Just call it the Óscar Freire moment of the 21st century.
Back in 1999, a then-unknown Freire won the world championships seemingly out of nowhere. TV announcers couldn’t pronounce his name and had an even harder time even saying anything about the then-unsung Spanish champion.
Something similar happened Sunday at Paris-Roubaix.
Of course, these days, just a few clicks on a smartphone could quickly reveal a few tidbits about Florian Vermeersch.
Belgian, yep. 22, young. Six-foot-3, tall for a bike racer. He is a college student studying history and a member of his town council. Wait … what?
That’s right. At 18, he received 470 votes in the local town council election, and he earned a spot alongside the grown-ups. The town’s mayor was also lecturing him at university and encouraged him to join the local race. His grandfather was active in politics, and Vermeersch added his name to the ballot.
And it was obvious by Sunday afternoon the kid could handle himself on the cobbles.
“Afterwards, I was crying with misery,” he said on Belgian TV on Monday. “I realized I was so close.”
A national hero six hours in the making
If not a lot of people knew who Vermeersch was before Sunday, they had plenty of time to do some online sleuthing.
Vermeersch rode a near-perfect race Sunday in the six-hour race and was one of the main protagonists from start to finish. He placed into the early 30-rider move before the cobbles and followed wheels with from such veterans as Luke Rowe, Max Walscheid, and Gianni Moscon.
How about that for some #MondayMotivation? 👊
📸ASO – P. Ballet pic.twitter.com/lGiE1b7E7N
— Lotto Soudal (@Lotto_Soudal) October 4, 2021
Nils Eekhoff and Vermeersch who were the first riders to enter Arenberg forest. Later he was there with Moscon and Tom Van Asbroeck and finally was front and center when it really counted, with Mathieu van der Poel and Sonny Colbrelli.
Searches on ProCyclingStats.com were going through the roof.
“It’s a point of pride to have ridden first onto the Arenberg,” he said. “The Belgian fans were giving me wings.”
Conditions were treacherous, with overnight rain continuing into the morning, presenting the first muddy edition of Roubaix since 2001 and 2002. The cobbles were caked in mud, yet Vermeersch raced cyclocross until he committed full-time to the road at 18. Those skills paid off Sunday.
And though everyone was covered head to toe in mud, his shoes seemed pristinely white.
Who was this guy?
The latest 20-something making a splash in the WorldTour
Vermeersch wasn’t sucking wheels — something that some accused Colbrelli of doing — and he was taking his pulls and making the moves stick. He even had the gumption to try to attack with 3km to go, and opened up the sprint on the velodrome.
Youthful exuberance will do that.
It was good enough to beat van der Poel, but not Colbrelli.
“Colbrelli and Van der Poel are able to win bunch sprints so I had to go for a surprise move,” he said. “That also succeeded, as I was the first to come out of the last corner. Unfortunately, I was cramping up and Colbrelli could pass me in the final meters.”
Covered in mud — except those shoes — Vermeersch was lost in emotion in the infield at the Roubaix velodrome.
— Lotto Soudal (@Lotto_Soudal) October 3, 2021
If not many beyond Flanders knew much about him, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
After winning the U23 Belgian title in 2019, Vermeersch joined Lotto-Soudal last year in the COVID season and raced a bundle of races. So far, he’s never won a pro race, even if he did come very close to his first Sunday.
A clutch of top-10s across some big races provided clues of his motor to anyone who was paying attention.
This season, he started and finished his first grand tour, making it to Galicia to finish the Vuelta a España. He rode into a few breakaways and caused a ripple when he won a bronze medal in the U23 world time trial championships in Flanders.
Some wondered if WorldTour-level pros who’ve raced grand tours should be racing in the U23 ranks to begin with.
Just how young is he?
Vermeersch was barely a month old the last time an Italian won Paris-Roubaix, with Andrea Tafi in 1999. And he was three the last time the peloton raced in wet and muddy conditions in the “Hell of the North” in 2002.
Flash forward to 2021, the 22-year-old Belgian went to overnight hero after coming within a bike length of winning the hardest race in the world.
All three podium finishers Sunday were racing in their first edition of Roubaix.
Everyone already knew Colbrelli’s finishing speed, and van der Poel certainly doesn’t need an introduction to anyone except perhaps the most ardent of track racing fans.
Standing at 6-foot-3, Vermeersch was a giant among giants on the podium.
“At the moment, I am mainly disappointed after this second place, but I think this will soon turn to pride,” he said. “I never thought to be this close to the victory today. But a second place is also a bit sour as well.”
Winners want to win.
Don’t say the ‘B’ word
Just don’t compare him to Tom Boonen.
Of course, everyone in Belgium is already doing that.
Boonen made a Roubaix debut in equally dramatic fashion in 2002, when he was third to Johan Museeuw, who won that last Roubaix in the mud, and quickly christened Boonen as his heir apparent.
Boonen sent him a note of congratulations, but Vermeersch was not pleased when everyone else in Flanders was quick to call him the next “Tomeke.”
“I’m very sober about that,” he told Sporza. “I want to continue at my own pace. That kind of pressure is not good for anyone, and only failure will come from it. It’s not like I am suddenly going to be racing to win the classics.”
Vermeersch does seem hard-wired for the classics. His brawny build, steely resolve, and fast finishing kick gives him the tools he’ll need to shine in the future.
Two previous starts in monument racing — both DNFs in the Tour of Flanders — did not reveal his true character that came shining through Sunday.
A new star is born? He’s banking on it, but he hopes to keep both feet on the pavé, and not get caught up in the hype.
And those miraculously clean shoes?
He was wearing shoe covers when the race started but took them off when it stopped raining, and the worst of the French mud started to thicken up and dry out.
Like a pro.