Numerous biophysical questions require the quantification of short-range interactions between (functionalized) surfaces and synthetic or biological objects such as cells. Here, we present an original, custom built setup for reflection interference contrast microscopy that can assess distances between a substrate and a flowing object at high speed with nanometric accuracy. We demonstrate its use to decipher the complex biochemical and mechanical interplay regulating blood cell homing at the vessel wall in the microcirculation using an in vitro approach. We show that in the absence of specific biochemical interactions, flowing cells are repelled from the soft layer lining the vessel wall, contributing to red blood cell repulsion in vivo. In contrast, this so-called glycocalyx stabilizes rolling of cells under flow in the presence of a specific receptor naturally present on activated leucocytes and a number of cancer cell lines.