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Kevin Vermaerke will take aim at the Ardennes classics this year as he continues to adjust to life in Europe and competing in the WorldTour.
Vermaerke finished fifth behind solo winner and former race leader Fausto Masnada (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) on stage four, and on the queen stage to Green Mountain was ninth at the summit finish where Masnada cracked under pressure from Jan Hirt (Intermaché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), who celebrated victory – his first in six years – and took over the red jersey.
“My climbing performance I’ve been pretty happy with. I’m not a pure climber but I think with the level of field that’s here, I can hold my own,” Vermaerke said.
Speaking before the start of stage five, the 21-year-old believed Green Mountain, a 5.7km ascent which topped out at 13.5 percent, would be a good test and at the end of the 150.5km race through high, sheer rock mountains it was one he passed.
“I paced the climb really well. I backed off in the beginning and then was able to catch a few guys in the end,” he said.
“It was actually a pretty hectic stage. About halfway through it was super windy and we picked up on it and when we took around the highway, we just went full gas and split the group; I think it was us, UAE, Wanty, all the big teams were there, but a lot of guys missed out and they had to chase pretty hard to come back.
“We had a free ride all the way to the final climb, and I think we rode it perfectly as a team. We were all really fresh coming into the final and then in the end it was a pretty steep climb, it was, ‘try not to blow up at the beginning and then pace it really well’.
“I didn’t have anything left when I got to the finish.”
Vermaerke turned professional with Team DSM last year in unique circumstances, with the COVID-19 pandemic still gripping the world and affecting race fixtures, but it hasn’t impacted too heavily on his progression as he readies to step up again this season.
“Even at the beginning of last year a couple of races were getting canceled still and it was maybe not 100 percent back to normal but I got a good mix of smaller races but also quite big WorldTour races to test myself at and see how it went,” he said.
“The level maybe I underestimated it a little bit coming from under-23s, but I didn’t have the best season last year.
“I had some sickness in August, it was a big change in training, in the beginning of the year, and it maybe didn’t work the best for me, but now, I made some changes and have a good training group within the team.
“This winter I really noticed a big step up. It helps with my confidence a lot. Finally setting more PRs and feeling really good on the bike makes a big difference.”
Vermaerke is based in Girona, Spain during the season but returns to the U.S.A. twice a year to reset in more familiar surroundings.
“I usually go back at least once during the season, so in the summer, and then in the off-season as well I go back,” he said.
“If I have a break more than three or four weeks I try and get back there. I train well there and feel much more comfortable there. It’s nice to reset a little bit and then come back over and be super focused.”
The large ex-pat community in Girona has made the transition to living and working in Europe smoother, easing the initial culture shock nearly all riders from non-traditional cycling nations feel when they relocate to the continent.
“Last year was the first year I spent I think almost half the year there and I got a lot more comfortable and found a little bit of a home there, which makes the biggest difference,” he said.
Team DSM has a reputation for highly successful rider development and is big on regular communication and planning. The approach doesn’t suit everyone but has aided Vermaerke in adjusting to the rigors of racing in and out of competition.
“It’s been really good for me, especially as a neo-pro, you do have a lot to learn and I think this team is really well designed for learning the tools of the trade, so to say, with nutrition, training, racing, traveling, getting used to everything at the WorldTour level,” he said. “It is really a big step.”
Vermaerke graduated to the WorldTour after racing as a junior with LUX and then Axel Merckx’s Hagens Berman Axeon under-23 set-up. He figures almost all Americans currently in the top tier of the sport are a product of one or the other, or both.
“Especially for Americans, there’s really not that many ways to get to the WorldTour,” he said.
“I think almost all of the Americans in the WorldTour now came through the Lux junior team run by Roy Knickman and then from there if you can graduate to Axel’s program that’s really a nice pathway for Americans to get some time In Europe and spend a lot of time there and get used to the lifestyle, but still American team and English-speaking people.
“Axel has a lot for wisdom and that set me up well for my career.”
Vermaerke has shown his climbing legs in Oman but his ability to race on instinct he believes will be a strength in the one-day meets he is targeting later this year.
“That’s why I love those one-day races because it’s pretty uncontrollable and anything can happen. A lot of the times, if you take big risks you get big rewards and that’s the kind of racing I love,” he said.
Vermaerke won’t put a number on what would constitute a successful season but if he can maintain where he is right now – in the mix and at the pointy end of races – he’ll be happy, especially in the Ardennes.
“I don’t know if I’d put a certain result as a goal, but I think, personally, I know I can be there in the final and if I can be there in the last 30-20km in front of the race and playing a part in the race instead of just being in the race that would be my goal,” he said.
“If it’s a top-10 or top-20, or maybe a late move goes up and I can get ahead of the race and then have the top guys come up to me that would be ideal, but we’ll see how it goes.
“I know if I’m at 100 percent and I have my best race I can be up there and that’s what I’m hoping for.”