Meet Alexey Vermeulen

31 Dec

Meet Alexey Vermeulen, the 26-year-old dachshund-loving former WorldTour racer turned gravel aficionado from Boulder, Colorado. Though he started his career on skinny tires, he traded his standings in the WorldTour for dirt and knobby tires in 2018. But he doesn’t just ride bikes: He inspires others to try their hand at racing, thanks to his latest project, From the Ground Up. He joins Jukebox with a full schedule for 2022, including the Life Time Grand Prix six-race series and two big events for From the Ground Up… plus some road racing, because despite doing many of his training miles with a dachshund on his back, he still has a need for speed. 

For 2022, your main focus will be the six races in the Life Time Grand Prix series: How are you feeling about getting in? 

I feel like everyone I've talked to, myself included, is just very excited. But we’re also trying to figure out how to make it all work. It’s great for the sport of gravel: you guarantee that there will be big names at all of these races. I think that allows other people who are trying to plan their seasons to pick some of these races knowing that some of the big names will be there. I think it's kind of what cycling in the US is missing, that excitement and loyalty to certain racers,  not just the sport. If you look at F1 racing, for example, this past weekend at World Championships, everyone was angry or happy with the result, but no matter how you felt, you had an opinion. I think the Grand Prix will bring that sense of excitement and community to the sport. And I’m looking forward to that traveling community aspect. Before this, there was no sense of cohesion as far as who was racing where. So it's nice that it's forcing a grouping in a sense, where you know who you can expect at these events.

Let’s back up: How did you get started in cycling?

My grandfather grew up in Holland and immigrated to Canada after the war, but he raced intermittently when he was in the Netherlands. When I was 12, we went out for a ride. At that point, my mom was doing triathlons and I did kid triathlons, but like any bike racer, I hated swimming. So my grandfather and I went on this ride, and I have this memorable moment of bonking super hard, but he just kept pushing me—literally pushing me—for probably 40 miles of the 60 mile ride. I just fell in love with the travel that comes with cycling, where you get to go see places and be around nature. I was running cross country and playing hockey and playing soccer, and in those, we didn't get to explore outside of a certain area. So by the time I was 15, I knew cycling was it for me. My parents got me a coach, I started riding my bike more and dropped the other sports. I wouldn't say I was completely focused, but I was having fun with the bike. Then, when I was 16, I won US Road Nationals for my age group. I think that was the moment that it was clear to me that I could do this seriously. I got to go to Europe that year for two months with USA Cycling, ended up going to World Championships in Copenhagen, watching Cancellara and Cavendish duke it out. By then, I was starting to think about what I would do after high school—Where's this going? What's my next step? What's the goal here? 

It’s hard to jump from junior racing to racing as an adult: How did you make that post-high school leap? 

Part of it was convincing my parents that it was okay for me to go race instead of going to college. I wanted a contract with BMC more than anything. So the agreement we came to was that I had to apply to all the colleges that I would consider going to, but if I signed a cycling contract that actually had cash, I could defer college for a year. I did, and continued to do so. My career on the road kept growing: 2013 was my first year on the BMC development team, I spent most of my time in Europe, and in my third year of racing, I signed with LottoNL-Jumbo and raced WorldTour for a couple years.

What changed in 2018 to make you leave pro road racing? 

Disenchanted always feels like the wrong word. But there were a lot of things about road cycling that were backwards to me. I had the whole shebang: I had agents talking about next year and contracts. But I wasn’t feeling good about it. I wanted to figure out what the next step was. For me, I wanted to actually be involved in the community instead of just being between a set of barriers or in a bus. So that's when I moved to dirt: I came back to the US and started racing gravel and mountain bikes. I had grandiose ideas that I wanted to eventually go back to the World Cup level of mountain biking. I wanted that challenge. On the road, you get to a point where you make such small jumps each year. I felt like in road cycling, I knew exactly what I was going to do for the next 10 years if I stayed on that path. But mountain biking was so batshit crazy that I had no idea what I was getting into. When I moved, it blew my mind that in a corner on a road bike, you don't want to slide, but on a mountain bike, you do want to slide. I loved the challenge. I had an idea that I wanted to follow this World Cup path, but somewhere along the line, I realized that the fun of cycling was the interaction with the community. In the pro MTB circuit, I was just getting into a dirt version of what I had done on the road. But in gravel… I saw that there was something really cool happening here in North America right now.

That decision couldn’t have been easy, choosing the more challenging, less traveled path!

I went from being pretty high up in the tax bracket for my age to making minimum wage again. But it was the right choice and it’s paid off: Last year, I finished fourth at National Championships on the road. I had this flood of messages from people asking if I was going back to the road, but for me, it was the exact opposite feeling. It was a validation that what I'm doing is working, that I can be as good as I was and enjoy it more. I was finally turning that corner to making this into my career. It was scary, but I do enjoy the logistical side, dealing with my own planning and having those sponsor relationships myself without a manager in the middle. 

What was the highlight of last season for you?

