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Vermote renews with Alpecin-Fenix after 'year to forget'

Julien Vermote (Alpecin-Fenix)
Julien Vermote (Alpecin-Fenix) (Image credit: Team Alpecin Fenix)

Alpecin-Fenix announced on Tuesday they have renewed their contract with 32-year-old Julien Vermote despite the Belgian not competing in a single race during the 2021 season. 

Vermote was thrown a lifeline by the ProTeam in March after he spent more than half a year searching for a contact after not being kept on by Cofidis, but a case of COVID-19 and then an infection with toxoplasmosis prevented him from racing with Alpecin-Fenix.

Vermote started his career in 2011 with the first of seven seasons with Quickstep where he worked for the team in the Classics and Grand Tours. He left for Dimension Data in 2018 then moved to Cofidis after two seasons.

In late 2020, Cofidis informed Vermote they were not going to keep him on but he was determined to find a new team. He paid his own way to Spain for two separate training camps this time last year in the hope of keeping his form and eventually landing a contract. Alpecin-Fenix came through with a deal in late March after the season was already underway.

"It's been a very strange year. First, I was without a team, but I stayed focused and always kept hoping I'd find one again," Vermote said in a team press release. "It wasn't an easy time for me as a cyclist, it's been really tough mentally because I had to continue focusing on my job. So I was very happy when I could sign a contract at Alpecin-Fenix."

Before he could race with the team, however, he ran into health problems that would keep him out of competition for the entire year.

"In May I went to Italy for a private training camp, but when I got back a few weeks later – basically race ready – it turned out I had contracted COVID-19. It was a blow, made even worse after blood tests revealed I also had toxoplasmosis. It was a bad combination. I really felt the physical consequences for quite some time. But also mentally it was tough, even harder than those months without a team," he said.

"I really hoped to be able to start racing again, but I couldn't. I've been really tired, exhausted. I didn't recover like I was supposed to. At first, I couldn't even train. After some rest I started building up training intensity again, but it didn't go well. The weeks flew by. I really hoped to be able to start racing again, but I couldn't. Then in August the team decided to let me rest and recover properly from those infections in the interest of next year."

Vermote is not the first rider to be taken ill by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii which can infect people through undercooked meat or through cat feces. Most people never have symptoms but some - especially those with weakened immune systems - can have flu-like symptoms and fatigue. Italian Fabio Felline and Colombian Jarlinson Pantano fell ill with it in 2018, and Frenchmen Jérémy Roy, Romain Feillu, Sylvain Cazati and Cyril Dessel and Spaniard Igor Astarloa have all taken time off the bike because of the parasite.

"I'm really grateful to the team for giving me the necessary time to recover," Vermote said. "It has been crucial for my preparations for the upcoming season. I needed that period of rest before resuming my training rides mid-October. I feel good again now, all is going well on our training camp. I realize my future was in the hands of the team. They have given me an extra year and I'm really thankful for that. They kept believing in my qualities and my dedication. I'm hugely grateful, that's all I can say. I don't think there are many teams that would do the same."

Vermote was disappointed to not be able to race this year but said it was the right decision to take time away and he is now well and at the team's training camp in Benicasim, Spain.

"It's nice to be here, I had been looking forward to it since August when I knew I wouldn't race this year," he said. That's a long time, but I knew December would come soon. It has been a different preparation for me so I have really been looking forward to this training camp. I'm very eager to ride with them and so happy to be part of the team again after all that I've been through. That's what matters the most. Obviously, I still have ambitions. They haven't vanished. I want to race and be of value to my teammates. I'm not doing this just to be a professional cyclist. Too much has happened for that."

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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks.