Alexey Vermeulen was always an active kid. Growing in Dexter, Mich., he spent time playing ice hockey and soccer, swimming with his brothers, and biking with his parents. “When I was 10 years old, my mom was doing triathlons and I decided to join her for fun, starting with kids’ triathlons and moving up to Olympic distances,” explains Vermeulen, 27. “I enjoyed the running and the cycling, but I did not enjoy the swimming as much. And although I liked cycling, that event didn’t start a fire within me — though I do recall loving the feeling of going fast and being able to see places while riding.”
That spark grew slowly and as he began biking with his grandfather — or “Opa,” as he lovingly referred to him — who rode bikes semi-professionally in Holland. “I was inspired by his passion for the bike,” recalls Vermeulen. “One time I rode more than 30 miles with him and my dad. He would place his hand on my back when I started to get weary. I was only 12 then.”
That was a common occurrence when riding with his Opa. “I could be completely exhausted, barely pedaling, and he’d motivate me home,” says Vermeulen. “I would start to fall back, and I’d feel a hand on me. He’d push me, I’d pedal as hard as I could for 15 to 30 seconds, then I’d fall back into his hand and repeat again. My Opa passed away before he was able to see my bike career progress, but he has still been with me throughout my career — in my heart.”
Despite his grandfather’s influence and encouragement, it took a while longer for Vermeulen to fully commit to cycling. “I was a decent runner, so I pursued cross country,” he says. “I was good enough that I thought I had a shot to get a scholarship at a big school. But I also entered a few cycling races, too.”
Those bike races took Vermeulen to states like New York and Vermont, and his family used them as opportunities to turn a race into a road-trip vacation. “The places we went weren’t super far, but it was different from what all my friends were doing on the weekends,” says Vermeulen. “I fell in love with the travel and the journey that cycling provided me.”
In 2011, during his sophomore year of high school, things began to change when Vermeulen competed in the USA Road National Championships for his age group in Augusta, Ga. — and won. “I think that was the moment it was clear to me that I could do this seriously. It also gave me the chance to go to Europe for the first time to compete,” he says.
But there was one obstacle to the overseas adventure: high school. “I was 16, and I remember convincing my principal that it was a good idea for me to spend three weeks in Europe,” Vermeulen says. “I promised him I would learn about life during that experience.”
Three weeks turned into almost two months. Vermeulen’s European trip ended with placing 56th out of 146 riders at the World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark. “In that moment, I decided that I wanted to pursue cycling and see how far it could take me,” recalls Vermeulen. “And on the side, it was fun bringing home crazy stories to tell my friends.”
Vermeulen worked with the school to find a way to take his classes but also have the flexibility to travel to Europe so he could compete. “I needed to continue competing in Europe,” says Vermeulen. “That’s where the best racers were.”
The principal let him take online classes when he was traveling, and always reserved a seat for him in the classroom when he was there to attend in person. “When I returned from traveling, I could walk right into orchestra class like nothing happened,” he says. “It allowed me to still feel like a high school kid. I would be riding in Europe and then come back and run cross country at my school and be with my classmates. It was incredible.”
As high school concluded and Vermeulen turned 18, he also turned professional, which meant he could start making money for riding. “I had contract offers on the table,” says Vermeulen. “I accepted a contract with BMC Development Team and rode with them for three years.”
Photo by Wil Matthews
During this time, he lived and competed in Europe, achieving accomplishments that included placing sixth overall in the Course de la Paix U23 and seventh overall in the Ronde de I’Isard. He also raced in multiple rides as a National Road Championship team member.
“Then when I was 21 years old, I signed with the UCI World Tour, which is the highest level of cycling,” says Vermeulen. “For context, it’s like the level of the Tour de France, or competing at the NFL or NBA level.”
Then in 2019, feeling like something was missing in his life, Vermeulen made the decision to move back to the United States and shift from solely road riding to also competing on gravel and mountain biking professionally. “I enjoyed the community, the growth, and the things that came along with them when I was competing at that highest level, but there were also a lot of barriers,” Vermeulen says. “To be an A-plus-winning athlete, I think there’s a part of you that has to put away caring for others. But there’s also this other weird side to it where it’s only the ones who are winning everything who can make a positive impact.”
