This article is part of 'Belgian Week' on Cyclingnews, a special run of features to celebrate the start of the Classics. For all our Belgian Week content click here.
Julien Vermote wakes up with heavy legs and a foggy head. It’s the morning after Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and, after making himself a coffee, he gets ready to head out for a recovery ride. As well as spinning out the lactate from his legs, he’ll also be spinning out a lingering sense of disappointment.
The Belgian was a late attacker at Kuurne and was on his way to a sensational victory until he was unceremoniously caught by the peloton just 200 metres shy of the line. Scarcely two kilometres from his home, it cut deep. "It will take a long time to swallow this," he said, pale as a ghost.
On the Monday morning, as he welcomes Cyclingnews into his home on the outskirts of Kortrijk, he’s slightly more philosophical. "Ah, it’s ok, at least I tried, eh?"
Vermote wraps up against the icy conditions and heads into town to pick up his old teammate Zdenek Stybar from Quick-Step’s hotel. After an hour’s riding through the network of narrow roads in the Flanders countryside, they stop for lunch and meet up with another old friend, Niki Terpstra.
"During the Classics it’s nice to go out with the guys like Styby. You can catch up again. A lot of guys stay around Kortrijk, so in that’s really nice because we don’t see each other so much, and at the races you never have enough time to speak. So when they’re staying so close to your home it’s easy."
For a couple of weeks of the year, during the spring classics, Vermote’s home region of Flanders is the heart of the cycling world. Even outside of the so-called ‘Flemish Cycling Week’, the region remains one of cycling’s thriving heartlands, but when it comes to the WorldTour pros, there’s an increasing tendency to head for established ex-pat hotspots in the warmer climes of southern Europe.
Vermote, born in Kortrijk, raised five kilometres down the road in Harelbeke, and now living back in Kortrijk, has toyed with the idea of joining the masses in the likes of Monaco and Girona, but has never found the right reason to leave.
"Lots of guys are living abroad, that’s normal now in cycling. Maybe I thought about moving… I like sometimes to be somewhere else, but… ah I like being at home. For the first moments, it’s always nice to be in another country, it feels like something special, but then it wears off.
"I like Italy, the lifestyle and all that, but the weather is also not so great – it would be a pity to move and still be in the rain. Then you have Spain, in the last years there was an atmosphere of relax, mañana – I like it for training but I’m not sure I would like to make my lifestyle of it. In Monaco, you really have to have a nice apartment there, because you lose some life quality as well. You have you think about the money you save, but life is not only about the money you save, you have to enjoy it also. Monaco is maybe good for the weather and all that, but it’s not a life, it’s not the real life.
"Here I have my girlfriend, my brother, my two sisters, my friends from school. It’s nice to have them around. That way you’re more connected with the world, because otherwise you lose contact, I think."
Feeling grounded is increasingly difficult for a WorldTour pro. When you’re not at a race, you’re often at a training camp. Even for someone like Vermote, who’s based in his home town, life can be a blur of planes, buses, and hotel rooms. "Last year we made a calculation that, from Omloop to the end of September, there were 180 days that I slept away from home."
As such, the old quirk of Flandrien pros crossing team divisions to link up and go riding together, is fading, though there are still some organised groups – Vermote’s close friend Yves Lampaert is part of one in West Flanders, while Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen are members of another in the East. Vermote will occasionally tag along, but generally stays out of it, and not just because of clashing schedules.
"They’re your colleagues, you spend so much time together at the races, it’s not like in your spare time you want to be again with everyone. I think you need some privacy as well in life. Otherwise you’re always around guys from cycling and it’s only cycling going on," he says.
"It’s nice you have some normal life. You need some balance. It’s different for everybody. I prefer not to be surrounded by too many cyclists, because you stay all the time in the cycling world."
It was only a twist of fate that landed Vermote in the ‘cycling world’ to begin with. While his mother works in a shop in Kortrijk, his father has spent most of his professional life in football, mainly as a goalkeeping coach at KRC Harelbeke. Consequently Vermote "grew up with football".
While his brother started to get into cycling, Vermote played in the youth set-up of KRC Harelbeke, a high standard given the senior side were in Belgium's first division at the time.
"Me and my brother had the passion for cycling. We always did huge trips when we were young. We did Alpe d’Huez when he was 8 and I was 9. We did also Poperinge and back by bike, like 100 kilometres, he was 5 and I was 6. We also once went to the Ardennes when we were 12, that was like 180km. But he was the one who wanted to become a cyclist – Museeuw was his idol and all that. I was playing football most of the time."
The path to the WorldTour began when KRC Harelbeke filed for bankruptcy in 2002. "I had to look for another team but didn’t find one right away so I started cycling. I watched some of my brother’s races and thought I also wanted to try it. But if Harelbeke hadn’t gone bankrupt, I probably wouldn’t be a cyclist now."
Vermote quickly surpassed his younger brother on the bike. Riding for KSV Deerlijk, his first season was a tough one but he became national champion at the age of 15 and things went from there. He impressed at U23 level while getting a degree, with Patrick Lefevere persuading him to turn down a pro contract with Topsport Vlaanderen and instead jump straight into the WorldTour with Quick-Step in 2011. After seven years working mostly as a domestique at the Belgian team – "the team all the young guys look up to" – he now finds himself at Dimension Data looking to carve out his own opportunities in the classics and explore the limits of his own potential.
