The various mini pelotons in matching team kits that will swarm the coastal roads and inland hills of south-east Spain this weekend may catch a glimpse of a lone rider decked out in anonymous black. It won’t be a mere hobby cyclist to be breezed past with a polite wave, but a fellow professional pushing the pedals with the same power and ticking off intervals with the same rigour.
It will be Julien Vermote, who has spent a decade in the WorldTour but finds himself without a ride for 2021.
The 31-year-old Belgian, whose contract was not renewed by Cofidis, is clinging onto the hope he can continue his career, with the attitude that the moment he stops acting like a professional bike rider will be the moment he, well, stops being a professional bike rider.
And that means doing what all pros do at this time of year: training camp.
Vermote’s boarding pass won’t have dropped in his inbox – he had to book his flight and pay for it himself. His bike won’t be set up and waiting for him in Calpe – he’ll have to lug it through two airports and assemble it himself on the other side. There won’t be a sprawling hotel buffet awaiting him each evening – he’ll have to cook for himself in his AirBnB with supplies he bought from the local supermarket.
"You have to keep moving. If you do nothing, you definitely won’t get anywhere, and then you might regret it later," Vermote told Cyclingnews ahead of his flight to Spain on Thursday evening.
"It’s not nice. It’s a hard situation, but in the end I’m a professional and I know what to do. I’m still training because I hope I still get a chance. If you do get that chance, you have to be ready with a good level."
This two-week stint on Calpe's warm quiet roads is, in fact, the second such trip of Vermote’s winter, having spent 10 days there in December. In the meantime, he’s been back in his native Flanders, racking up the base miles on last season's race bike – which he had to buy from Cofidis – while also setting the basics straight at the fitness centre where his brother and agent run a bike-fitting service.
Back in December, he would surely have envisaged returning to Calpe, but not in these same circumstances.
"As a cyclist you’re used to doing things on your own. I’ve done camps on my own before, although it’s different doing it when you know you have a team. This is even more of an investment, because you don’t know when it will get better or turn around," Vermote said.
"I still have the same coach, who has created a training programme for the two weeks, so that’s made life easier. I still feel I have that structure and support, which helps me. If you have to organise all your training on top of everything else, it makes it really hard."
Similarly, the proliferation of pro cyclists in south-east Spain has eased that sense of loneliness. "In December I only trained alone on one day. This time it might be trickier, because most teams are doing properly organised team sessions, but there are always lots of guys in Calpe."
'I'm not done yet'
Vermote is one of several WorldTour riders still hunting a contract for this season. Some have already called off their searches and called it a career.
The Belgian spent seven years at Deceuninck-QuickStep, forging a reputation as a tireless domestique and forming a close bond with Mark Cavendish, who has tried to assist in his contract search. He followed Cavendish to Dimension Data and spent two years there – the latter being one to forget – before joining Cofidis for 2020. It was a bad year to be on a one-year contract.
"When I was told at the end of October I couldn't stay at Cofidis, I knew it would probably take a long time, but we’re already in January," he said.
"I’ve had a lot of contacts, but if you don’t have that concrete offer, you have nothing, especially in a year like this."
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly played havoc with the transfer market. CCC Team were forced to fold, Qhubeka Assos were only saved at the last minute, and even many of the more stable teams have seen their purse strings tightened.
"Teams are not all necessarily full, but the question is if they want to fill up the roster with even more riders," he said, adding that the signings that have been made are largely young neo-pros.
"That's the new strategy. If it happens in a few teams, others will copy it. But I don’t think they’re all Evenepoels or Pogačars. That has something to do with it, but it’s also COVID, a team stopping… a few things come together and make it hard."
Although this is a situation pro cyclists find themselves in perennially, it's the first time Vermote has stared unemployment in the face. He hadn't even begun to consider life away from racing, and the mental strain involved is undeniable.
"It’s hard to put a certain term for how I’m feeling about it. There are a lot of feelings around it. In the end, I can’t do a lot about it. I just have to stay motivated," he said.
"You can’t think every day about it because then… yeah… you have to keep a bit positive. But you have to be realistic also, so it’s a bit of a tough place."
Vermote hasn't set himself a deadline in his search. The delay to the start of the 2021 season, with the first race only coming on the last day of January at the GP La Marseillaise, means his situation isn't quite as critical as it usually would be at this point of the year. However, his fellow Belgian and fellow Classics rider Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, who's in the same situation, sees no hope once January turns to February.
"It’s hard if you put a date on it, and then it’s over, done. I don’t want to pick a date but I hope something is coming soon," Vermote said. "I can’t say I can really hope it’ll be done in a few days, because there’s nothing concrete or properly in the pipeline, but maybe it can go fast. You don’t know how it can go in life.
"I’m convinced about myself, that I still have value. I can still do something for a team. I’m not done yet. I still love cycling, I’m physically still OK, and I’m only 31, so I still believe I can do something in cycling."
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