Photo by Wil Matthews
Vermeulen realized he had dreams that weren’t all on the bike. “I always wanted to make a difference in others’ lives, and I couldn’t make the positive impact I wanted,” he says. “I wanted to be on the other side of those barriers. Racing in the United States, like in gravel and mountain-biking races, it’s much more inclusive. I could be on the same starting line as someone who is brand-new to racing bikes.”
So, in 2020, Vermeulen worked at a few road races in his hometown. Shortly after, he connected with Ryan Petry at a skills camp in Boulder, Colo. in 2019, and they became friends. Petry is a professional mountain biker. Together they had the idea to create From the Ground Up, a yearly project that guides and documents the journey of three riders with little to no experience in cycling as they prepare to take on the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, one of the most difficult cycling events in the nation. (The Leadville Race Series is owned and operated by Life Time.)
It was through this initiative that Vermeulen found that missing “something” he was looking for: a confluence of what he loved about the sport — cycling, community, growth, and journey — but with even more added meaning.
We spoke with Vermeulen to learn more about the From the Ground Up project.
Q&A With Alexey Vermeulen
Life Time Editorial | What inspired you to start From the Ground Up?
Alexey Vermeulen | After leaving Europe in 2019, I wanted to come back to the United States and do all these grand gestures. I wanted to impact the community — but that’s something that’s very easy to say and hard to do when you’re also racing.
Fast forward, we all know what happened with COVID-19, and suddenly people were getting on their bikes as a way to exercise or simply because they were in need of mental sanity, not necessarily for the sport of it. I asked myself, “How do I reach this new group of riders?” And that’s essentially how the idea for From the Ground Up was born.
I was on a 300-mile ride with a friend, Ryan Petry, and we had hours to talk about nothing. We come from different sides of the sport — he came from triathlons — and we dreamt up this movement. We had grandiose ideas of how to fix a problem that has a history way longer than either of us: the education of the sport.
The biggest issue in cycling is accessibility and intimidation. Everyone you see racing competitively is on some $10,000 bike and goes three times the average person’s speed.
Our goal was to find amateurs who we could educate and hopefully help them take on something bigger — like riding the Leadville Trail 100 MTB— and then they could then turn around and do the same teaching to others.
And it worked better than we ever thought it would.
LTE | How did you start the first season?
AL | The first project was in 2021. We posted a call to action online and explained our mission. Basically, we said that there’s this big race called Leadville, and if you’re crazy enough to train with us for six months, send us a video to apply.
We thought there would be 100, maybe 200 applications. We had 1,200 applications. We spent hours going through every applicant; picking just three people was the hardest part.
The second project comes out in October of this year and are planning for our third project next year.
LTE | What is the training process like for the three participants?
AL | Leadville is really hard. I knew I had to make training fun and interesting and hope that people would leave this process wanting to take on more — whether that’s on the bike or off it. I learned that Leadville is a great goal to focus on, and the journey to getting there is awesome. However, for applicants, it’s probably the hardest thing they’ve signed up for and put themselves through.
It’s almost like a social experiment. First, we accept their application at the beginning of the year. Then, in March, we fly to their homes to film the first episode. We drop off all the equipment — we give them a bike and other things they’ll need — and set them up with a training program, a skills coach, and a sport psychologist.
In April or May, we do an in-person skills camp in Bentonville, Ark. They attend Camp of Champions for more training, which occurs six weeks before Leadville where they get the chance to pre-ride the course.
LTE | How has this process been for you?
AL | You get into these moments when you see someone overcome a crash on their bike or accomplish goals that they set for themselves, and that’s been amazing to see. It’s in those moments off-camera when you have conversations that no one sees or gives you praise for —those feel amazing.
This project has been very rewarding in my career. People have asked me if I’d rather win Leadville or see all three of the athletes we train finish, and I would say see all three finish every time.