Interview with Alexey Vermeulen

This article was initially posted online - March 3, 2016.  
Author: Jamie Smith

As you probably know, Alexey Vermeulen has - at the age of 21 - made the jump to a Pro Tour team this season riding with Lotto-Jumbo after spending a couple of years with BMC's development program. His 2016 campaign has already begun with his appearance at Le Samyn in Belgium on March 2nd riding in support of his teammate, Koen Bouwman. I sent him a handful of questions that he graciously took the time to answer. He gives us some great insight into how he made the jump and what the transition has meant for him.

Alexey, it was just a matter of time before you got called up to the Pro Tour. But we all figured it would be with BMC. How did your relationship with Lotto-Jumbo come to be?

After breaking my wrist in Italy, I had refocused myself on recovering to race the World Championships in Richmond. I was mentally at a mixed place. My entire year had been focused on racing strong at L’avenir. During the year I had the opportunity to stagiere with BMC for the Tour of Utah and Colorado, but I made a difficult decision to continue to focus on L’avenir and pass on that opportunity at that time. My conversations with Lotto-Jumbo started shortly after I had broken my wrist.  To be honest, I was very concerned about letting down BMC.  Similar to the stagiere decision earlier that summer, I was faced with an exciting but critical decision.  In my early conversations, it was evident they were asking the right questions.  Lotto-Jumbo had been following my U23 career, and I felt it was a good fit the more I talked to the team.  They made it clear that they believed in my potential as a GC contender and were committed to sharpen my skills. In the end I left every conversation more confident that I could make a difference on Lotto-jumbo and more excited to make the jump.   I am very blessed to have been part of two incredibly professionally managed teams that have long term vision.  

 Victories on a resume only carry you so far; one has to have the necessary power numbers to be considered at that level.  Clearly, you have those. But what other things do you think Lotto saw in you? What would you hope they saw? 

From what I hear, one of the races that impressed them was my performance at Val d’Aosta in Italy this past July. This is the hardest U23 race in the world, I believe, because of the terrain and competition. I hope they saw the way I carried myself on and off the bike. In my mind I was building fitness to win bigger and bigger races.  I always try to race respectively and I ALWAYS race to the finish line. These are small things that I have learned over the years from my dad and coach, and I think they are very important even though sometimes in the short term it may not seem to matter. 

 Your XC running certainly helped your early development. Do you think you would have been as strong a cyclist without other types of training in your background? 

This is an awesome question, and yes, I think running and cross training have played an enormous role in my progression, and they still do.  It was evident at a young age I had a gift of endurance.  I would always have my best results at hockey in the 3rd period and could make up a lot of time late in cross country races. Cross training is especially important in Michigan where the weather plays a role in your outdoor training options. I can ride in -20 degrees, but doing intervals and hard work in that weather is not productive, so I was forced to look for other options to accelerate my fitness. Running and hockey had a lot to do with my early success in cycling, but overall I think it really just helped me to be a more balanced and tough athlete.  I did things cyclists never do during the winter…and had to find ways to transition from cycling in order to run fall cross country races.  I also have been supplementing with weight training with Marc Mueller since I was about 14 years old when it was Heart of a Warrior (now PowerCycling). Marc has been by my side since the beginning and as my career has progressed. We have even created a couple new moves together, and I even have one named after me!  I work 2-3 times a week with Marc for about 2 hours starting in October through January if possible. We work on strengthening issues that I encountered with my body the previous year, mix weights with bodyweight, and with the indoor bike to do some of the hardest training I will do all season.  

Do your old running teammates at Dexter H.S. understand the magnitude of riding for a Pro Tour team? 

Many of the boys from the cross country team are some of my best friends.  We try to keep in touch, and whenever we are all in town we always have an annual reunion at Zingermman’s Roadhouse. In the end though, the usual question is always, “Will you be in the Tour de France this year??”  I think if I ever answer “yes” to that question then they will fully understand. 

Wednesday   2 March 2016 - While we were watching more snow ruin our riding plans, Alexey raced the rainy, windy  LeSamyn on the cobbles with some hail thrown in on Wednesday. 

Wednesday   2 March 2016 - While we were watching more snow ruin our riding plans, Alexey raced the rainy, windy  LeSamyn on the cobbles with some hail thrown in on Wednesday. 

When did you start serious preparation for the 2016 season? And how much more “elevated” or more intense did your training become when you signed with a Pro Tour team? Do you feel any additional pressure?

