It's not uncommon for athletes to recall a story from their youth about a time they may have brushed up against the stars of a sport and were inspired by dreams of living a similarly glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle. When Alexey Vermeulen, the 20-year-old American who recently signed a two-year deal with LottoNL-Jumbo, tells you the big-name "stars" who helped inspire his dreams were then-teenagers Lawson Craddock and Nate Brown, you get a good idea of how young he was when his journey toward professional cycling started.
Vermeulen, who was born in mid-December and therefore raced a year above his true age, was 14 when he entered the Green Mountain Stage Race in September of 2009. The late-season race traditionally draws a national junior field, and Vermeulen would get to compete in the 15-18 category against 17-year-old Craddock and 18-year-old Brown, both of whom will be in their third seasons on the WorldTour next year.
"That was a huge thing for me because I had read about them and I was like, 'Wow, these guys are on Hot Tubes. They're living the life going to all these cool races. They just got back from Worlds," Vermeulen recalled during a recent interview with Cyclingnews.
"For them it was just a race, but for me it was something I really saw," he said. "I was a skinny little climber and I ended up finishing second overall to Nate as a 14-year-old [USA Cycling results list Vermeulen as third overall behind Luke Keough, who currently rides for UnitedHealthcare, ed.] It's a memory that I talk about with Nate all the time, and I think it was one of those turning moments of my career."
Vermeulen, who grew up playing hockey in Dexter, Michigan, started competing in local races in 2007 when he was 12. All that skating from years of hockey provided a good base for cycling, and Vermeulen displayed a natural talent for it. Vermeulen went to junior nationals for the first time in 2008 and added a coach that same year.
When he finished on the podium at Green Mountain in 2009, Vermeulen knew he was onto something. And when he won the junior 17-18 national title in 2011 as a 16-year-old, the USA Cycling development program took notice. Junior success led to a spot on the BMC Development Team, where Vermeulen was allowed to work with USA Cycling's U23 program to get a three-year crash course in European racing. It paid off in September with a neo-pro contract at the Dutch WorldTour squad.
"I think for me and for USA Cycling, he's one of the biggest success stories as far as a guy we really had faith in and who really came along," said USA Cycling coach Mike Sayers. "We put him in all the tough races and we asked him to do all the things that he wasn't super comfortable doing. Then we gave him a lot of support on the leadership side, and he just kind of quietly came a long way."
Despite his long journey to LottoNL-Jumbo, Vermeulen's name isn't one that's likely to pop up in casual conversations among American pro cycling fans, so news that he signed with the WorldTour team came as a bit of a surprise. The European-based BMC U23 team races mostly in Europe, and Vermeulen lacked the cache of having a big result in a major US race. A broken wrist suffered in a July crash wiped out his major targets this year at Tour de l'Avenir and U23 Worlds.
Rather than relying on splashy high-profile results to propel him to cycling's top level, Sayers said, Vermeulen paved his way to the WorldTour with a strong work ethic, consistent development and a mature attitude.
"It's great for guys like that, because you don't have to be the junior superstar to be able to make it to the next level," Sayers said. "I think you just have to consistently be willing to do what Alexey did, which is listen to people and take advice, put his ego on the shelf and do what was necessary within the confines of his trade team and the national team."
From elite amateur to the WorldTour
Vermeulen had a lot of room for development after his admittedly poor performance during his first year at the U23 level. In 2014, however, Vermeulen started finding his niche in the espoirs peloton, finishing sixth at Course de la Paix, 17th at the Giro Valle d'Aosta and 29th at Tour de l'Avenir, which he considered a learning experience.
This year, Vermeulen was seventh in the Ronde de l’Isard, followed by second in the US under-23 time trial and fourth in the road race. He climbed to 12th overall at the Valle d'Aosta in July and appeared to be on target for his goal of a top GC finish at the Tour de l'Avenir in August.
Those plans were scuttled, however, when he crashed in July's Trofeo Almar and broke the scaphoid in his left wrist, requiring surgery and nearly two months away from competition in the heart of the season and the crucial build up toward the Richmond World Championships. Vermeulen returned for the Reading 120 in early September, but his 39th place wasn't enough to earn a spot on the Worlds team, effectively ending his season.
"His crash in July really was devastating to all of us because I had built the l'Avenir team around him," Sayers said. "He was going to be the leader, the very distinct leader at l'Avenir this year. We had all really targeted that as his success story of the season, so when we lost him it was really tough. But his maturity level really impressed me the most. He understood the landscape. I gave him a chance to try and fight back [for a spot on the Worlds team], but we just kind of ran out of time."
Missing the first World Championships in the US in nearly 30 years was disappointing, but knowing he had a WorldTour contract in hand certainly helped ease the pain. Vermeulen said he started emailing with the team not long after he broke his wrist, and he was encouraged when news of his injury didn't seem to slow them down. His performance at Valle d'Aosta, a tremendously difficult Italian stage race that features 55,000 feet of climbing over five days, was enough to convince Lotto to sign him up. He shined on the Queen stage in miserable conditions, finishing sixth.
"It was nearly six hours, which is pretty big for U23s, and there were more than 4,000 meters of climbing," Vermeulen said. "It was pissing rain the whole day. I think that was probably one of the days where they saw something."
Sayers said the Dutch team was looking for a young American to add to the roster, and Vermeulen apparently impressed the LottoNL-Jumbo coaches after an initial introduction from USA Cycling coach Jim Miller. A few months later and the two-year deal was done. Vermeulen will move to Europe early next year, living throughout the season in a Girona apartment with veteran WorldTour rider Peter Stetina.
Vermeulen's natural climbing abilities, big endurance engine and hugely improved time trial skills bode well for his aspirations to develop into a general classification rider at this level, a vision he says LottoNL-Jumbo shares. But first he's got to adapt to the much bigger pond he'll be swimming in next year.
"I think next year will be a lot of drinking from a fire hose," he said. "It's going to be a very big learning experience. I don't really know my schedule so I don't have any performance goals yet. But I think one of the biggest goals is to find myself a niche in that peloton."