The Long Read – Alexey Vermeulen Exclusive

As the season draws to a close, riders are bidding farewell to teammates and starting to look ahead to 2018, perhaps with a whole new team to adjust to as they complete a transfer.  Others are happy and settled with an established routine, enjoying the camaraderie and familiarity of their existing team.

The latter scenario is exactly what 22-year-old American Alexey Vermeulen was imagining he’d be feeling as 2017 wraps up – the Race of the Falling Leaves has been ridden, the sprinters have had a last fling at Paris-Tours…time to start preparation for 2018 with your teammates right?  Not quite.  Despite having a successful season by anyone’s standard, with a sparkling performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné one of the highlights, LottoNL-Jumbo have informed Vermeulen that he hasn’t been selected for 2018.

“It had been a good season in my mind, but somewhere along the line my team, LottoNL Jumbo, did not see it the same way” Vermeulen tells me.  “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 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 understand that cycling is a business, and I want the team to succeed. 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!”

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‘The Quiet American’ – Vermeulen came 3rd in the US National Championship Road Race this year.

 

American Renaissance

Vermeulen grew up in Michigan, and inherited his cycling pedigree from his Dutch grandfather.  2017 represented his second season at World Tour level; fittingly given his background, both seasons were with the Dutch team LottoNL Jumbo.   Vermeulen is one of a host of young riders from the US who are proving themselves with some noteworthy results – indeed, American pro cycling is currently having a bit of a renaissance moment.  Names like Neilson Powless, Brandon McNulty, Taylor Eisenhart and Lawson Craddock are definitely ones to watch over the next few years, with a glittering array of race results already behind them – stages at the Tour de l’Avenir, Best Young Rider jerseys at races such as the Tour of California and Tour of Utah, podium positions at Junior Paris-Roubaix…. the future for USA Cycling, which once looked to be on shaky ground, now seems to be in very good hands indeed.

Compared with the exuberant Eisenhart or the creative artsy streak in Taylor Phinney, Vermeulen was once branded ‘The Quiet American’ by Cyclingnews.com.  Much like Greg LeMond before him, Vermeulen is affable and polite, and only too pleased to have a chat and share his thoughts.  The blog he works on during the race season is an engaging read, and Vermeulen is a good storyteller with a self-confessed ‘love for words’.

“I have always enjoyed writing”, Alexey says of his blog, alexeyvermeulen.blogspot.com  “When I created my blog, I was heading over to Europe for the first time as a 16-year-old. I saw it as an easy way to keep my family and friends updated with my experiences and adventures. As time went on I have come to enjoy the flow of writing, especially as a cyclist where sometimes we have more time than we need on our hands. Sharing my funny stories about cultural differences or the racing scene leaves constant and never-ending possibilities to write about!”

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“It had been a good season in my mind, but somewhere along the line my team, LottoNL Jumbo, did not see it the same way”

American Abroad

Cultural differences were not the only thing the 16-year-old from Michigan had to adjust to.  “European racing is vastly different from the US. It is not harder, or more intense…but different.” Alexey says.

“The roads in Europe are smaller, narrower, so you race closer together, elbow to elbow – positioning is key, knowing where and when to put the effort in. Tactics play a bigger role. In the US, I view it as more of an all-out death race sometimes. At some point in the race, everyone rides as hard as possible and you see who is left. American racing creates really strong riders, some of the best time trial riders, but sometimes it can lead to clumsiness, as we do not learn from a young age how to navigate a cobble section or take on a harrowing alpine descent.

It always goes both ways though; if you put a European rider in a twilight crit, he will not be comfortable. European racing at the highest level is also like football or basketball in America. While you might have a national championship road race in Knoxville, Tennessee where 25 people are watching…races like Critérium du Dauphiné or the World Championships this year in Norway see crowds two and three rows deep lining the roads for kilometer after kilometer! In Belgium during the races there are even betting boards – one of the coolest experiences ever was seeing my name on the top of the board before a kermesse when I first started racing over the pond when I was u23”.

 

American Inspired

The cool experiences keep rolling in, with Vermeulen now riding alongside cyclists who inspired him when he was breaking into the sport.  “Growing up I was inspired and motivated by Taylor Phinney. I found his drive and his quirky habits to be interesting and something that I could relate to. I always read about Taylor in Velonews or saw him in the press. He worked harder than most people I knew, and he was just perfectly older than me where I was always looking up to him and could use him as a carrot. Still to this day I see him as part of my cycling career.

Another rider I admire is Mark Cavendish. I watched him win in Copenhagen at my first World Championships where everyone said it was too hard for him. He has overcome more adversity in 10 years than most men do in a lifetime”.