This past offseason was a bit more complicated with my wrist. Having to take a big break in the beginning of August and build back up in the heat of the season is not great for a professional cyclist. This September, I did not really need a break physically, but mentally I had pushed myself very hard during the recovery from my wrist, so I was happy to have a short break. The off season for me is typically more of a mental break.   I am competitive, so when I am off my bike, I am running through the woods or spending time playing hockey.  It is akin to rest days, rest doesn’t mean low activity but it does mean low intensity.

I really kicked off the preparation for my season in the beginning of November with Iceman. I usually enjoy starting training with Iceman even though it is after not riding for a few weeks. It is a punch, yet fun awakening to shock my system into hard training.  My average heart rate this year was 193bpm for over an hour! Every year is more intense.  

This year the big change has been a lot more longer rides, being that the races have some longer days of 200 km+, that is the big step that I have to make. The team understands progression and their trainers have been great in keeping the pressure low during my first season. I know what I want to do with my career and that pushes me to my intensity.  Cycling is a team sport, and you don’t want to be the guy that lets his teammates down.  

 You’ve been with the team for a few weeks now. What were your first few days like? With whom did you make quick friends?

I met most of the team for the first time at a testing session and then at the team presentation in mid-January. It was a busy and packed first couple of days in Europe for me.  I arrived and a couple days later I had VO2, lactate testing and EKG screening and more.  Everybody was speaking Dutch, and I was introduced to many new faces. When I got to Girona, (Where I am living this year), I quickly made friends with Dennis Van Winden and Robert Gesink who live here also. They helped me find my way around town and have quickly become my best Dutch friends! I also roomed with Wilco Kelderman at team camp, so I made friends with him quickly.  

What sort of activities did they do at camp to ‘mix’ the new riders with the established guys?

There were no big events to ‘mix’ riders, although earlier in December the team had a military boot camp for bonding.  It didn’t make sense to for me to fly over in December just weeks before my official move, but it is clear the team understands the importance of strong personal connections.  They have offered me Dutch tutoring to help me ‘mix’ in with the team more easily.   At the pre-season training camp, I had a week and a half to meet and talk to everyone. For the most part, everyone is relaxed, and I was able to chat and start to make genuine introductions and see different personalities.

You mentioned that you feel good about honoring your family name by going to a Dutch team. Explain what that means.

I grew up in a Dutch-American home.  I put my shoes out for Sinta Klaas on December 5th eve (Dutch Christmas) and ate large flat pancakes (pannekoken) and boercole.  It’s the small things that connect you to your heritage that you don’t know are different from your school friends.  My opa (grandfather) raced in Holland, and he gave me his books and trophies, and I identified bike racing through him. He would give me his old racing magazines, and we would talk about racers and strategy.  He rode 70km every day, and it seemed the perfect lifestyle.  As I have climbed the ladder of my career, I have always felt he is with me.  So there is a big feeling of pride to really go back to my Dutch roots, especially where I don’t have to explain how to spell Vermeulen every time someone asks for my name.

What goals did your team set for you for 2016? 

I am goal oriented, but the team is not pushing me too much this year with performance goals.  I have some hard races on schedule which will push me to test the World Tour learning curve.  That said, I would be happy to race to a top ten in the Tour of California and finish the 21 days of Vuelta a Espana (tour of Spain) in August.  I would see that as a successful Neo pro season to create a solid foundation to set goals for 2017.

What events have they charted out for you? And how will successes be measured? 

Right now my schedule stands as follows: although it is very likely to change based on how I am feeling and what happens throughout the season.

  • Volta a al Comunitat Valenciana –UCI Europe Tour; 5 days, and I finished 62nd in the general classification
  • Le Samyn – UCI Europe Tour; One day in Belgium
  • Driedaagse van (Three days of) West-Vlaanderen (Flanders) – UCI 2.1 Europe tour; 3 days
  • Catalunya – World Tour Race
  • Pais Vasco – Very Hard World Tour race
  • Fleshe Wallone – World Tour
  • Tour of Romandie – World Tour
  • Tour of California - 8 days starts in the San Diego and Finishes in Sacremento
  • US Pro Nationals – 
  • Criterium Dauphine - World tour
  • Tour of Poland -
  • Vuelta Espana – World Tour

Success will be measured by how well I complete the tasks that I am given in the races, whether that is pulling on the front, getting bottles or having a go for it. The goal is to learn the way of life in the pro peloton and have some fun along the way! 

When will it “suddenly get real” for you? 

