As professional cyclists gear up for the first races of the year, one 34-year-old rider enters 2024 with the energy of a neo-professional, Belgian Julien Vermote.
Just over a month ago, Vermote was a seriously unemployed cyclist. After all, he had been without a team for over a year, and it appeared that his quest to return to professional racing was coming to an end. But a late-season call from Merijn Zeeman at Visma-Lease A Bike offered Vermote an unexpected change of fortune, not to mention a ride with one of the world’s top teams in 2024.
“I don’t think it has happened before,” Vermote told Rouleur at the team hotel outside Alicante, Spain, where he was staying for the January training camp. “Occasionally, a guy will return to the amateur ranks for a year and re-sign with a professional team, but to basically race independently as I did for a year, I don’t think that has been done before.”
After turning professional with Quick-Step in 2011, Vermote spent nearly a decade in the WorldTour. And while he occasionally won a race, Vermote earned a solid reputation as a utility rider, capable of riding on the front for hours to control the race for his team-mates. Yet when his contract with the Alpecin-Fenix team came to an end in 2022, Vermote was suddenly unemployed.
“In June of 2022, Alpecin told me I could continue with the team in 2023 and then at the beginning of September, there was no place. But by then, it was late,” Vermote recalls regarding his sudden change of fortune. “At first, I was still hopeful to pick something up in the spring Classics, but when that didn’t work, I decided to focus on the Belgian National Championships.”
The National Championships offered him a unique opportunity to race as an independent and prove that he was still competitive with his professional colleagues. Unlike his competitors though, he would line up at the start line without the rhythm of racing in his legs. “The only races I could enter were some of the local kermesse races, but I didn’t have a choice.”
Printing his own jersey from the family bike shop, Vermote could occasionally be recognised as the one-man team Secteur in these modest races that still dot the Belgian calendar.
On race day, Vermote rode strongly, eventually finishing in the top 20. “I got 19th at nationals, and I just missed the final break,” he remembers, reflecting on his only real race in 2022. “The Championships gave me motivation and a goal. It was also a chance to prove to myself that I was still good enough, that my place was still in the pro peloton. But that said, there was nothing. It wasn’t like I knew I was going to come back a year later.”
For much of the autumn, the transfer market appeared even more bleak than that of 2022, as countless negotiations with riders were put on hold while teams like Soudal–Quick-Step and Jumbo-Lease a Bike discussed a potential mega-merger. Vermote could only wait.
“I called Merijn Zeeman (Visma's sports director) when I learned the fusion with Soudal wasn’t going to happen, but they were still waiting. He told me to call him back in 10 days. That gave me just enough hope. When I called back, there was still nothing, but I could tell I was in the conversation.”
Then, finally, in December, Maarten Wynants, one of the team’s coaches, called him back to ask if he was still interested. “I was like Maarten, I want to race!”
His response, while simple, sufficed to convince the team that he was ready to race again, and within a matter of weeks, Vermote had signed a new contract and was back in the game.
“Mostly, I’m just really grateful,” Vermote says of his new lease of life as a professional. “It was a long year. It was from September of 2022 that I was looking for a team. But I really learned how much I love to ride my bike. Not being able to do it for a living last year made me realise just how much I love it. I wasn’t being paid anymore to ride my bike, and I just still loved going out and riding my bike. If your passion is a priority in life, that’s beautiful.”
Vermote will begin his season at the Clásica Almería in Southern Spain on February 11, followed by Portugal’s Volta ao Algarve and then Strade Bianche. No Grand Tour is scheduled for the moment, but Vermote has been around long enough to know that fortunes can change quickly in cycling, for better or worse.
“I’d love to do a Grand Tour again, but we will see,” Vermote says. “I’m not taking anything for granted. I only have a one-year contract. That’s normal. But I am sure that if I prove myself, I’ll be able to ride for a couple of more years. Mostly, though, I am just grateful. I didn’t believe my story as a professional was over in 2022. And now I have a chance to prove it.”