Sep and Ken

Growing up racing bikes in Flanders

It is a cool, sunny day in early spring, and Flanders is quiet, save for the whoosh of tires on concrete and the chirping of the birds. Tractors are out tilling the fields, filling the air with the sweet smell of manure. Sheep are lambing, and the magnolias are in bloom. The cows are free at last.

 

A week ahead of the E3-Harelbeke, Sep Vanmarcke is off to meet his older brother Ken for an easy ride in between long days of training.

 

Sep is preparing for the classic races that are held in April on the roughest roads in Belgium and northern France. Ken is one of EF-Pro Cycling’s directors. As boys, they got their introduction to the sport when their father piled them into the family car to go and see the Tour of Flanders. Together, they would catch the race two or three times before heading home to eat lunch and watch the finish on television. Ken can remember editions dating back to the late eighties. Sep’s first memory of it is Johan Museeuw’s win from 1996. He and Ken watched old VHS tapes of that race and Museeuw’s win at Paris-Roubaix a week later over and over.

 

There are no fans by the side of the road now though, no yellow-and-black Flemish flags. Sep has just taken a tractor path to cut a couple of kilometers from his ride to Ken’s.

 

There, Ken’s daughters are waiting for their uncle, eager to show him their new pet bunny. They see Sep a lot. Sep’s house and Ken’s house are only about ten kilometers apart. Most of their family lives within an hour by bike, too. Any further would be unimaginable. “For Flanders, that’s just the culture,” Ken says. 

Racing Together

 

“For 13 years, I was a postman,” Ken says later at the café. After a few promising years as a junior, he quit racing at 19 and got married. At 22, he started racing again. Sep was 16 then and had just taken up the sport. Only when they turned 15 were they allowed to begin cycling competitively. There just wasn’t the time or money for their parents to take four brothers and their sister to five different races all over Belgium every weekend. In those early years, they were each allowed to pick ten national-calibre classics to do during the season. For the rest, they had to settle for racing on smaller circuits at local fairs, which was hard enough.

 

“It was a nice build up,” Sep jokes. “It wasn’t a big plan. It was just taking it easy, taking it safe, keeping it fun. Only when we got older did it become more serious. Training wise, in the beginning, we just did what we thought would be good. We had fifteen-year-old material, bikes from friends of our dad.”

 

By the time Sep got his hands on those bikes, his three brothers and one sister had already raced them. That didn’t bother him. “For us, it was not a question of whether we wanted this bike or that bike. We just knew that wasn’t possible, and we were happy we had these old bikes to race with,” he says.

 

Ken took him under his wing, and the two brothers started training together every day. “For sure, I looked up to him,” Sep says. “When he started racing again, he got good, and he gave me a lot of support. He taught me a lot.” From racing to personal advice, Ken gave his younger sibling plenty of guidance.  “He was already married,” Sep says. “He knew everything.”

 

Ken was only 22 at the time, and he had a headstrong character that would curse his time as a racer.  “I just crushed myself all the time in training,” he laughs. “In my head, there were three things I had to do: train, train, train. Resting—pfff, nobody cares about that.”

 

Both brothers were certainly tough and talented, but results were slow to come, until they started working with a coach. He taught them to rest and set goals and do specific efforts to achieve their aims. That changed everything.

 

Within three weeks, Ken was on the podium at a Belgian classic. Before, he had almost never made it into the top 30.

 

When Sep was 19, he and Ken rode for the same team. That spring, Sep finished third in the under-23 Tour of Flanders. The thought of turning pro began to cross his mind. His form soon dwindled though. He had taken on a job as a handyman and was working too many hours to keep up on the bike.

 

“We didn’t have too much money, so we learned to work,” Sep says. “If we wanted to buy something, we didn’t get money from our parents; we just had to work for it. That was okay. But then, I thought, like, ‘okay, I did really good in those big races.’”

 

Sep’s results from the spring were good enough to earn him a spot for the next year on one of the best amateur teams in Belgium, so he decided to start working part-time and focus on training.

If I would win five million euros in the lottery, I would still do this job.

Different Careers

 

Ken had one more up-and-down year on a minor-league team before he quit the sport to become a postman. Sep finished eighth in his first professional race the next season, and quickly became one of the most celebrated prospects in Belgian cycling.

 

Was it difficult for Ken to see his little brother living the life he himself had tried so hard to achieve? “I was proud, of course. But I know that I struggled a little bit, because I had also been working really hard and hoping to become a pro,” he says.

 

As Sep became one of Belgium’s biggest stars, Ken was stuck for more than a decade in a job that sufficed but did not bring joy. “I was convinced that a job was a job, something you needed to do in your life to live and earn money and pay for a house and everything, but not fun,” he says.

 

Sometimes, Sep worried about Ken.  “You could see that he was not having fun. He was complaining about it, which is normal, and he had a lot of frustrations,” he says. “But yeah, back then, he didn’t have a lot of options.”

 

It was Sep’s agent who suggested that Ken become a coach. Ken had never lost his love for the sport and knew well how important good training was. After some hesitation, Ken took up his offer, and was soon driving races as a team director, too.

 

“When I first came back into cycling, I was like, what the heck? If I would win five million euros in the lottery, I would still do this job,” he says. “As long as I was a postman, I did not believe that could be. To love a job—it’s so much easier and so much nicer to get up in the morning.”

 

At first, Ken’s re-entry to the sport put a strain on the two brothers’ relationship. Sep was already a seasoned professional, who valued and needed balance. Ken, who had been a grounding force, a respite from the world of cycling, was now fully in the thick of it.  It took some time for them to establish a new dynamic.

 

That became more complex when they first worked together in a team. They then had to make sure they were very professional towards each other. Any hint of favoritism could have upset the other riders. And Ken still had to establish his credibility as a director. Unlike most of his colleagues, he hadn’t had a long pro career.

 

“I think he had to prove himself a lot more than the other directors,” Sep says. “He had to come from the other side, earn his spot, earn respect, and learn everything from inside the team and inside cycling.”

 

“I was a postman … it’s hard to go to a world where you have egos, where you have people who make a crazy amount of money,” Ken says. “You know, if you’re outside of cycling, you look at those people and you say, like, wow, they have made it. And then you come into the world of cycling and you see, like, oh heck, they are also human.”

 

Family Men First

 

That is now Ken’s greatest strength as a director; he is able to see the person behind the cyclist. He can empathize with them and earn their trust. He knows all too well how hard the sport can be, that try as you might, events sometimes just don’t go your way, even if you do everything right.

 

Growing up racing rattletrap bikes in Flanders made his brother and him who they are.  “I wouldn’t want to just leave home,” Sep says. “The cobbles and these hills are where I live, where these races live. I think now, so many years later, we really are happy with what we have become. We appreciate it.”

 

Whenever Sep races, the whole family watches. Nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles meet up roadside to cheer and show support.  Their sister, Klaar, chases the race with her five boys, loading them into the van and driving from point to point.  When Ken wasn’t working in cycling, he did the same.  

 

Whether their little ones will ever race bikes, neither Sep nor Ken mind. They just want them to do what they enjoy, and, when the time comes, not move too far away.

 

The brothers finish their coffees, and they head off into the Flanders fields. Toward the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Toward home.