Over the past several years, the 21-year-old has progressed from the USA's premier junior program at Lux to the premier U23 team and is now at one of the top WorldTour teams for talent development, with the likes of Jai Hindley, Marc Hirschi, and Michael Storer having come through DSM in recent years.
Vermaerke, who won the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2019, is hoping to follow in the wheel tracks of those riders – and the likes of Marcel Kittel, Tom Dumoulin, and John Degenkolb – at the team as he takes aim at the very top of the sport.
The Californian spoke to Cyclingnews as Team DSM unveiled their 2022 kit and roster last week, talking through his first season as a pro, the much-debated DSM 'process', his enthusiasm for the hilly Classics, and more.
Cyclingnews (CN): We've come to the end of your first season as a pro – how has it been?
Kevin Vermaerke (KV): I think overall I'm really happy with how it went. On paper it wasn't the most successful season but, especially jumping up to WorldTour level, it takes a while to get your feet underneath you, and with last year being a COVID year... the Vuelta was in November and usually in a normal year you'd be having team camps already for the following season.
Everything got pushed back a few months later and as a result I was a few months behind in getting ready for the season. But I think I did a good mix of smaller races and also WorldTour races to get a feel for what the level is like.
CN: Do you have any particular highlights from 2021?
KV: Definitely doing the Ardennes Classics was a highlight. Those are the races I dream about doing and one day I really want to be on the podium at and be winning, so to have my first experience there was really cool.
Liège was the longest bike ride I've ever done so it was pretty epic to be racing it. Even the Dauphiné, San Sebastián – I still have to pinch myself sometimes because it's like I'm still watching on TV, but now I'm actually there. There are a lot of highlights from the year.
CN: How have you found the step up from the under-23 ranks to the professional peloton?
KV: Coming from the under-23s and being at a high level there, I thought I had a good understanding of what the pro racing would be like, but it still blew me away how much faster it was. I think I learned a lot from this year, just about living in Europe, being a pro and all the other obligations that came with that.
I have a good coach on the team in Phil West and other people who supported me and gave me the confidence to find my feet. On paper it might not be the best season, but I think it set me up for a good 2022, being more confident, knowing what's coming and having faith in myself and the system around me in the team. I'm really looking forward to next year.
CN: Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic affected your final season in the under-23 ranks. Did that have a knock-on effect into 2021 as well?
KV: I didn't have that many races [in 2020]. I did do the Tour de l'Ain which was right before the Tour de France so that was quite a high-level experience. I did the GP Wallonie which I had quite a good race at, and then I did the Baby Giro where I broke my pelvis on the first stage.
It was quite a weird year, just like a whole year of training. But where I was in the US, I could train the whole time and I had a good group of friends around me who I could train with. Talking to some of the guys in Europe riding the trainer for months and not knowing what was going to happen, but for me the motivation stayed super high. Obviously, I knew that I would be turning pro the next year so that gave me a lot of motivation to keep working.
CN: You've gone from a team highly rated for developing riders to another. How have things differed at Hagens Berman Axeon and DSM?
KV: I think obviously when you get to the WorldTour the teams get bigger and more professional. Especially on Axeon it was like 10-12-15 guys and it was a group of friends. It's still like that in the WorldTour, but obviously there are age differences now – some of my teammates are in their 30s and have families. I just turned 21 so it's hard to imagine that.
But the main difference is that in the under-23s there are like 10 guys in every race who are the best and who you have to watch. But in the WorldTour the level is just so high that the gap between the fastest guy and the slowest guy is not that much. I mean you'll do 6 watts per kilo up a climb in the middle of a stage and nobody gets dropped. In then under-23s that would split the race apart. Mentally it can be a little depressing when you see how high the level is but for me it's been motivating because even though it is quite a big gap to the front, you can see how you can make measurable progress to get there.
CN: DSM have received a lot of press coverage with riders leaving and disagreeing with how things are run there. How have you found that side of things?
KV: I personally think it's a good process, especially coming in as a young rider to the WorldTour with so much to learn, I think the experts that they have in every field really help you dial in every aspect of the sport. They have gotten bad press recently for guys leaving, but I think there's a lot to be said for the guys that get good within the team, like Storer and Hirschi.
They have a really good track record for developing talent. That says something about the principles they have and I'm really hoping I can use all their resources, work with the team really well, and follow in those footsteps to find myself. I think it's a perfect team for that. I'm going to get a lot of good race experience and I have good coaches, trainers and nutritionists to work with. I'm really excited to be working with DSM for the next two years.
CN: Was that track record of developing riders the main reason you chose DSM?
KV: You look at some other teams and the level is so high, and they have so many good riders that you feel it's easy to get lost in the mix and after a few years you don't have anything to show, and the team wasn't really focused on you because they might have eight other guys who have won Monuments. But I think DSM give everyone the individual attention that they need to succeed, and I think that was a big factor in my choice to come here.
CN: Obviously you've come to the pros as a Liège-Bastogne-Liège U23 winner. Is that the kind of race you're looking at targeting now you're in the WorldTour?
KV: I think for the moment those are the kind of races I want to target, the hillier Classics or even the Flanders Classics, the one-day races and especially the ones with a bit more climbing to break the race up.
I think that I'm not a pure climber and I'm not a pure sprinter but I'm a general rider within those two. I think there's actually quite a few kinds of races that can suit me, whether it's going for stages at a Grand Tour, the Ardennes Classics, or some of the hillier Italian races. I think there's a lot of opportunity, so hopefully I can continue to get a wide variety of race and then in the next year or so we'll hopefully see what suits me the best.
CN: And for 2022, do you have your schedule planned out? Will there be a Grand Tour debut?
KV: I've had a few sit-downs with the team to discuss race schedule and I can't say too much on it yet, but it's going to be a big jump up from the year I had a last year, so that's keeping me motivated this off-season. I'll probably start racing around February and I'm planning on heading to Europe in January for some team camps and get ready to hopefully have a great season. I hope [to ride a Grand Tour]. We'll have to see but I hope there will be one this year.
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