In hushed, mysterious tones, Tom Steels, a man who is more than accustomed to being surrounded by the best of the best in terms of bike racers, is divulging that one of the newest recruits has piqued his interest.
“As a person and a rider I’m very curious as to how far he can get this year,” Steels says, tantalisingly scarce on the detail of exactly what Ethan Vernon has shown that has elicited such excitement. “He’s shown a lot of good skills I must say. Speed, endurance, his climbing, to be honest of all the riders we have I’m very curious as to how far he can get this year.”
21-year-old Brit Ethan Vernon is Quick-Step AlphaVinyl’s latest burgeoning star, fresh from a trip to Tokyo last summer as part of the Olympic track team before a top 10 at the Flanders Worlds in the U23 time trial, he steps up to the WorldTour with all the promise and talent of the compatriots that have come before him over the past decade or so.
“He’s very good in several disciplines of cycling,” Steels considers. “I must say as well as his sprinting and his TT, he has a profile for - maybe not this year but next year - the Flemish Classics.”
Brits have become accustomed to their compatriots claiming road cycling glory in recent years, yet there is a vacant space for a contender in the Flemish Classics.
In the conference room at the hotel in Calpe where Quick-Step are launching their 2022 season before their sponsors and the media, Ethan Vernon has shuffled into view, sporting a team-issue tracksuit alongside professional riders who in the space of a few short months he has gone from idolising to calling his team-mates.
“I still don't think it's sunk in yet,”Vernon admits. “I came back in December [at an earlier training camp] to Cavendish in my room because he joined us halfway through. Again, this time [in Calpe in January], the rooming list came out and I was with Cav and it's like...I've grown up all my life idolising this guy and now I'm sharing a room with him.
“You're sat at a table with the likes of Remco [Evenepoel] and [Julian] Alaphilippe and they're like messing around with you and stuff. Last year they were your heroes, and they still are now, but all of a sudden you're on a table with them.”
The turnaround from hopeful pro to card carrying member of the WorldTour peloton is a quick one, and is a big step for any young athlete to make.
"The first camp was really difficult actually, in that respect,” Vernon says when its brought up that treating your new Worldtour team-mates as your team-mates is something Charlie Quarterman has spoken of struggling with during his time at Trek-Segafredo. “Just like getting to know everyone and who everyone is. Obviously, I knew the big riders and stuff, but the team's so big. There are 30 riders and all the staff. So when everyone's in a big group, everyone kind of blends in and there were staff I was thinking were mechanics and they were actually doctors…everything was a little bit weird.”
But Vernon has adjusted well, throwing himself into life in the top tier, getting to know his colleagues on long training rides and acclimatising to all the help on offer now he’s part of the most successful squad on the circuit, a far cry from when he heard the news that Quick-Step wanted to bring him on board.
“I remember the first time I got told they were interested and they'd made an offer I was actually driving home from a time trial that I'd just won,” Patrick Lefevere can clearly smell victory across seas. “It was quite a high pressure moment, actually, because a couple of offers had come in around the same time and within a couple of days I had to make a decision.”
Vernon mulled it over, calling round different people to hear their thoughts on where he should go. To suddenly have all these offers on the table was a shock. But he calls the team he eventually chose “a sprinter’s dream” and after Cav’s 2021 how could he choose anywhere else?
“It was surreal,” he says of signing the contract. “My dad's always followed cycling and to speak to him about teams like this was just a dream.”
Now he’s got his new dad, Mark Cavendish. Two riders at opposing spectrums of their careers. Later that day Cavendish would talk passionately about passing on his wisom to the younger generations, returning the favour of those who laid the path for him to bend the sport to his will.
“He's taken me under his wing a bit,” Vernon says. “He's got so much experience to learn from and hear what he has to say about some of these races. He's given me lots of like, words of encouragement and stuff like that.”
Vernon’s first few races will be alongside Cavendish, he says, but exactly what his schedule looks like isn’t yet confirmed, the January trip to Argentina thwarted by Covid, he should be racing by mid-February.
“I think by the end of the year, obviously the dream, and everyone would say it, is to win a race,” Vernon says of what he hopes to achieve in his debut season. “But this first part of the season is very much about learning. Learning to ride with a team and obviously this team rides completely differently to my national team who I rode with before [and which consitutes the bulk of his road experience]. Learning race craft, stuff like that. This is the best team to be in for that, with the lead-out train they've got with Cav. So, learning first half of the season and then taking opportunities hopefully to sprint myself in the back end of the season and getting results will set me up nicely for a second year.”
Speaking of setting himself up nicely, my final question is whether as a young, successful man he’s allowed himself any extravagant purchases with his new WorldTour wage.
“No, not really…well, I bought a house so I kind of need to save money for some of the mortgage.” Just when you were already feeling inferior to what these youngsters accomplish at such a young age, they’re also financially sound of mind at a time of life when most 21-year-olds are doing doggy paddle in an ocean of bank overdraft.
“We've been paid for quite a bit by the national team and with the Olympics obviously in the last couple years.
“Obviously, I’d like a nice offseason at the end of the year. I'd rather spend my money when I can because training and race season is so stressful. It's so important to rest and recover when you can, when there are odd weeks in the calendar where there's not racing. It's nice to go away and train and have a bit of time away. So money for stuff like that…” he relents, “...there are a few cars I have my eye on but I don't think yet…it's not a good investment.”
Conversely, in just a few short months Quick-Step are already pretty sure their latest investment will already pay dividends.
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