Alexey Vermeulen’s Worlds of Dreams
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If you watched this year’s world championships road race, you could not help but see American Alexey Vermeulen. He was that U.S. rider wearing the stars-and-stripes jersey who was in the breakaway for more than five hours. But right after that performance the 22-year-old was hit with the hard reality of professional cycling, because, despite a promising first two years on the UCI WorldTour, his LottoNL-Jumbo team has not renewed his contract. PELOTON caught up with the mild-mannered Vermeulen from Pinckney, Michigan, at his European home in Girona, Spain. He looked back on his past two years as a professional…and forward to his future.
Words by James Startt | Images by Yuzuru Sunada and Startt
PELOTON Magazine: Alexey, you’ve been very busy at the end of this season. After racing in the Grand Prix races in Québec and Montréal you flew straight to Belgium and started the Grand Prix Wallonie, and then you were a last-minute replacement on the U.S. national team at the world championships.
Alexey Vermeulen: Yeah, that GP Wallonie was probably the earliest I’ve ever raced after post-Atlantic travel. That was something. I think I’ve done something like 12 or 13 one-day races in the past 30 days. It’s just been intense.
PELOTON: Well, you have done well, especially at the world championships, where you made the day’s big breakaway in Bergen. What was that like?
Vermeulen: Oh, it was absolutely unbelievable! It was something I had never experienced before. I did the worlds in Qatar last year and I can tell you that it was starkly different. In Norway, I honestly didn’t see a stretch of road that wasn’t just packed with people yelling. My ears were still ringing after the race just from all of the people yelling constantly for six hours.
At the team meeting in the morning, I was quite happy when Jim Miller, our DS, asked if I wanted to go for the break. To be able to experience the world championships out in front—even if that means you don’t finish—was just amazing. We did 215 kilometers. In most races that means that you go to the end, but at the world’s we got caught about 40 kilometers from the finish and the finale was just starting.
PELOTON: You have had an interesting path, moving up through the amateur ranks as an American and then signing with the Dutch LottoNL-Jumbo team as a professional. How did that happen? Vermeulen sounds like a Dutch name. Did that have anything to do with it?
Vermeulen: Ha-ha. Well, I have to think that my name played a role, but mostly I think that a lot of it came from Bianchi and some other sponsors to have an American on the team, especially with the rise in U.S. races like the Tour of California and Utah. I think it was a good situation on both sides. They reached out to me two years ago and it has been good. But unfortunately they just announced that I won’t be with them next year.
PELOTON: Really? Wow! I mean you are only 22 and you have made some nice progress. Already in your first year, you finished third in the U.S. national time trial championship, and this year you finished third in the road race….
Vermeulen: Yeah, it was quite a surprise. I didn’t expect to be here at this moment in my career, but that is the world of cycling. I have to say I believe that I made a lot of progress this year. In addition to my own results I was able to play a greater team role. I had only positive things to say about Lotto all last year and through the summer. I gave up my 4th year of u23, and I regret that a little bit now. I made the breakaway on stage 3 in the Critérium du Dauphiné and helped my teammate Koen Bouwman win the stage [with Vermeulen finishing fifth]. I worked well in the Tour of California to help George Bennett win the overall. I felt loyalty toward the team and believed that they had my development as a 22-year-old as a top priority…but alas, after decisions have been made official and real thoughts have been spoken I know that was not as true as I once believed. I understand that cycling is a business, and I want the team to succeed. I worked hard and respected the jersey and the job, but at the end of the day I didn’t see that same respect in return. I am happy to have had the opportunity to race the World Championships this past weekend to keep my mind focused. I am as motivated as I have ever been to stay at the top level of the sport! I look forward to proving that they made the wrong decision!
PELOTON: Well, looking back over the last two years, what was it like racing in Europe at the WorldTour level. Was it a big jump for you or did you feel as that you adapted well?
Vermeulen: Really, I thought it was pretty easy for me. To be honest, I had not raced much in America since my junior years because I was on the BMC development team first. That was a great start for me, a great stepping stone. Already back then, I was spending a good six months of the year living in Europe. For Americans or Australians, sometimes it is harder adapting to racing in Europe off the bike than the actual racing. But with BMC we lived in La Gleize, Belgium, not far from the Rosier climb in Liège–Bastogne–Liège. We were really well supported and the riding in Belgium is great. It’s just the weather conditions that make it really hard. But it was a good way to learn to function in Europe.
Then, when I turned professional, I moved to Girona, and it is actually more American I would say. There are just a lot of American riders here and you can really get along without speaking Spanish. I was actually more immersed in European society in Belgium.
That said, if I have one regret about my time at Lotto, it is that I didn’t really pick up Dutch. My grandfather was Dutch and my father still spoke Dutch, but I didn’t manage to pick it up. And living in Spain probably didn’t help because, well, I might be immersed in the language for a week while I was at a race, I’d start to pick up a bit of the language, but then I would come back home and be away from it. I did some on-line classes but it just wasn’t enough.
PELOTON: Well, after two years of racing at the WorldTour level, where do you think your potential lies?
Vermeulen: Well, the one thing I know that I do not excel in is the rainy cobbled classics, ha-ha! I’m just not built for those! No, I think my potential lies in the mountains and in time trials. If I could develop into a GC rider that would be nice, but for the moment I think that I could be a really good support rider, say like Stef Clement or Roman Kreuziger. We’ll have to see though, as I am still developing. I love climbing as well as time trialing and I love the mental tenacity it takes to endure the road alone. And while I may not be built for the cobbles, I am really attracted to the hillier classics, especially the Tour of Lombardy, which is just a beautiful race.
PELOTON: You mentioned your relationship with Bianchi earlier. They have a lot of great bikes out on the market right now. Do you have a favorite?
Vermeulen: Oh yeah. First off, their TT bike is lightning fast. But I’m really a big fan of the Specialissima. It’s just gorgeous. It’s hand-painted and all. I don’t actually ride it that much, because it is really a climbing bike. When you are in the mountains it really pushes to go faster, but on the flats it is definitely not as fast as an aero frame. As a result, most of the team rides the Oltre XR4 most of the time, because it is so versatile. But the Specialissima is really amazing. They are just some of the most beautiful bikes I’ve ever seen. One of the things that I really will miss about the team is leaving Bianchi. I had a great relationship with them. Like I said, I think they played a role getting me on the team and they really supported me throughout the last two seasons.
PELOTON: What is the race that inspires you the most?
Vermeulen: Well, I would say that the world championships or maybe the Olympics, when you are talking about races that give me inspiration. Competing in the Olympics is a real dream. When it comes to the races I have done on my trade team I would say that the Critérium du Dauphiné really inspired me this year. The racing was just at such a high level before the Tour de France. You can really see where you are at compared to guys that are going to go and win the Tour. You can see everybody in top form and you can just imagine—and almost start crying—when you think about what it is like to race at that level for a full three weeks and not just one week, like at the Dauphiné. And, on a personal level, I really felt as though I saw a big difference in my own racing between the Dauphiné in 2016 and this year’s race. Last year, like in a lot of races, I was still learning. I was 21 years old and trying to survive. But this year I felt that I was able to contribute a lot more to the team’s cause. The consistency of my racing really took a jump. And that is one of the big differences when it comes to making the transition to the pros.