Alexey Vermeulen has been angling for a time trial spot on USA Cycling's UCI Road World Championships teams for years, but the 21-year-old American never expected his first shot at the race of truth would come in the elite men's race.
That's the case for Vermeulen this year, however, as the LottoNL-Jumbo rider caps his first WorldTour season with starts in both Wednesday's individual time trial and Sunday's road race.
"I've been trying my whole career to get a spot in the Worlds time trial, so I just think it's kind funny that my first professional year I get to do it," Vermeulen told Cyclingnews by phone last week. "Every year I was like, 'Hey, Billy Innes [USA Cycling Junior program director – ed.], I want to do the junior time trial, I want to do the U23 time trial.' And always I was first reserve, so it's kind of funny that this is my first Worlds time trial."
Vermeulen could have competed in the U23 race because of rule changes that made younger WorldTour riders eligible for the U23 race if they've never before competed in the elite events, but the USA Cycling selection committee chose him as a discretionary pick for the elite race instead. Vermeulen said he wasn't really surprised by their decision.
"I knew there was a chance for a while because every Olympic year there are some guys who might want to opt out or are less motivated to go that late in the year," he said. "After nationals I knew I was on that long list, so I just kept working and I'm really happy to get the nod."
Vermuelen got "the nod" for the road race last last week when Kiel Reijnen dropped off the US roster as he and his wife await the birth of their first child. Vermeulen said he wasn't surprised by the late call-up.
"I knew that that there was a chance of being called up to do the road race," he told Cyclingnews on Monday via email. "I had been talking to Kiel and I was kept in the loop. I am excited for Sunday, but right now my focus is on the time trial. I feel that I am as prepared for Sunday as I would have been if I knew that I would race two weeks earlier."
Although the World Championships are an entirely different level, Vermeulen is no stranger to time trial podiums. He finished third in this year's US pro time trial behind two-time winner Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) – who will join Vermeulen representing the US in Wednesday's race – and runner-up Tom Zirbel (Rally Cycling). Vermeulen was also second in the US under-23 time trial last year.
His Worlds experience has been limited to the U23 and Junior road races in 2011, 2012, and 2014. A bad crash in 2015 knocked him out of contention for the Richmond Worlds team, so he missed the rare opportunity to compete for rainbow stripes on home soil. Now, however, he's lining up with the elites for both the time trial and road race, with Wednesday's time trial offering up his first test.
"Getting here was the first goal, but now I've been pretty on top of it the last couple of weeks," he said. "I have some pretty good legs, which is awesome, but it's pretty hard to put a number on [how well I could do]. I think realistically, I'll be hoping for and racing for a top 20. I think it will be really good to test my legs against it."
The 40km course in Doha is the same as the team time trial route, starting at the Lusail Sports Complex with more than a dozen turns in the opening kilometres, then traversing the desert to downtown Doha and a finishing circuit in the Pearl. Vermeulen said he knows what to expect on Wednesday.
"Fast, it's very fast," he told Cyclingnews. "You have a technical beginning. The first 14k has 14 corners. Then you have this long straight, which if winds prevail as they have been it will be a fast tailwind. Then I think it's a somewhat technical finish, but I think that's something you'll be able to tell once you get there. There are a lot of roundabouts, some you can ride through and some you'll probably have to get out of the position for, so I think it will be interesting. I think it will definitely be a fast 40k.
"If there's a change you could have a crosswind down that stretch, which would make everyone's life a living hell," Vermeulen said. "But I'm expecting it to be a tailwind, and the bigger factor that's going to come into play is going to be the heat, for sure."
Although the USA Cycling Juniors, who finished first and third in the time trial on Tuesday with Brandon McNulty and Ian Garrison, respectively, bragged about their pre-Doha heat training in a sauna, Vermeulen has been limited to more conventional methods of acclimation.
"I don't know how much this has been working, but I've been riding in a rain jersey and a vest about every day," he said. "I would have liked to get in a sauna and ride, and there's a lot of other things, but overall I've just been trying to keep the core hot and try to deal with the heat. But I think the really important factor will be the five days that I'm there before the race just trying to stay out in the heat and get used to it."
That heat will be an even bigger factor for the road race, which, unless the UCI shortens it because of heat, will include 150km in the desert before the peloton rides to the Pearl circuit for seven laps and another 100km.
"Right now, I am not looking past Wednesday, but I expect Sunday to be a tough race, battling not only the extreme temperatures but also the possible high winds that could create echelons earlier than some riders would like to believe," Vermeulen said via email.
"I think the heat is as intense as most of us will ever race in – most days have been averaging around 100 degrees. I also think that as hard as it is, we have known about the heat for the last 10 months, and many people that want to get a result in Doha have trained accordingly. The courses are flat, which means the biggest gap in riders' strengths will be made in the wind and with proper hydration. Should be a tough race."
Making progress during first WorldTour season
Vermeulen was a surprise choice for LottoNL-Jumbo at the end of last season. Although he'd had a steady diet of international races with USA Cycling's development program, he stayed somewhat under the mainstream radar because the BMC Development Team he raced with competed almost exclusively in Europe.
"I've really enjoyed the team," he said of LottoNL-Jumbo. "I think everyone questioned it a little bit. I haven't seen an American go to a European team in a little while, and I didn't really know what to expect. But overall it's gone really, really great."
Vermeulen put in a solid schedule of 60 race days during his rookie season, including 10 WorldTour races, most recently finishing Il Lombardia in support of LottoNL-Jumbo teammate Robert Gesink.
"For the most part I've been happy to see a good progression," he said. "One of the biggest disappointments of the year was at Tour de l'Ain. It was a 2.2 and I was expecting a little more of myself. I got a little sick and it didn't go well. But I was up there and playing a little bit of a role in the Canadian races [Grand Prix de Quebec and Grand Prix de Montreal – ed.], which had a stacked field.
"But, yeah, the legs are feeling good and I no longer feel like I'm in the back hanging on for dear life. I feel like I'm starting to play a role in the first races, which is a big step from the beginning of the season. When I did Catalunya, my first WorldTour race, I don't know if this is true, but my memory of it now as I think back is just on the back, hanging on for dear life for seven days.
"Now I'm more surviving and getting dropped closer the the finish," he laughs. "No, I'm actually very happy with the season."
Any pro cyclist's season comes with disappointments, of course, and Vermeulen had his sights set on a Grand Tour this year. That didn't happen, but he realises now that was probably for the best.
"This year I had aspirations to do the Vuelta. But as it came and went I was disappointed but then kind of relieved I didn't do it this year. So I'm looking forward to next year hopefully making that step and doing my first Grand Tour."
On a more personal note, Vermeulen, whose heritage is Dutch, is also hoping to hone his skill with his Dutch trade team's native language.
"I have so many spectators come up to me and start speaking Dutch because of my last name," he said. "It's kind of embarrassing. I'm like, 'Cool, yeah. I should speak Dutch but I don't, sorry.' Then I pull out the little bit of Dutch and say I don't speak it or I only speak a little bit."