Kevin Vermaerke (18) wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège U23
Updated: Apr 6
Two, three, no four weeks ago, the Young Peloton went to the coal mine of Blegny. The new finish of Liège-Bastogne-Liège was located there, so your editor took his bike on the train from Bruges to Liège-Guillemins. The day offered wonderful sunshine and hot temperatures, which made the bike ride from Liège to Blegny along the Meuse river all the more pleasant. But enough about your editor’s journey, the real protagonists of the 20th of April were American Kevin Vermaerke (Berman Hagens Axeon – 18 years old), Belgian Viktor Verschaeve (Lotto-Soudal – 20) and Norwegian Tobias Foss (Uno-X – 21). They were the strongest riders of the day and decided the race in the sprint. The American Vermaerke could just pass the Belgian Verschaeve at the finish line, Norwegian Foss came third. We spoke to them after the finish.
Kevin Vermaerke – winner
What a surprise winner you are, as you were one of the youngest riders (18 years and 6 months) in the U23 peloton.
“Yeah, exactly. Actually, coming into the season I had no idea what to expect from the U23 level. But there are amazing teammates on my team Hagens Berman Axeon. I can learn from some of the best U23’s in the world. We came with a strong team today, every one of us could have won.”
What were the team tactics for today? Was there a designated leader?
“No, everyone had their chance. My teammate Ian Garrison [Michael Garrison's brother - Ed.] went into the early break. When the break was reeled back in there were still five other guys of our team in the forty-rider bunch. We kept following moves. Then three guys got away with 20K to go. [Tobias Foss, Viktor Verschaeve who bridged to early break rider Theo Nonnez – Ed.] We missed that move, so on a short climb I tried to bridge the 40 second gap and succeeded. With 2K to go, one of the guys [Nonnez - Ed.] got dropped and we would sprint for victory.”
You probably knew you had a good sprint. You already won a sprint stage at the Redlands Classic early this season.
“I knew that especially in these tough races, I have a good sprint. So I just waited for the sprint, and started in the last wheel. The others weren’t sure who I was, so that helped me in the final. I was able to skip a few pulls and could start the sprint from the back. I could barely come around him [Verschaeve - Ed.], but won.”
Was it an advantage that you hadn’t raced with the two guys before?
“Yes. When you know you’re on the front with a really strong rider, it messes with your mind. I didn’t know them, I only knew they were on strong teams so I didn't think too much about it.”
You seem to cope well with shifting categories, winning at your first appearance in Liège-Bastogne-Liège U23.
“In the junior races, I was always near the front but I wasn’t always winning. So this is a great feeling.”
Last year you had some really good results, especially in hilly races. You even finished in the top ten at the World Championships, even though the parcours was quite mountainous.
“I’m still trying to figure out what kind of rider I am. Hopefully I’ll figure that out in the next years.”
I imagine it’s hard to live in Europe and be on far away from home on a completely new team. Is there anyone on the team that you knew from before?
“My teammate Sean Quinn, who has had a good start of the season. We’ve been on the same team since we were fifteen. And we live together now, so it’s nice to have that close friendship.”
Viktor Verschaeve – Second
You were immediately on the wheel of Tobias Foss when he attacked. How did the decisive move happen?
“We rode away while my teammate Brent Van Moer was pulled at the front. I was sitting in third or fourth position, Foss in second position. Foss went, and I immediately felt he gave his all with the attack was strong. I knew I had to follow.”
At first, the break only consisted of you, Foss and Nonnez.
“Only me and Foss took turns, Nonnez had been in the early breakaway. Then I saw the Hagens Axeon Berman guy coming. I was already pretty on the limit, so I didn’t want to give it my all to prevent him from joining us. I thought that after the effort, he would be happy with the third place, as I rode Circuite des Ardennes last week and none of Hagens Axeon Berman really impressed there.”
What did you think when Kevin Vermaerke joined the group?
“I had read something about him on Cyclingnews earlier this year. First I didn’t know it was him, but when I heard someone shout “Kevin!” on the side of the road, I did. But as he had bridged the gap to our group, I thought he wouldn’t have a lot left in his tank. Then Foss let him skip some turns, but not me.”
How did your sprint go? The finish was a close-call, but you just missed out on the win.
“It’s stupid that I didn’t know Vermaerke was that fast. We did a standstill before the sprint and I hadn’t even gone to my top speed at the finish, when Vermaerke passed me. I wouldn’t say I went too early. The difference was only half a wheel.”
Maybe you were looking too much at Tobias Foss.
“I knew Foss would be the man to watch out for today. I could only stay in his wheel when it went uphill, he was just too strong. He was without any doubt the strongest rider of the day.”
Were you planning on an attack?
“I actually thought about attacking in the descend. Nobody seems to look on their Garmin to see how the corners go, so back in the peloton, I sometimes suddenly had a gap. I always saw on my Garmin where you could take a corner without braking. So I wanted to go on top of the last climb and do something with the descend, but Foss already attacked. Vermaerke didn't follow, he was a few metres behind, but we let him come back."
