Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Alexey Vermeulen: Making the step up after l'Avenir downer

Things were looking for Alexey Vermeulen at the end of July. A successful Giro della Valle d'Aosta showed he was able to stay with some big-time climbers in the mountains and had him hopeful for the Tour de l'Avenir in August. There was zero doubt in his mind that he would be on the form of his life in France trying to bring the USA a top GC result.

Just two kilometers into the Trofeo Almar Nations Cup, there was a change of plans. Alexey describes the moment best on his personal blog:
"As I came screaming into the mess of riders crashing in front on me only 2 km into the race...I found myself in that moment where everything slows down and you can nearly control the uncontrollable. Gripping my brakes as hard as I can, attempting to find any sort of traction in my tires as they slide across the road like sheet of black ice. All of a sudden I feel the bike stop as I go flying over the handlebars on to the asphalt at nearly 40 mph. I quickly get up to assess myself as well as get out of the path of the riders behind me who are continuing to crash, but I immediately sit back down once out of the road, something is wrong."
 Vermeulen's season was just turned on its head. "I had to argue for an x-ray at the hospital in Italy because I was told my wrist couldn’t be broken if I was texting" Vermeulen said, "I was texting my director!" The prognosis was a broken scaphoid (wrist) and initially, the Pinckney, Michigan native thought he could pull off the impossible but eventually he came to the realization that it wasn't going to happen.

 "After Trofeo Almar, I was in denial that I could race in a wrist splint and didn’t give up on racing until a few days before the start. I couldn’t comprehend that I would actually not race L’Avenir; it had been the focal point of my year." Vermeulen continued saying, "It still hurts thinking about missing L’Avenir this year.  I turned down a stagiaire spot to race l’Avenir in a leader’s role. I thought with a little good fortune it could be my big result for this year and a perfect wind up for Worlds. Last year, 29th place was a learning experience, and this year I had put in the work and adjusted my race schedule to be in top form for L’avenir…I guess we will never know. "
Vermeulen bucked up upon returning home and after consulting with a family friend who happens to be an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Michigan, he decided to have surgery. The reason? To speed the recovery time and perhaps get a chance to salvage his season with one more big race...Worlds.

With the wrist on the mend, Vermeulen had one shot to qualify for the USA's World RR team for Richmond at the Reading 120 in Central PA. While it was a long shot, Vermeulen toed the line nearly 7 weeks after breaking his scaphoid and gave it a shot. While the monsoon weather basically took him out of the running as the descent off Mount Penn was atrocious, Vermeulen was just enjoying getting back to a racing level. He didn't make Worlds yet Vermeulen wouldn't have done anything different with the comeback try because, as he sees it, it is better to try and fail than to not try at all.

Looking back at the season as a whole, it certainly had its high points but it wasn't quite as neat as 2014. "In 2014, I never flatted, crashed or had any ill-timed mechanicals-lucky.  2015 was a bit the opposite as I missed many opportunities, mostly due to things out of my control.  That’s part of racing and I’m a better rider for it."  An example of one of these missed opportunities was as the Liege-Bastogne-Liege U23 this year. "I made a late split with 10 or so other riders in the last 10 km, and then we were shown the wrong direction by a confused course marshal. In the end, there is no one really to blame except myself for not knowing the course. I was 5 hours deep in a race and cross eyed just following the wheel in front of me," Vermuelen said.

It wasn't all thumbs down this season though. Vermeulen went up against the Axeon & Cal Giant leviathan on the difficult North Lake Tahoe course with a handful of BMC teammates. On a course filled with climbs, crosswinds and heat that cracked droves of riders, Vermeulen star was shining. "I really thought I had a chance when I went 20 km from the line and no one (else) could follow," Vermeulen said. It was looking great but for the Pinckney, Michigan native until 3 kilometers to go, when he was brought back by a trio of riders including eventual winner Keegan Swirbul. While it wasn't a win, Vermeulen didn't mind the result. "I was bummed not to pull on the stars and stripes but at least I made them work for it!" He proceeded to go 2nd to in the U23 TT to United Healthcare signing Dan "Swole" Eaton.
In Europe, Vermeulen did string together some results in mountainous stage races in the Ronde de l'Isard and the Giro della Valle d'Aosta. In l'Isard., Vermeulen wasn't able to stay with the pure climbers but consistent top 10 finishes in the three mountain stages netted him 7th overall.  In Aosta, Vermeulen had probably the best day of his season on the brutal stage 3 to Valtournenche, which was 5.5 hours on the bike on a 100 mile course. Vermeulen finished 6th on the day in the same group with Rob Power, Laurens De Plus, Simone Petilli and Sindre Lunke, all of whom are going WT next season. While a high GC finish didn't pan out, Vermeulen was realistic about the year.

"l'Isard, Nationals and Aosta were decent results but each race left me hungrier than the last. I do not I regret chances taken." Vermeulen said. "I regret crashing, of course, but it’s a tough sport. This season had its ups and downs but ended on a high note. Signing with Lotto validates past efforts, and I’m excited to race at the next level."  

One piece missing from U23 that would have benefitted Vermeulen is longer time trials. "I am a good climber but a time trial is where I could really gain time against the pure climbers. My engine is made for longer efforts in terms of days and individual TT efforts." Long time trials are virtually non-existant in U23 racing with the longest ones being just over 20 kilometers in length. If even given a 40km time trial, it could see a rider such as Vermeulen vault up the GC ranks as opposed to letting just the best climbers have a chance in races with mountains. Vermeulen continued, "I believe U23 stage races need longer time trials to prepare for the professional ranks. Even l’Avenir, considered to be the U23 Tour de France, only has a prologue; longer time trials are a missing piece in U23 racing."

While Vermeulen might have had some up and downs with the season, his talent certainly isn't taken for granted as Lotto-JumboNL signed him for the next two seasons on a neo-pro deal. Vermeulen, whose family hails from the Netherlands, sees the move as a little coming home and plans on learning Dutch in the off-season in preparation for the move. While Vermeulen is the lone American on the team, he doesn't have a fellow English speaker in George Bennett on the team and will be a part of the team's plan to branch out from just Dutch speakers with Primoz Roglic (Slovenia) and Enrico Battaglin (Italy) joining the team. Vermeulen will also be more at home as he plans on relocating to Girona, which has long been the English-speaking base in Europe with many English speaking riders having ties to the area.

While discussing off-season plans, one in particular had Vermeulen light up. "ICEMAN!! You know I will be toeing the line again in the freezing mud in November to kick off my 2016 season if the wrist is 100%. It’s great fun for me because it’s the one race I don’t race for contention but just enjoy being on the trails in Northern Michigan." For those that are not in the know, Iceman Cometh is a Midwest staple that takes place every year in the Northern Michigan on a stretch of single and double track MTB trail from Kalkaska to Traverse City every November before the icy grips of winter fully take hold. While this year's race is sold out and will take place on November 7th, check out the race's website for some more background.

While it most likely will not be an instant transformation, Vermuelen will be one of a handful of American riders that will be building towards being a GC threat. With Tejay van Garderen being the only legitimate Grand Tour threat and Andrew Talansky not being incredibly consistent, teams are looking to get young Americans and mold them into riders that can contend in World Tour events. Vermeulen, Lawson Craddock and Gavin Mannion are in with the likes of Ian Boswell and Larry Warbasse as young Americans trying to cut it. With his time trialing ability, Vermeulen could make an early impact in some smaller races next season so while the jump is quite big, there is no reason to ignore him.

To follow Alexey on his journey as a neo-pro, you can follow him on Twitter.

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