DE PANNE, Belgium (VN) — Tears, frustration, and sadness. Wanty – Groupe Gobert gathered Monday in a small hotel dining room for an emotional press conference, one day after tragedy struck the small, tightly bound Belgian team.
Riders, staff, and two-dozen journalists packed into the nondescript hall that seemed wholly inappropriate for the enormity of loss and grief that engulfed the Belgian-based Professional Continental team.
Fighting through tears, veteran sport director Hilaire Van der Schueren recounted the scene that claimed the life of 25-year-old Antoine Demoitié on Sunday in a crash at Gent-Wevelgem.
“Antoine came back to the team car and asked for some water bottles,” Van der Schueren said. “Those turned out to be his last words.”
Moments later, about 150km into the Belgian classic, Demoitié went down in a pileup involving a handful of other riders. Crashes like that happen every day in just about every bike race, but a trailing motorcycle couldn’t stop in time, and despite braking, the full weight of the motorcycle fell on Demoitié.
“You could see right away, the situation was grave. At first, I thought he was dead,” said Van der Schueren, trying in vain to hold back tears. “When he was in the hands of the doctors, we held out hope, but when organizers asked me for contact details about Antoine’s family, then you know things are serious.”
Shock and disbelief
What normally is the highlight of the modest Belgian team’s season — when it races against the peloton’s elite in the one-day classics across the breadth of Belgium — has melted into the numbness and shock that comes with sudden and irrevocable loss.
A combination of circumstances added up to claim the life of a young, promising Belgian bike racer. It’s perhaps the first time a rider has died from injuries caused by an impact with a vehicle in a race caravan.
“Antoine was so happy to be on this team. He had big dreams,” said team manager Jean-Francois Bourlart. “We started as a small team, almost like a family, and we have grown and become more professional, but we are still very close. The only thing that can cure this pain will be time.”
Riders huddled in a small group at the back of the room as officials answered press inquiries.
Have you ever had to deal with something like this? Van der Schueren: “I was there when [Fabio] Casartelli died, and we’ve other incidents in cycling, but it’s never happened on my team before. This is so much more difficult to come to terms, with the horrible images that we saw of Antoine laying on the ground. That is something that will never leave me.”
Will the riders receive counseling? Van der Schueren: “Maybe. We will keep an eye on our riders and staff, and if someone needs help, they will get it.”
Are there too many motorcycles in the bunch? Press officer José Been: “We don’t want to discuss that, and this is not the right place to discuss that. This was a terrible accident, but it was an accident — we do not blame him, and it is not our place to blame him [motorcycle driver].”
Dream into nightmare
Demoitié was an up-and-coming classics rider from Belgium’s Wallonie region. In 2014, racing for an amateur team, he won the Tour de Finistere. Last year, he was second at GP Stad Zottegem and Handzame Classic. Those results got him noticed, but everyone inside the team remembered him for his enthusiasm and exuberance for racing.
“We had been following Antoine for a few years, but from early on, it was very clear that he had ambitions for the WorldTour,” Bourlart said. “Friday at Harelbeke was his first WorldTour race, and he was in breakaway, riding with the best over the bergs, and he was so proud of being there. And we were so proud of him being there for us.”
For a newcomer to a professional team, Demoitié left his mark. His enthusiasm and his optimism were infectious. He got married over the winter, and he linked up with his childhood racing buddy, Gaetan Bille. He was living the dream.
“He was always happy. He was happy because he was racing the big races,” Van der Schueren said. “I said to him Friday evening, ‘You did great, on Sunday you do the same.’ No, he said, ‘I will work for the team on Sunday’ … Antoine was a very good bike racer. He was very happy to be on the team, and everyone on the team was very happy for him.”
Re-living the nightmare
Van der Schueren has been around cycling for decades. The 68-year-old director has worked with such teams as Cycle-Collstrop, Unibet.com, and now Wanty – Groupe Gobert, directing such riders as Baden Cooke, Jo Planckaert, and Frank Vandenbroucke.
He’s seen just about everything, but he doesn’t want to see Sunday’s tragedy ever again.
According to witnesses, the driver of a UCI commissaire’s motorcycle was trailing behind the peloton, and when the crash happened, it braked, but could not stop in time. Van der Schueren said he saw the motorcycle fall on Demoitié’s neck and head.
“After getting water bottles, Antoine went back to the front of the group, and there was a small group of riders who crashed. At this moment I saw the motorcycle hit him,” Van der Schueren said, shaking his head at the memory. “A mechanic immediately jumped out of the car, and he told me that it was absolutely necessary that I should come and see him for myself. You saw him laying on the ground, and you know that it was bad, but there was hope. … Now you can say, ‘If, if, if, if you do this, if you do that.’ It was terrible.”
Frustrated with the media
Doctors later confirmed Demoitié died of head injuries, but team officials expressed frustration and anger about inaccurate media reports found online late Sunday evening.
Some outlets posted incorrect stories that Demoitié had died, but team officials said that was not only inaccurate, but also disrespectful to family and friends who were huddled in a hospital in Lille, France.
“That was very disrespectful to the family,” Van der Schueren said. “He died after midnight, so reports earlier in the evening that said that he was dead were incorrect, because at that moment, he had not died. That is very hard on his family, his wife, his parents, his friends.”
The team riders decided they were not up for racing Three Days of De Panne, set to start Tuesday. Instead, they will regroup to race Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on Sunday. Demoitié will be there in spirit.
“We decided it was not the correct moment to race and to be fighting for position because we don’t have the focus for that right now,” said Wanty rider Roy Jans. “When we come back, we want to race and focus 100 percent to get that victory for Antoine.”