As well as looking up to riders in the current peloton, Vermeulen is also fully versed in the fascinating backstory of cycling, its amazing feats of endurance and the compelling characters who achieved them, declaring Gino Bartali as a great inspiration. “Reading about Gino made me realize the grand history of the beautiful sport that I am competing in, and that it was not always as easy as just going out to train. Gino still holds the largest gap between two Giro d’Italia wins”.

Life isn’t all about cycling and cycling history though – it turns out that Alexey is a bit of a mean chef!  “When I am not on the bike, I like to spend my time cooking as well as being outside. Spain has allowed for a good amount of exploring. Rest days spent going to the beach or finding hidden coffee shops and restaurants are rest days well spent. My favorite meal to cook would start with gazpacho, followed by steak, sweet potatoes, and broccolini with feta and paprika on the side, finishing with banana bread warm out of the oven or possibly rice pudding. I have been known to make people drool…”

There’s just time to quiz Vermeulen on his hopes for the future before stomachs start rumbling…..

“Short term I’d love to start and finish my first Grand Tour.  Long term the goal is to go to the Olympics… LA 2028 would be a dream after missing out on the World Championships in Richmond with a broken wrist”.

For the immediate future, Vermeulen is hoping his World Tour dreams will continue after being forced to leave the team he loves and supports, LottoNL Jumbo. So what’s life like as a World Tour rider? “It can be relaxed at times, and offers a lot of free time, plus you get to see the world! but it also includes riding a bike for 30,000 kilometers a year. It can be harder than it looks!”

Well, racing up the Col du Tourmalet or the hairpins of Alpe d’Huez looks pretty darn hard to me. Best fuel up with some good food first….did someone say banana bread or rice pudding?

 

Photographs courtesy of Alexey Vermeulen

 

 

On This Day in the Tour…….1986

6th July, 1986

1986 was the year the Americans came to the Tour.  Greg LeMond had been in the race the previous year, helping Bernard Hinault to overall victory, but he’d been part of La Vie Claire, a French team.  In 1986 an American team entered the Tour for the first time, Team 7-Eleven.  (An American also won the Tour for the first time, with Greg LeMond taking the yellow jersey…but that’s a whole other story!)

It hadn’t been easy, to even appear on the start line was something of an achievement.  In the 1980s, teams were invited to race at the behest of the Tour’s organisers, the UCI having little to no power over such matters.  The Tour was proudly European, and some fans were confused as to why Team 7-Eleven had even been invited to attend.  The US President of the time, Reagan, didn’t help the campaign to start the Tour – air strikes against Libya were seen as having the potential to cause unrest, with American citizens bearing the brunt of any anti-American feeling that had been stirred up.  Team 7-Eleven called a halt to their race calendar in the early part of the year, fearing that as an American team and therefore a symbol of the US, the riders might be targets for angry reprisals.

Nevertheless, the US team found itself on the start line of the 1986 Tour, which began in Boulogne-Billancourt with a 4.6km prologue.  The prologue was won by a Frenchman, Thierry Marie.  The race was off to an all-European start.  Stage 2 saw Team 7-Eleven get tactical, when the Canadian rider Steida got into an early break and began chasing time bonuses on the road.  By the end of the day, he had become the first North American to hold the yellow jersey.  Team 7-Eleven’s selection appeared to be justified.

A few hours after being handed the maillot jaune, Team 7-Eleven were handing it back.  Immediately following Stage 2, on the same day, came Stage 3 – a Team Time Trial.  Exhausted from their antics on the road, and perhaps showing their relative inexperience, the American team crashed early on, and then capitulated, dropping Steida in the process – clearly, defending yellow was a new notion.

Not to be downhearted however, Team 7-Eleven were once again on top of the world after Stage 3, a 214km flat stage from Levallois-Perret to Liévan.  Davis Phinney – father of current pro Taylor – was able to get himself into a small breakaway, and rode into the history books as the first ever American to win a road stage of the Tour de France.  (Greg LeMond’s previous stage win had been in a Time Trial).  Phinney was perhaps the last man to realise the significance of his ride however, as he was certain that the break he’d been riding with had failed to catch a solo rider who had gone off the front, and was completely unaware that he was in fact crossing the line as the stage winner.

“It was a gradual uphill finish and I waited and  jumped at about 300 meters to go, which was pretty long. I kind of took everybody by surprise because I was the first one to jump. So, even coming from the back, I got ahead of everybody and then the line just seemed like it took forever to get there…. I was so totally relaxed because we were only racing for second …I just chilled.

“Right as I came across the line, John Wilcockson (cycling journalist) said, ‘You won! That was incredible!’

I said, ‘Yeah, I won the group sprint for second.’

He said, ‘No, you won!’”