Tour of Utah: Vermaerke looking past Powder Mountain to puncheur stages

Kevin Vermaerke has already put together an inaugural U23 season that would be the envy of any of his peers, having picked off the Liège-Bastogne-Liège jewel early in the season at age 18.

But the Hagens Berman Axeon rider isn't resting on his laurels from April, instead he's focused on adding more lines on his palmares before he turns 19 in October.

"There's always something bigger and better you can do," he told Cyclingnews before the start of stage 1 at the Tour of Utah on Tuesday. "So I'll just keep working and keep trying, and we'll see. Hopefully, there are a few more big goals coming up this year."

The next goal on Vermaerke's list is the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, where Vermaerke is currently 17th overall, 28 seconds behind race leader Lawson Craddock (EF Education First). Vermaerke's Portuguese teammate João Almeida is currently second overall, six seconds back.

"In this race, I'm trying to go for the GC, so we'll see how I get on there," he said. "In particular, stages 3 and 5 really suit me. I'll be trying to go for those. The shorter, punchy climbs suit me. Both have climbs around 8, 10, 15 minutes, which is a perfect length for me.

"The team has been in Park City the last few weeks at altitude, so I feel good at altitude. I'm hoping I can do something there."

Wednesday's stage to the summit of Powder Mountain may not suit Vermaerke's skillset perfectly, but he's hoping for a strong enough ride on the mountain to stay in contention for the yellow jersey until he can hit out on the stages that favour him better.

But no matter his results in Utah or beyond, his jump into the next level of racing has already been a great success. Before Vermaerke stormed to his win in Belgium at Liège, he took a stage and second overall at the Redlands Bicycle Classic.

Vermaerke took the lead at the USA Cycling Pro Road Tour opener on the second day with a stage win, then held yellow through the final day, the Sunset Loop Road Race, where the majority of his team went down in a freak crash and ceded the overall victory to Cory Lockwood, who went on to win the US amateur time trial title.

"It's been a great season," Vermaerke said. "I'm 18 and was in the juniors last year, so it's been a big step up this year. [Axeon Hagens Berman manager] Axel [Merckx] put a lot of trust in me and everything went really well.

"I obviously had some good results at the beginning of the year, and then the breakthrough at Liège. That was a big confidence booster, and it's a big help for the rest of the season to carry that confidence and know that you're capable of being up there. It's some good motivation coming into races like this.

"I think it's made people more aware of me. I think before, especially with my age, I could fly under the radar a bit more. But it's all positive."

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.