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AL BUSTAN, Oman (VN) — Heinrich Haussler stared down at the ground, hardly raising his head, as a stillness hung over the peloton.
Around his arm and the arms of his IAM Cycling teammates were makeshift black bands, some thick, some thin, none of this planned or prepared for. Their teammate, Kristof Goddaert, age 27, was killed Tuesday after a bus struck him in Antwerp, Belgium while training.
IAM Cycling riders stood at the front of the peloton and in the shadow of the vast Omani parliament building, flanked by Belgian team Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise, one of Goddaert’s former teams.
The riders held their gaze to the ground, in sadness and respect, and the only noise was that of camera shutters snapping.
Someone began clapping, and the rest of the peloton joined in, a sort of reluctant celebration of a life and career cut short. The noise was followed by the click-clack rhythm of bike racing: cleats snapping into place, the layered buzzing of hubs. No one said anything and the field rolled away, a reminder that whatever may happen to this sport or its riders cycling always beats on.
IAM Cycling chose to keep racing today at least, but gave its riders the option to abandon.
“It’s really, really difficult. We all take it really personally. We have all different feelings about it. But we have decided now, for this stage, to honor Kristof,” IAM director Kjell Carlström told VeloNews. “He was such a positive guy and always thinking good, and being nice and positive about all the things. We think that for that it’s really important to, at least today, continue in his memory, and then the following days we will see. It’s really open for everyone in our team to chose to continue or not. They have to feel it inside if they can do it or not.”
The Belgian’s death was terribly foreshadowed five years ago in the Middle East when his Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator teammate Frederiek Nolf died in his sleep of a heart attack. Goddaert was his roommate that night in Doha, Qatar, and it was initially reported by some, a reporter here said, that it was Goddaert who had died. Five years on, the news was correct.
At the start in Oman, the entire race had its volume turned down; there was none of the usual morning laughter. Those who warmed up on nearby roads did so quietly. The Sky team all sat on a thick railing for long moments, hardly a word between them. In this hyper-connected sport, every death is one in the family, and every death is a reminder that this life is paper-thin.
Belgian Tom Boonen said he has a bottle of wine at home, slated to be consumed after the classics this season. It was the bottle of wine he was supposed to share with Goddaert.
“Accidents are always stupid,” Boonen said. “It’s always very painful when it happens close to you, especially in our sport. Since we have to deal with loss once a year almost. Kristof was a guy I really knew well and really appreciated. I just saw him last week. And we had a deal we were going to have a nice bottle of wine after the classics together. So, the bottle will be standing there, I think,” he said. “I think I will keep it.”
Asked if he would like to win Wednesday to honor his friend, Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) wasn’t sure it was even possible. “We’ll see. Right now my mind isn’t really set on racing. It would be nice if I could turn the switch,” he said.
And that’s very much it. There’s a switch that goes on and off, and it’s a fussy dial to mess with. The peloton always barrels forward because there is no other way; to slow down would be to quit, and in a sport that puts speed and risk above all, that’s a line that once crossed is hard to recover from.
“What I’ve seen in the past, cyclists have an unbelievable — they’ve just got to let it go. It’s not the first time it happened, unfortunately. I remember … we were in training camp and [Carla Swart] was killed in South Africa,” Omega Pharma-Quick Step director Brian Holm told VeloNews. “When you’re young you always think you’re a master of the universe, don’t you? You always think, like, ‘nothing can happen to me. I’m never gonna crash. I’m never going to have cancer.’ You get older, you realize none of it is true. … At the end of the day we end up nervous like old grandmas… Working with young kids, they just can’t believe something could happen to them. They’re absolutely fearless.”
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) told VeloNews there was a tough day coming, but that nothing much could be done beyond to remember Goddaert well.
“It shows again that life is short. Or, our life as cyclists, our life as normal persons, is short,” he said. “But in the end life goes on and we keep having [Goddaert] positive in our minds. That’s how it is. Of course, it’s not just when somebody dies. Just the whole thing with Kristof, what happened in Qatar a few years ago with his roommate, the whole group, Wouter [Weylandt]… there’s a whole group there. And that’s pretty harsh. Of course, one day you will have, I don’t say a ‘hangover’ day, but like, ‘what the hell am I doing here, actually?’”
But that day wasn’t this day, as the riders left town and began racing again. IAM rider Sébastian Hinault attempted to bridge to the break but was pulled back by the main field, already moving fast now, toward yet another finish line.