Former Quick-Step domestique Julien Vermote made a remarkable transfer to Dimension Data this winter. He expressed the hope of being able to morph from domestique into a team leader, hoping to race for a win himself at the Classics. The 28-year-old Belgian rider came very close in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday.
He was in a small breakaway and kept the peloton at distance until 100 metres from the line. He then went on to finish ninth. But despite what many would consider a good effort, after crossing the line he was extremely disappointed.
"Godverdomme," Vermote released some old-school Flemish swearing. "I thought it was nearly in the pocket. I saw that the peloton was still not there and I shifted to a bigger gear. I kept giving it all and kept going. Then they flew by. They’re much faster. It was strong that we kept them at distance for so long."
The finish of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is on the main road from the city of Kuurne to its bigger neighbour Kortrijk. It's a stone's throw away from his home. Vermote's endless efforts for popular Tom Boonen and Marcel Kittel at the Tour de France made him quite popular himself in Belgium. The number of fans that surrounded him in Kuurne was a good example of that popularity.
"If I ride on after the finish I'm arriving at my home. It's the confirmation that I'm capable of something. I was focused. I've had a good winter. I've got to believe in it. Some say that I was good at Quick-Step and at ease. I was good there, having good fun but performances like these… that's something I enjoy a lot. You've got to try, and it's a new challenge. I'm trying to have fun and get a good result on the road. Today was one that I really wanted to win. That's cycling, that's life. It's a bit hard now, but you've got to be positive. C'est la vie," Vermote said.
The breakaway move was formed at ten kilometres from the finish while riding through Kortrijk.
A few kilometres earlier Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) was caught, and there had been a few new attacks, but none got very far. Julien Duval (AG2R) launched an attempt and he was quickly joined by Vermote. Two kilometres later, Loïc Vliegen (BMC) reacted as well but it took him a kilometre to close the seemingly small gap.
The three continued to work together until they reached the final kilometre with the peloton led by Ramon Sinkeldam (FDJ) on their heels.
Somehow Vermote managed to accelerate again, and he gapped his two companions, with the peloton coming even closer. At 300 metres from the finish, Duval was caught, but Vermote was still ahead with Vliegen at a few metres. At 250 metres from the finish line FDJ's Arnaud Démare opened up the sprint from the second position, and Groenewegen immediately followed from the third position to take the win.
Winner Groenewegen later stated that he thought that Vermote was too far away. Nevertheless, Groenewegen blasted by the Belgian at 100 metres from the finish. Vermote somehow managed to stand on the pedals and hold on for ninth place. Vliegen finished 29th.
"We worked together quite well. I probably did most of the work, but I knew that. Maybe they hesitated or played poker briefly. It's tough to deal with when you come so close. If you start something then you don't know where it'll end but this close. It was always more than 10 to 12 seconds. The form is good, but I knew that. Holding off the peloton would've been nice, impressive. It would've been nice, but it's not the case. It'll take a while to deal with this."
The transformation from time trial specialist and most of all a highly respected domestique that tows the peloton for countless hour during the Tour de France to a Classics specialist isn't easy, as Vermote explains.
"I think I'm capable of this. I showed that today. Kuurne is nice, but it's something different than Harelbeke. I've got to get used to this role. You can't expect that when you're towing the peloton for seven years that you're suddenly going to be the man. This move didn't come because I have the pressure to show myself. It's ambition. Everybody has ambition. I was focused on this opening weekend because I've only done Dubai.
"Yesterday I missed the fighting spirit. You’ve got to fight at every corner. I switched gear at the wrong moment and ended up at the back. I never managed to get into the race. Once you're at the back, there's no time to move up. You're always on the accordion. I knew I was very good because there were countless riders who got dropped but I always managed to close the gaps back down.
"I knew I was good but couldn't be happy with my mentality. It was my first race in Flanders. That's why I asked the team to ride here. It's necessary. You can't pick that up in Dubai where there's always space for five streets. Today was much better."
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