This was a one day race, your specialty?
“Yes, I can sometimes be 110% at a one day race. For example last year at the European Championships, when I was in the decisive breakaway and I rode into a hole. My derailleur went into my wheel and I fell. Without falling, I would have made the podium. I was in the front group with five other riders and took Pogačar with me in my fall. On that day, I knew that no-one would would drop me on the climbs. It’s easy to say that afterwards of course, so with today’s result I know I can prove that. Hirschi won from that same break."
At what other days have you had a superform?
“Last year in Liège. I was in a group of five that was on the way to catch the early break. But there was a slippy oil stain in a corner, so I went down. Behind me, other riders fell as well. Then the week after at the Tour de la Mirabelle I wore the yellow jersey and finished second in the GC.”
You also did valuable work for fellow Belgian Bjorg Lambrecht at the World Championships in Innsbrück.
“Bjorg is a world tour rider, so I knew he could ride one kilometre an hour faster. But after today’s race, I’m happy everyone knows me.”
This year, you’re also going to Tour de l’Avenir for a good result. Do you think you’re enough of a climber?
“I always used to think I was more of a puncher, but I weigh only 60 kilograms. I am confident now though: every year Lotto-Soudal does a test time trial uphill on the climb Ballon d’Alsace. Wellens, Lambrecht and other climbers have given their best shot there. I broke Lambrechts record by 30 seconds, so now I know I can climb.” (laughs)
Are you feeling confident about going to the Tour de l’Avenir?
“I’m a bit afraid, to be honest. Sometimes I have really bad days, maybe that’s just something in my head.”
This year you made the transfer from EFC-L&R-Vulsteke to the biggest Belgian U23 formation: Lotto-Soudal U23. What is the biggest difference?
“Today, Lotto-Soudal dropped Pidcock and others by going full gas on the climbs. EFC wouldn't have been able to do that. Today, I saw that my teammate Ilan Van Wilder started to feel tired, so I asked him to go all out one more time at the front of the peloton. Van Moer and Van Gils did exactly the same.”
Tobias Foss – Third
Tobias, what happened in the sprint?
“I’m not a good sprinter when I have to start from standing still, and that's what we did. I prefer a long and fast sprint. It is what it is, the two guys were faster than me.”
Verschaeve told me that you were really strong. When you made your move on one of the climbs, you were going all out and only he followed your wheel.
“I felt really strong. I saw the breakaway was just ahead of us, so I did a move.”
Only one rider was able to bridge the gap to your group: Kevin Vermaerke, riding in the Hagens Axeon Berman colours. Did you expect someone would come across?
“It was a really strong move. I think the strongest guy won today.”
I just heard you were the strongest?
“I was probably the strongest in the breakaway. But to be able to bridge the gap on his own and beat us in the sprint... It’s impressive.”
How big was the gap that he bridged?
I heard Viktor talk about a moment where you shouted at him in the descend because he didn’t ride hard enough and he told you he only weighed 60 kilograms.
“I told him: I only weigh 60 as well!”
And it’s true?
“No, it’s not true. I’m far from 60 kilograms. I’m around 75.” (laughs)
You wanted to make him work more?
“I understand that it’s easier for me in the downhill, but when you’re in the breakaway, you have to do your part. He's a nice guy, so it was a little joke.”
75 kilograms is not exactly skinny for a climber who has finished seventh and eighth in the Tour de l’Avenir. Do you weigh less when you go to those races?
“I’m working on my diet right now, so I eat healthy.” (at the moment he is eating a salmon sandwich)
With which intentions did you go to Liège?
“Actually, I was pretty tired. This is my last race of the spring season. But at the end of the race, I felt good. It’s nice to finish off the spring season with a good result.”
Your list of results in big races is incredible, but when was the last time you won?
“In my first year as an U23, in 2016 when I won a Norwegian Cup. I don’t win a lot, but I focus on the biggest races of the calendar.”
When I hear from the others how strong you were, I imagine you are a rouleur, someone who can ride fast for a long time.
“That’s right. My specialty is doing long climbs, so I’m looking forward to that. Now I’ll stay a bit at home and then I have to prepare for the Peace Race.”
The hills of the Peace Race might be more of your specialty?
“Yeah, definitely more than the Flemish hills. Those are a bit too short for me.”
Even with your weight, your performance is better on the real mountain tops? I remember Roman Kreuziger weighed 69 and was 1 metre 83 in the most successful years of his GC riding.
“Yeah yeah, I have the power and the speed. In the future I can go to 70, but not yet.”
By next time, I hope I will have improved on my Norwegian, then we’ll do the whole interview in Norwegian.
“Actually, I’m studying Dutch with Duolingo, so that’s another option.” (smiles while the editor thinks about Foss's training camp with Jumbo - Visma last winter, is there a transfer in the make?)
Your team Uno-x wants to make the step to pro continental next year. Would you stay in the team if that happens?
“I’ll have to wait and see. I hope I’ll take the step to the World Tour, but we’ll see about that.”