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The Game Changer

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According to reports, Friday night Team Garmin-Barracuda held a pre-Omloop strategy meeting where the team discussed working for Heinrich Haussler. An emotional Sep Vanmarcke eventually spoke up and said he could win. Haussler was still the team captain, but classics head Eric Van Lancker and the riders agreed to let Vanmarcke pursue a result. And the rest is history.

Vanmarcke's win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad completed the "unknown" segment of what's likely to be a notable career on the cobblestones. Sure, he's still 23, and targets like the Tour of Flanders may still be a while off, but if you've been watching closely chances are you've seen enough of Vanmarcke to guess where this is probably headed.

The effect on his team, however, starts now. And it's big. Join me on the flip for more... and a Patrick Verhoest Haaghoek gallery!

In last week's power poll I put Garmin-Barracuda 7th, a conservative estimate based on the youth of Vanmarcke and the past health struggles of Haussler. I also suggested that if those two improved -- a reasonable likelihood -- 2012 would work a lot better than 2011. Either one, at his best, would give Garmin that critical element it lacked among all its talented riders last year, someone who could shake things up. The attacking potential Vanmarcke flashed last year (and which Haussler showed throughout 2009) promised good things.

Now, at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, we see that Vanmarcke can already shake up and finish off a race. Only 23, he can already bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan. He is a game changer. Yes, he was the strongest guy in the race, as that cliche goes, but his accelerations defined the entire last hour of the race. He grabbed on to the winning break, deftly staying in contact on the chaotic Taaienberg, where the team anticipated moves but only Vanmarcke got himself into perfect position to join. He accelerated on the Molenberg, cracking Hushovd and Breschel, then finished them off with another uptick on the Paddestraat. He brilliantly, brilliantly gunned it on the Lange Munte, depriving Boonen and Flecha of their helpers, making it a fair fight. And he played it smart in the final km too. I don't know exactly how to apportion credit among Vanmarcke, his road captains Haussler and Andreas Klier, and director Van Lancker... but there were no race radios, no game boys with gigolos attached, that day. I think we're watching instinct at work. Plus a great pair of legs.

Last year's Team Garmin-Cervelo was a talented team but the lack of a game changer was glaring, up until Paris-Roubaix. In fariness, the structure of that team had to do with how things came together. On the plus side, Vaughters quietly pursued Vanmarcke, the perfect signing (in due time), but the headliners were the addition of Hushovd and Haussler, a process Vaughters explained in detail to me/us/everyone as being late and hurried. Nobody says no to a World Champion, and Hushovd paid dividends in the Tour, like clockwork. I doubt anyone at the team regrets having Thor for a year. But from the perspective of the cobbles team you could say Hushovd happened to them.

Hushovd is a highly accomplished professional, and for all I know he was an ideal teammate. He also wound up being a pretty good decoy for Johan Van Summeren in his Paris-Roubaix win. He's a lot of positive things, but on the cobbles he's not a game changer. In the classics, Hushovd is a strong, durable, consistent... wheel follower, not an attacker like Vanmarcke. Further complicating things, Hushovd gave off a sense publicly that he expected strategy to be routed through him. Maybe that's wrong or overblown, but that's how he sounded, and any world champion cuts a wide swath, inside and outside his team.

With Hushovd, Garmin seemed stuck waiting for his chances to pan out, until Paris-Roubaix where the team had an extra weapon. An in-form Haussler would have helped, but it's not hard to imagine Hushovd demanding more consideration in team tactics than frankly he deserved. Without Hushovd, Garmin can do what most strong teams prefer: getting multiple guys in position and letting them take their chances. Haussler and Vanmarcke can thrive in this environment, make their own luck, and when they do, it will vastly enhance Farrar's prospects too.

Whether that starts now or is delayed another year or three is IMHO the most intriguing question of the spring. Sep told us last year that he expects to develop for a few more years, and that Garmin were intent on not rushing him. This probably explains the meeting last Friday, but if he's ready, caution shmaution -- nobody leaves wins on the table if they can help it... Anyway, it's hard to gauge Vanmarcke's development til we see what happens on the road, but in the minds of his teammates and directors I would bet he represents something more than a future hope. He's some sort of weapon right now. To what extent... April is only five weeks away.

OK, here's a selection of Patrick's pictures from the Haaghoek. Starting with the first, brightest Cobbles Grin of the year:

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The Haaghoek from on high:

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Early hours: Gert Steegmans and some kid from BMC drive the pace:

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Later, Gilbert, Lars Boom and Vincent Jerome chase back after their assorted troubles:

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That kid again...

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More and more, all spring long!

Photos by Patrick Verhoest for the Podium Cafe