He might be several months shy of his 21st birthday but Kevin Vermaerke has made a name for himself by winning the U23 version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and representing the United States in two World Championships.
Team DSM saw enough at a 2019 training camp to offer the youngster a contract, and after graduating from Axel Merckx’s renowned Hagens Berman Axeon team, Vermaerke is ready to make his mark on the WorldTour.
As part of our North American week on Cyclingnews, we caught up with the 20-year-old to find out how he got into cycling and what makes him tick
Cyclingnews: Let’s start at the beginning and how you got into cycling.
Kevin Vermaerke: It was down to my dad. He grew up in South Africa but his dad was Belgian. Cycling was always in the family and when my dad was a junior he went over to Belgium to race on both the road and the track. He actually went to the World Championships in Colorado Springs in 1991 and he got a silver medal in the individual pursuit, so cycling for me has always been in my blood.
During the weekends, when I was growing up, we’d go mountain biking together, and then when I was about 15 or 16 I got a road bike and started racing criteriums and getting into the mountain bike scene a bit more. My dad never pushed me to ride but bikes were something that we shared together.
CN: Who was your cycling hero growing up?
KV: It was probably Chris Froome. I remember the years around 2013 and 2014, when he started winning his Tours and that was when I was starting to get into the sport. I’d watch the Tour in the summer holidays and he was the first pro that I really looked up to. I really admire his mentality and the way he handles himself.
CN: You’ve had a very successful career so far winning the U23 version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in your first year as an under-23 rider. Is that your best result to date?
KV: I think so. That was the result that got me noticed the most. That was my first ever race as a U23 rider and the first time that felt that I’d shown what I’m capable of. I have a lot of belief in myself and what I can do but it always feels good to show that on the big stage and that was the first time I really proved myself as a rider to everyone else.
CN: How would you describe yourself as a rider? Are you an out-and-out climber or more of an all-rounder?
KV: I’m not a pure climber and I’m more of an all-rounder. That’s something that I want to discover over the next few years, and I want to try as many different races as possible so that I can see where I grow and evolve. You see guys now at 21 already in their prime, winning the Tour de France even, but I still think that I’ve got a lot of room to grow and develop.
Naturally, as I do some of the bigger races over the coming years I’ll hopefully grow and find my little niche. But I think that the Ardennes, the hard one-day races, and maybe even the one-week stage races could really suit me. I’m excited to get those experiences under my belt and see what suits me best.
CN: You spent the last couple of years on Axel Merckx’s Hagens Berman Axeon team. How important was that experience?
KV: It was an amazing experience. I went there with a teammate from my junior team, Sean Quinn, and for an American rider, there’s no better team. It’s pretty hard to come over to Europe, base yourself here, and then figure out the racing scene. On top of that, you also need to know the off-the-bike scene, which is also a big part of the sport. That’s a big transition, especially for an American rider.
Axel and the team do a great job in terms of offering support, and also providing a stepping stone for American riders who are over in Europe for an extended period of time. That team gives riders from the States the chance to grow, develop and learn how to live before taking a step into the WorldTour.
CN: What did you take from last year and the impact COVID-19 had on racing? WorldTour teams were hit hard but it was arguably worse for the U23 ranks that were fighting for contracts and saw their race calendars decimated.
KV: It was a brutal year, especially for U23 riders, who were hit hard. If you were in your last year as a U23 rider then it would have been a really tough situation to be in. Luckily in my first season at that level, I had a breakthrough year with a couple of good results and then in the off-season, I went to a couple of different team camps.
I signed with Team DSM in February and that gave me security and really helped to keep me motivated because I knew that I’d make the step up to the WorldTour in 2021, so when stuff got me down or people were lacking motivation I always knew that my goal and foundation were in place. That helped me stay focused and keep that vision. I just made sure that when racing resumed, that I was ready.
CN: What camps did you attend over the winter and how did they help you decide on which team you signed for?
KV: I went to a training camp with Sunweb, which later became Team DMS, in December of 2019, and then I visited a QuickStep camp in January of 2020. It was only my first year as an under-23 rider, so it was pretty cool to see the guys I’d watched on TV and looked up to for so long. I got a really good vibe from DSM and I like their infrastructure and the riders and staff that they have.
I knew some of the riders already because it’s such a young team and I’d actually raced against some of them in 2019. I really felt like I could see myself in that team and being at the camp was super helpful. Once I left the camp, I had a really strong desire to sign there.
CN: What are you into away from cycling?
KV: To be honest, the bike is a huge part of my life. When you come over from the US you leave behind a lot of friends and family. Even a lot of the American culture doesn’t really translate well to Europe, so the bike is definitely what drives me in life. I find both motivation and relaxation, even from training. I like to unwind as well but I’m always focused on the bigger picture.
When it comes to relaxing though I do like to chat to friends back home, maybe I’ll stick on a movie, and lately, I’ve really tried to dial up my cooking skills. Getting settled in Europe takes a lot and there are plenty of things to consider that you don’t really think about when you’re growing up.
CN: So what’s your go-to recipe?
KV: Yesterday I made a mushroom risotto that turned out pretty well. That’s one of my favourite foods but I’d never tried to make it on my own before. For a first try it went pretty well.
CN: Cooking with Kevin, as a series. Let’s make that happen. But back to racing and your programme, how are things shaping up?
KV: Well I’m starting on Friday with Haut Var. I was meant to start at Valenciana last week but that race was postponed. The virus is still messing up our plans, and things are a bit up in the air. I won’t know my complete schedule for a while but I’ll start with Haut Var and I’m really excited to get a race in with the new team. Hopefully, it kicks off what should be a really good season.
CN: What are your general ambitions for the season?
KV: It’s hard to say. I want to have a successful season but my number one goal is to really feel confident in my racing ability by the end of the year and that I’m comfortable in the WorldTour peloton. I want to get stronger in every race and use these races as a learning opportunity and soak up as much as I can from my teammates and other guys that I see in the races.
I’m only 20 but I’m really motivated to learn and develop. I’m going to attack every race and look for opportunities where I can shine. In my first year as a U23, I had the same mentality to just try and learn and I ended up having a really successful year.