I’ll be honest, I had a lot of lower moments in this season, but that’s how it goes, especially in gravel. I think I flatted  seven times at Unbound, which isn't a unique story at this point. I also flatted out of a three-man break at Belgian Waffle Ride in California. But I also took three riders to Leadville, riders who had never ridden a bike before, which is exactly what I always wanted to do and talked about doing. Being a part of a community is something that you can talk about easily, but it's hard to do. It's been cool to see that come together. But with my own racing, I have very high standards for myself. If I'm honest, it was a middle of the road year for me with racing—there were no big wow moments. This year!

Part of your season was centered around your project, From the Ground Up, taking three new riders to Leadville. Can you explain what that looked like?

At the start of COVID, my friend Ryan Petry and I were doing this big ride from Boulder to Crested Butte in Colorado. We were debating how you could still be a value to a partner when there are no races. Companies had always seen events as the only thing athletes do. And athletes have always seen events as the only way to be valuable to a company. So all of a sudden, we are in a very backward situation where that’s not an option. We started thinking about how you make an impact on the wave of people moving into the sport, especially as a professional racer. I don't know anyone who gets on a bike and starts riding, then gets passed by a pro on the road and feels good about it. New riders don't associate themselves with pro racers. But we wanted to see if we could help three people succeed in cycling. So last year, we put out a call for people who wanted to get into riding. We had over 1200 applications, which led to a great Facebook group that brought a lot of people together to navigate this sometimes intimidating sport. And in the end, we followed three people: A decorative plaster artist from Queens, New York; a special ed teacher from Superior, Wisconsin; and an ER nurse from Boston. They had all started commuting to get exercise because their gyms closed, and wanted to see what they could do. We helped connect them with bikes and trainers and stuff to allow them to take on this stupidly outrageous dream of finishing the Leadville 100 with six months of training, and we followed their process. 

Why start with Leadville, one of the hardest races in the country? 

We decided on the Leadville 100 because it's Leadville 100! The way that we believe that you can grow cycling and grow the fan base is by getting outside of the cycling industry. And you can’t do that targeting a small local event, you have to go big. And that’s Leadville. I knew that there was a slim chance of someone actually finishing the race, but the goal was for them to have the appetite to come back and to want to do it again. We filmed this series of six episodes about the journey, only to get to the end and find that none of them finished Leadville. And in that moment, we had finished Leadville ourselves and then we heard that none of the three athletes made the time cut. At first, we were like, ‘Oh shit, how does it end?’ But then, we watched the footage. Watching those three riders react to finishing 45 miles of the Leadville course is the most intoxicating thing I've seen. They are running down, high fiving people, they're stoked to finish 45 miles at 10,000 feet of altitude. They aren’t upset they didn’t do 100. It felt amazing to realize that from their perspective, they had basically won. 

Watch the video

How do you balance all of these projects and programs you’re doing?

If you're a professional road cyclist, you don't have the ability to do this. That’s what I was missing. I’ve been lucky to have my friend Ryan to work with on the From the Ground Up project, and my childhood friend Avery, who moved to Boulder right when I did, to help with all the photo and video stuff. It’s also just down to timing, and accepting that some races, you're not going to be at your peak. In some ways, it's easier this year. I'm going into it knowing what it's going to take to do these projects. We’re doing From the Ground Up again at Leadville and Unbound, so I know Leadville is going to be three 14 hour days leading up to the event. This year, I finished ninth at Leadville. I don't know that I've ever been more happy to finish ninth place in my entire life, because of how much I’d put in ahead of that event for From the Ground Up. I can do everything I can, but I won’t be able to be on my A game in the race. I need to be okay with that, and know that I’m adding value through the project, not my racing there. There's a benefit to helping the people around you. I’ve had to realize that racing can be my top priority, but isn't always the number one priority and that's okay. Sure, I want to race at my best all the time. But the way this works and is actually more fun is to find that middle line where I can really hit a deliverable for a sponsor, and then go race… And be good at both.

You have a very Internet-famous dachshund who loves to ride with you: How did Willie become an internet sensation?

So I'll give all credit to my girlfriend Sophie on that one. She got him three months before we started dating. She's a professional triathlete, and she would go do runs during COVID and there wasn't much going on, so I would go on the bike with Willie in his backpack. Then, when we wanted to go on rides together, it worked well with her on the gravel bike and me on the mountain bike with Willie. That way, we didn't have to leave the dog at home, and he loves being on the bike. Now, he's more noticeable than I am at events. I literally got yelled at in racing in Bentonville last year in a mountain bike race and almost crashed because I tried to answer. The person yelled, “Where's the dog?” And I tried to respond, “This is a frickin’ race!” I ride carefully with him, for the record. I ride much more cautiously than I would if I was training solo. He loves being out with me, so I try to make it as safe for him as I can. 

What has you excited about racing for Jukebox?

I really like that the team embraces all different goals and disciplines, and it’s so open to developing these goals outside of just racing really fast. When I left the road, part of my goal was to establish more community, and I’ve been able to do that, and now I can in a bigger way. This isn't like it is a team but in the sense of the word a traditional word of team. It doesn't exist like that. We all have some different sponsors. We all have different events we’ll go to. But we will be at some events together, and we all get to experience cycling in the way that best fits us, which for me means blending racing with creating communities.

Molly Hurford

Author for the Jukebox Cycling Team