But whatever results come his way on the bike, Vermote will always be invested in hanging onto that ‘normal life’ that doesn’t revolve with the two wheels.
And normal life for Julien Vermote is just that: normal. His strikingly coiffed and immaculately styled haircut, which he has done once every three weeks, might lead to suspicions of flashiness, but that would be way wide of the mark. The only bling is the rosary he wears around his neck. A church-going Catholic, his faith is a major part of his life.
Dinner, coffee, or drinks in the company of friends and family - simple things but done well - are enough to keep him happy. "We don’t do crazy things because we’re professional cyclists," he jokes, though he does reveal that he met his partner, Laura in a Kuurne nightclub.
He lives in a modest apartment with Laura, their Pomeranian, Bo, and a few chickens out in the garden. It’s a home like any other, with candles on the table and a small television in the corner, but one thing that stands out is the large temperature-controlled wine cellaring unit at the top of the stairs. Wine, it turns out, is one of his main interests, and in some ways a metaphor for the way he lives his life.
"It’s a passion that in the last years is growing," says Vermote. "To know a lot about wine, you have to drink it, you have to taste it. You can read books but, at the end of the day, it’s like learning a language, you can read books but you have to speak it to do it, to improve. Drinking wine is not like drinking full gas to get wasted, you know. You drink it relaxed at the table, you can speak about it, try to find different tastes, share it. For me it’s a social thing.
"It’s a very beautiful thing because you can see how much they’ve put in to it. I’ve visited some wineries and it’s something I can really appreciate, because people have put their lives into it and it’s made with love. It’s like sport; you have to do it with passion. It all looks easy in the bottle, but you have to visit a winery to know how much they put in. A really good wine you can drink one little sip and you can enjoy it for a few minutes. For me that’s a good wine. If something’s been aged for a few years, that’s something special already.
"A good beer is also nice in a bar – it’s Belgium after all. Also coffee I like. I like nature products, where they put a lot in. Nowadays there are so many things that are artificial. I appreciate products that are made from nature. And to make something good you have to work at it, it’s not something you make in a machine. You need a machine but you work, you try, you improve, it’s not something everyone can just make. You have to appreciate the natural products. I appreciate the basic things in life."
Vermote's training routes
Vermote and Stybar complete their ride through the flat countryside around Kortrijk. It’s only a short loop and barely scratches the surface of the playground Vermote has at his disposal for riding his bike. The grim weather in Flanders’ winters are a definite drawback, he says, when it comes to training but, along with staying in the ‘real world’, living here allows for an intrinsic connection with the cobbles and hills - as well as the weather conditions - that form the theatre for the spring classics.
"I’ve been on these roads for 15 years, so I will never forget them," he says. "If you do a meeting with the team and they're speaking about the climbs, some of the guys, when you’re speaking about the third climb their head is still on the first one. For me, I don’t have to think. For them it must be hard because they have to think so hard to remember this, this, and that. Then for me it’s like… 'ok we come from there, now we have to move up because of this, then there, and now this..."
When talking about his training, Vermote says the possibilities are pretty much endless.
"Maybe you can say Kortrijk to Ypres and back. Around there you can do Kemmelberg, Zwarterberg, Monteberg. Also you can go towards Kluisbergen, and do the Kwaremont, Kruisberg, Paterberg, and many cobbled sectors.
"You can also go into Wallonia. Anvaing, where I won my first race, that’s also a nice region. When you go to Wallonia it’s quite relaxed to train. At Mont de l’Enclus is the Kluisberg, then you go to Anvaing, then you can go on nice roads to Elezelles and Flobeq. It’s nice because then you can go to do La Houppe, then back over Brakel or something, or Ronse for the Kanarieberg. I can actually really appreciate the one in Wallonia, it's relaxed riding. Some days you only see five cars.
Rough outlines of a few of Vermote's training routes
"If you want a flat ride you can just go to the coast. Also with the canal you can go to Gent – it’s around 45km from here. You can make a loop if you want, to Gent then stay beside the water to Oudenaarde and back to Kortrikjk. To Geraardsbergen is also not so far - 1 hour 45, maybe, then you can eat a mattentarte [a local delicacy] and get back! Just before the Muur, you start over the bridge into Geraardsbergen, then into the square and you have a lot of bakeries for the mattentartes."
Vermote doesn't have fixed loops, as such, but advises going with the flow, especially in Tour of Flanders territory.
"It’s important that you don’t do the same one every day. Sometimes I go one day to Ypres, one day to Oudenaarde, one day to Flobeq, to change a bit the mind. If you go Kluisberg, you can do Oude Kwaremont, Nieuw Kwaremont, Paterberg, Koppenberg, Steenbekdries, Taaienberg, Eikenberg….you can make 150 different loops! It’s not like I have a fixed loop because you can take any climb you want. There are maybe 20 climbs in 15 kilometres. I make it up as I go along, see how I feel, take this one, go that way. There are so many possibilities."
Vermote points out that he doesn't like to venture too far from Kortrijk, that if he needs more distance he'll simply throw in a few extra climbs or small loops in the area where he happens to be, rather than heading for the furthest point on the map. It's a small detail, but it does seem telling in the context of our earlier conversation about that one-way ticket to Monaco.
"You’re heart is always where you’re born," he says. "That's where you always feel at home."