I think the “oh shit” moment will come at Catalunya. This will be my first World Tour race ever, and the riders will be world class from every team. The best of the best will be on the start line, and there is no better way to make the cut.

Your tweets indicate that you're able to stop-and-smell-the-roses at times. I mean, most people rush through life and only realize what they’ve done after they do it. What are some of those moments that you really soak in?

Training and racing are both a physical and a mental battle.  I love the bike, but like most things you love, it makes you suffer to earn the love and commitment.  I post the sweet spots, but there is a lot of sweat in between.  I can always train better when I am happy and enjoying life, and the best way to do that is to take some time to savor the Cappuccino or take a rest day trip to the sea. Spain has provided beautiful moments that I have really loved; I am enjoying the roads and scenery. I am also a foodie, so I always enjoy trying new, unique and elaborate foods whenever I get the chance.  I also love the traveling, which can get exhausting, but at the end of the day when I look back, there is almost always a good memory from everywhere that I have gone. That is what will matter the most in 30 years. 

Tell us about your family’s support. What are some of the things they did that made it possible for you to pursue your goals? 

Everyone says this, but I really could not be where I am right now without my family. From my parents and brothers, to my Aunts, Uncles, Cousins and Grandparents, Oom (uncle) Lambert and Tante (aunt) Mia, my Dutch relatives who follow every race, and are always writing inspiring messages.  My grandparents, Deeda and grandpa as well as Great Aunt Bitsy have traveled to many of my bigger races over the past years – Green Mountain to Nationals and Worlds.  Everyone has played a part in where I am regardless of their understanding of the journey.  It really makes the journey that much more special to share it with family and friends. The support comes in so many ways, but in the end it was the countless times I worked on crazy tactics with my dad, raced around the local trails with my brothers and was consoled by close losses by my loving mother.  The support has been unending, always at my side when I have needed an extra voice or hand. I love them so much, and I think one of the hardest parts about signing this contract is that I cannot bring them along on the journey any longer. Now it is time to repay all of the support and make them proud!

Finally, let’s talk about Michigan cycling, and what it did for your development. What benchmarks or events can you look back on as “good education” in the development of Alexey Vermeulen? 

I first think of people, and then I think about key races or training situations.  Guys like Mark Lovejoy and Joe Christy, who continued to manage the Ann Arbor Velo club junior program after their boys were no longer racing, were critical in the early years of my riding.  We had a good group with James Anderson and Eddie Kelly which was so much fun.  I recall, in 2008, Mark Lovejoy encouraging me to go to Nationals in Pennsylvania.  Registration was already closed, and I only had a few races under my belt, but he knew it would be a great experience.  Paul Alman, race promoter, was never short of wisdom and encouragement. My family would hang out at the Spring Training Series all day, and I would jump onto the back of race after race.  Then there is Ray, the grandfather of Michigan cycling.  I never raced for the famous Wolverines, but I enjoyed racing against them.  Ray’s love of bike racing is amazing, and he continues to mentor racers of all ages.  

Another person who has played a major role in my career has been Lucas Wall. From the beginning of my career, he has been more than just a coach; helping me to balance my schedule between different sports and has supported me on and off the bike. Ascension in the world of cycling is not only about training as hard as you can, but about understanding what else you need to do to be successful. Lucas has been there every step of the way, and I look forward to continuing to work with him. 

Then the Michigan races…I think some of my favorites included Tour of Kensington, West Branch, Cherry Roubaix and Waterford. Tour of Kensington gave me the first feeling of finding my perfect rhythm on a climb, and it wasn’t much of a climb at all. West Branch gave me the feeling of some of my biggest wins, first with the road race and then the race where I attacked from the gun in the cat. 3 crit. Cherry Roubaix allowed me to first start to understand what a stage race was like. I fell in love with what it took off the bike to compete better on the bike. And Waterford…I have messed up time and time again on that race track. I have learned so much tactically and had so much fun over the years with the people with whom I grew up racing and with whom I raced against. I am a stronger athlete thanks to so many people from the Mitten. Whenever I succeed, I have always felt a swell in my heart when I come back and line up for a race in MI, the place it all began, on the race track of Waterford worlds and on the trails of the Potowatami. Michigan will always be my home.

Big thanks to Alexey for taking the time to provide those responses. You can follow Alexey on twitter @alexeyvermeulen  He posts a lot of lifestyle observations as well as behind the scenes stuff from Europe. 

I'm working on similar interviews with Larry Warbasse, Allie Dragoo, and more Michigan originals. Stay tuned.