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Wiser, motivated Vermeulen heading back to Europe with Continental team

There’s an old saying inside the peloton that the hardest contract for a young pro rider isn’t their first one, but their second.

Alexey Vermeulen found out the hard way how true that is.

The 23-year-old gratefully penned that elusive second contract this week to join Japanese-licensed Continental team Interpro Stradalli. After a tumultuous winter that saw him left without a deal for 2018, the highly touted American is keen to put his contract troubles behind him and put rubber to the road.

“I’m excited to get back to racing,” Vermeulen said. “It’s a really exciting opportunity. I just want to race again, and see if I can race at these races and be a factor.”

It’s been an emotional few months for the Michigan racer, and Vermeulen admits he’s no longer the wide-eyed wunderkind who signed a WorldTour contract as a 20-year-old.

His first two years in the pro ranks seemed to be going to plan until things went off the rails last summer with LottoNL-Jumbo. First he didn’t get the start at the Vuelta a España as was expected, and then the management was hesitant about confirming a contract extension.

Late last fall, Vermeulen got the bad news the team wasn’t going to re-up his contract for 2018. Despite initial expectations that a contract extension was in the cards, it didn’t pan out, and he was left scrambling trying to find a spot on a WorldTour team.

“I have some guys I want to prove wrong,” Vermeulen said in a telephone interview. “I have changed mentally, and I don’t take everything at face value anymore. It’s been a humbling experience. I had a pretty easy glide-through from the U23s to my pro career. I am looking at this chance to fight for a contract as a real opportunity, but sometimes the negative thoughts do creep in. It’s not always so simple.”

Vermeulen admitted he was wrought with frustration and doubt over the winter. With many WorldTour  teams shrinking their rosters across the peloton, there were not many spots to go around by autumn. He soon decided the best thing he could do was to let go of the negativity, and focus on training and living like a pro. He self-funded training camps in Florida and Arizona, and got a nibble with Interpro Stradalli in early January.

The team was expanding its European program, and wanted someone with WorldTour experience to give the team some ballast. In the end, there were two candidates for one spot: Vermeulen and Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot. When Teklehaimanot confirmed with Cofidis in February, the way was clear for Vermeulen to close the deal with the team.

“Has my self-confidence taken a hit? No. Has my perception of the other side of cycling changed? Yes,” Vermeulen said. “I struggled with seeing that political side of cycling, but I realized it wasn’t cycling I disliked. By January, I had decided I wanted to keep racing.”

Vermeulen is busy packing his bags and will fly to Europe next week. With a verbal agreement already hashed out weeks ago, the official contract was signed this week. The small but growing team offered Vermeulen just what he was looking for as he plots a return to the WorldTour. The team boasts a solid European spring calendar, with a full schedule across France, Spain and Norway that will keep him busy until heading back to home roads for the U.S. nationals in June.

“Everyone knows the best racing is in Europe,” he said. “It’s important to be at these races so you can compare yourself to other riders at that level, and give yourself a chance to show others you can race at that level.”

After wondering if his professional racing career was over before it barely started, he is grateful to be back in the peloton, even if he admits the first few races back are going to hurt.

“I was at home watching Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, and you really want to be there instead of training alone in Michigan,” he said. “It’s no secret that I want to move back up [to the WorldTour]. Now I have an opportunity to show what I can do. I want to be out there with the cool kids again.”

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