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American Vermeulen finding his place in the WorldTour

Alexey Vermeulen finds footing in the WorldTour in second year with LottoNL. The young American hopes to become a GC leader.

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When Alexey Vermeulen checked an unexpected e-mail in the summer of 2015, he thought it was a joke. The promising American all-rounder couldn’t believe his eyes as he read that Dutch WorldTour team LottoNL – Jumbo was asking if he’d be interested in joining the squad for the coming season.

“I had just broken my wrist, so I was thinking, ‘Who is playing this cruel joke on me?!’” Vermeulen told VeloNews. “I thought it was a joke, but it was real, and I kept looking into it.”

It seemed too good to be true, but it wasn’t. It turned out that LottoNL – Jumbo, home of Dutch riders Robert Gesink and Steven Kruijswijk, was looking to add a young American to its roster. Vermeulen, who was riding on the BMC Racing development team at the time, seemed to fit the bill. By the time he raced the 2015 Richmond road worlds, he was packing his bags for Europe.

“The decision came down to staying down one more year [at U23], or take the leap,” he said. “It was a really good opportunity, and I decided to go for it.”

Flash forward to 2017, and Vermeulen is reflecting on his unlikely entrée into the WorldTour. Many highly touted U.S. prospects get the call-up via the top U.S.-registered WorldTour teams — Cannondale – Drapac, BMC Racing, or Trek – Segafredo — but Vermeulen’s surprise email back in the summer of 2015 opened the door to what he hopes is a permanent home in the WorldTour ranks.

“The first part of the [2016] season I was really struggling to finish races. It was a big step for me, but by the end of the season, I was able to find my groove, and grow into my role,” he said. “It was a big step last year. Maybe it was one year too early, more so physically. Mentally I was ready, but physically, I was really struggling at the start of the season.”

When VeloNews caught up with Vermeulen at last month’s season debut at the Santos Tour Down Under, he was looking comfortable in his WorldTour kit. LottoNL – Jumbo never put pressure on its neo-pro last year, but watched with interest as he bashed his way through his rookie season. There were no wins, but he survived, learned a lot, rode to an encouraging 22nd at the Amgen Tour of California, raced 62 days, and finished off the season with the Team USA’s elite men’s road racing squad at the Doha world championships.

“They really develop young riders on this team, so I have been lucky,” he continued. “Hopefully this season I will be able to hold my own longer into the finales. That takes time. It was impressive see how they’ve worked with George Bennett, and now he’s riding for GC in the one-week stage races. That’s where I’d like to be in a few years.”

The team is certainly giving Vermeulen a quality schedule. Up next are likely starts at Abu Dhabi, Strade Bianche, Volta a Catalunya, Vuelta al País Vasco, and then into the Ardennes classics, the Tour de Romandie, the Amgen Tour of California, and maybe the Critérium du Dauphiné before returning for the U.S. nationals. And the carrot at the end of the stick might be a start at the Vuelta a España for his grand tour debut.

At 22, Vermeulen can take the long view. First, he wants to consolidate his position within the team, keep learning from the likes of Gesink, and then maybe get a crack at riding for GC in a few years’ time.

Vermeulen seems to have the right stuff to become a GC leader. At 5-foot-10 and 138 pounds, he can time trial and is improving in the mountains. In 2011, he was the U.S. junior national road race champion, and was runner up in the U23 national time trial race in 2015, and third in his first crack at the elite TT title last summer.

“The hope is to be a GC rider. You have to take it step by step,” he said. “Maybe last year was a little bit too much [in 2016], but I learned so much, and this year is all about progression, so hopefully I can get through this season even stronger, sign a new contract, and really take that next step up. I am getting so much out of doing these hard races.”

And what about being the lone American around the dinner table? His Dutch-American background helps. (His father is Dutch and raced an amateur in Europe.)

“At first, I thought it might be a little bit isolating, but I really like it,” he said. “You can play up your American stereotypes when you choose to. Sometimes it works to my advantage, sometimes not — with Trump, not so much so. It’s been fun to fall into a role where you’re a little bit more unique, and as a young rider, you get to try some different experiences.”