Twelve months ago Kevin Vermaerke was just your typical high school teenager with a love of bike racing. He's still a high school teenager, only now, at the age of 18 he's also a U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner, and on stage 1 of the Tour de Yorkshire, he came agonizingly close to winning against several WorldTour teams.
Vermaerke, who hails from southern California and whose father raced as an amateur in Belgium before moving the States, made the main break in the North of England on stage 1 in Yorkshire and was overhauled just before the line in a nail-biting finale. His 18th place hardly reflected his sterling efforts but the latest hot talent to come out of Axel Merckx's Hagen Berman Axeon team only drew on the positives as he spoke to Cyclingnews and ITV at the finish in Selby.
"To be honest I'm not that disappointed. I was on the limit and I couldn't have given it any more. It's a bit bittersweet to come so close but to be up there in the finish and almost make it, I feel pretty good," he said.
"The last time check came at 3km to go and they said that we had 27 seconds. I was on the limit and in the last kilometre we slowed down a bit. Then with 500m to go, I just went for it as hard as I could but we were caught just before the line. But it was brutal conditions but when you're out there racing you don't really think about it too much. You just have to get on with it.
Vermaeke started riding, as most teenagers do, with their parents on small rides. He later gravitated to racing with mountain biking his first passion but when Merckx spotted his talent and offered him a chance to race in Europe on Pro Continental outfit Vermaerke jumped at a chance. When a Merckx of any generation asks you to jump, your only response should be 'how high?'
The move instantly paid off with a string of promising results across Italy and France over the first few months of the season. Then the breakthrough came. American youngsters have tasted success in the U23 version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège before - Logan Owen won the race in 2016 and Ian Boswell, Joshua Berry and Nathan Brown have all finished on the podium, but none of them managed the feat before their 19th birthday. To make Vermaerke's ride even more impressive, Liege was his first major U23 outing in Europe.
"Last week I won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and that was my first U23 race. To win that was amazing, but I'm just here for the experience and to be here is awesome.
"Liege was one of my goals and something that I was aiming for but with this being my first season at U23 you never quite know how the races are going to go and how the races are going to stack up."
Outside the Axeon team bus on Thursday a pleased Merckx told Cyclingnews of Vermaerke's impressive levelheadedness along as his raw talent.
"What can I say? He's a first-year U23 and he's been amazing for us all year long. Today in those conditions, it's really impressive. I can only say good things about him right now. There's a really strong generation of young riders coming through these days and we all know the story of Evenepoel going straight to the pros. I had an eye on Kevin last year and obviously, I couldn't miss out on him because he's American. He's humble and he's strong."
Axeon's track record in finding young talent and preparing them for the WorldTour is almost second to none. Their previous rosters combined would make a solid WorldTour team and include Jasper Philipsen, Will Barta, Adrien Costa, Eddie Dunbar, Logan Owen, Neilson Powless, Chris Lawless and Tao Geoghegan Hart to name but a few.
"We're busy and looking for new talents," Merckx told Cyclingnews.
"We watch the juniors coming up and the next generation of American cyclists coming up is really important to us because we're an American team. We try and get what we can and the best we can but we also look for riders who are willing to invest in themselves and be part of a team. You can invest in individuals but we want to invest in a team around these kids."
The pathway for young riders with dreams of making it as professionals are never easy but those travelling from North America, like Vermaerke have their own set of challenges. The European scene is a completely different environment and while away from the families for extended periods of time homesickness can often in. For every Vermaerke or Geoghegan Hart, it must be remembered that there are numerous riders who have fallen by the wayside, either through a lack of talent or because they couldn't settle as quickly as others. Luck and taking opportunities are also key elements and Merckx admits that his role is to mentor his riders while also allowing them to develop on an individual level.
"At the end of the day they're pro riders and they need to take care of themselves but we're a Pro Continental team and we're here to help and guide them. We give them opportunities and a schedule but we have a tight connection with our riders while the alumni also help out. They point our riders in the right direction and we help guide them but coming over to Europe and learning to fend for yourself is all part of the process."
As for Vermaerke, the future is bright, but he is only willing to take it one step at a time at this point.
"Now I just want to hope for the best and if I can keep getting good experience then it will pay off down the line. I'm still young, and I don't turn 19 until October so to compete in these races is valuable experience but I'm loving being here. Last year I was watching these races on TV and if you'd told me I'd be racing here I wouldn't have believed it."
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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