short.
Sep Vanmarcke, Belkin Pro Cycling Team
Age/experience: 25, 5th pro season
Palmares: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, GP Impanis, Tour of Norway stage. Podiums in Paris-Roubaix, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, GP Jef Scherens, Rogaland GP, Ronde van het Groene Hart
Strengths: Hard classics with minimal climbing; Cobblestones; decent power sprint
Weaknesses: Any significant climbing, health/injuries
Style: Aggressive, difference-maker in cobbled classics
Comps: Alessandro Ballan, Edwig Van Hooydonck, Marc Demeyer, Rudy Dhaenens, Raymond Impanis(?)
I may be missing some names here, but this is a pretty good listing of guys who showed very early, very strong promise without quite being instant champions.
- Stylistically, Ballan is a good comp for Sep, though Ballan's aggression has tended to be more calculated than Vanmarcke's. Sep is likely to hit the gas and sort out the rest later; Ballan's famous attacks were late-stage ones, and much less numerous so far. In terms of qualities, however, I see them as being similar. Sep probably sprints a bit quicker than Ballan ever did.
- Van Hooydonck is a bit of an aggressive comp for Sep, given that he won de Ronde at age 23 and again at 25, but the first one was in a relatively nondescript field (beating Herman Frison et al by 22") and someone had to win. His 1991 win saw some talented riders in his wake, beginning with Johan Museeuw at 45", but the Lion of Flanders hadn't yet won anything of consequence. Losing a couple Monuments, as Sep has, to Fabian Cancellara seems more or less on par with Van Hooydonck's wins. So, long story short, I think it's a pretty reasonable comp. Similar body type too.
- I don't want to say too much about Demeyer and Dhaenens, both of whom died tragically and way too young, but solely on the basis of early palmares there are some similarities. Demeyer won Dwars at 22, and got three Monument podiums before winning Paris-Roubaix at 26. Dhaenens never won the big ones, but was a regular threat to do so, and an eventual world champion. Maybe Sep's career will be a nice illustration of what could have been for these fallen cycling stars.
- Impanis... I dunno. Just trying to find an older guy whose early palmares were similar. But I know bubkis about the man himself.
Elephants in the room: I wouldn't make comps of either Boonen or Cancellara. Boonen for two reasons: he profiles out as an elite sprinter, and Boonen achieved instant success in the classics -- third in his first Paris-Roubaix, double monument winner by age 25. That's just a bit above where Sep has gone so far, and frankly it's because of the sprinting ability. Sep would have a Cobble and a Ronde... thingy by now if he sprinted like Tommeke does. As for Cancellara, I don't see Sep as a pure diesel. By this age Cancellara was already winning time trials, carrying the maillot jaune, and honing in on Paris-Roubaix. Again, not quite how I'd describe Sep, either qualitatively or quantitatively.
Others considered and dismissed, though just: Eric Vanderaerden (sprinter, too good too soon), Roger De Vlaeminck (more versatile winner); Walter Godefroot (another sprinter); Eric Leman (just a bit too much too soon).
Conclusion: Sep is in the mix of guys who are highly oriented to the cobbled classics and very good at them, but there's a clear split between the guys who won a lot (and in many cases won a lot elsewhere too, possibly due to superior sprinting) and the guys who hung around the classics, waiting for circumstances to fall perfectly into place. Sep has the additional problem of going up against two historic champions of the cobbles, though he can probably wait them out another year or three, and be fine. My sense is that he (or any proper Flemish Klassikoer) would be proud to retire with a handful of wins like Leman, though he'll no doubt be aiming more at the De Vlaeminck and Boonen records if he can manage.
Some other interesting comps for y'all to think about: Jon Degenkolb, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, Rafal Majka. Just tossing names out here.