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How Kiel Reijnen found solace on the cobblestones

Kiel Reijnen lost his brother on the eve of the 2019 classics, and found solace in suffering at the Tour of Flanders

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The tears came to Kiel Reijnen as they often do these days, when he was finally alone.

Reijnen climbed aboard the Trek-Segafredo team bus in downtown Oudenaarde, his race day over at the Tour of Flanders, and stepped into the shower to scrub the salt and grime from his body. The rush of racing wore off, the deafening roar of the crowds faded. Reijnen’s thoughts drifted back to his younger brother Nash.

As the water washed over his body, Reijnen began to cry.

Nash’s death in early March at age 30 was swift and unexpected. He was killed when the work vehicle he piloted unexpectedly tipped over; a tragic moment in time that left a wife without a husband and a two-year-old son without a father. Reijnen had just returned to his home in Girona, Spain from the UAE Tour when his phone buzzed with a flurry of texts and missed phone calls.

Suddenly, his anxieties around the upcoming classics season melted away. Reijnen gathered his wife, Jordan, and his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and booked tickets back home to Bainbridge Island, Washington, to be with his mother and father. He phoned his team managers and delivered the bad news. There would be no Strade Bianche this year.

“I thought to myself, I don’t know if I’ll ever be back to Girona. I don’t know what bicycle racing will mean to me,” Reijnen says, recalling the moment. “I left everything there and had this feeling in the back of my head like I’ll never see it ever again. I saw myself potentially walking away from it.”

Reijnen was gone for several weeks, eventually returning to Girona, and then to pro cycling. He says he was lured back by the Tour of Flanders and Belgium’s one-day classics. Like the peloton’s other classics riders, Reijnen adores Flanders, with its bone-shaking cobblestones and frenetic energy. The whole purpose of the race is to inflict the most pain on a rider’s body and nerves.

Yet, for Kiel Reijnen, the punishment on the cobblestones offered an unorthodox pathway to healing. How does a day of suffering soothe one’s soul? It’s complicated to explain.

We meet at the Trek-Segafredo team hotel outside of Bruges the Thursday before Flanders. Reijnen greets me clad in the familiar pro cyclist tracksuit, his long hair pulled up and back, with a single slim braid hanging down.

The hairstyle is not the only characteristic that sets Reijnen apart in the WorldTour peloton. Reijnen studied mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado. He is also a craftsman, and is currently building his own home on Bainbridge Island, the community where he grew up. Reijnen’s ability to balance pro cycling with his outside passions sits at the heart of a wrestling match he has yet to resolve in the wake of Nash’s death.

Pro cycling requires all of a rider’s physical and emotional energy. So, how can one maintain that lifestyle in the wake of a personal tragedy that consumes one’s entire life?

“These races require so much concentration, and there’s really no time to think. But then, there’s this other feeling, and you catch yourself not thinking about [Nash], and you feel guilty for not just being sad,” Reijnen explains. “Someone tells a joke, you laugh, and then you feel bad. I don’t know what this achieves, to feel this much guilt. But I still feel it. It’s like, how can you focus on something like cycling when you have something so much bigger to process?”

Reijnen speaks in a slow cadence, and he meticulously selects each word. He replays scenes from those whirlwind days following Nash’s death. He and Jordan flew home to Bainbridge Island to grieve with his parents, Derek and Joan, and Nash’s wife, Charlotte, and son, Gard. Seeing the family was a relief, however it also “made everything feel very real,” he says. Memories of Nash flooded his mind.

Separated by just two years, Kiel and Nash were friends as much as they were brothers. The were also individuals with vastly different personalities. Even as a child Kiel had the discipline and focus that would someday help him thrive in the regimented world of pro cycling. Nash, by contrast, was the creative free spirit who played guitar, skateboarded, and pursued a seemingly endless number of interests.

“As kids we’d go to the bakery and Nash would choose whatever was the biggest, sugariest treat, and I would stand there for half an hour looking at the case worrying whether to get the croissant or the raspberry muffin,” Reijnen says. “I was more focused on which one I’d miss out on. Nash could just enjoy it.”

As adults, the two were close—Nash lived just 20 minutes away. Yet their lifestyles were worlds apart. Nash found joy and satisfaction in life’s simple achievements: planting a garden, tinkering on a car. Kiel, by contrast, lived within pro cycling’s endless hierarchy. No matter what race you won, there was always someone better.

“You have satisfying moments in [cycling], but you’re always chasing something. It’s elusive and it can be tormenting,” Reijnen says. “People like my brother can live in the moment and find satisfaction anywhere. I was always envious of that.”

During his time at home, Reijnen pondered his own pathway in life. Nash had found happiness in life’s small moments, not in wattage numbers or results on a page. What, exactly, was the point of this endless chase for racing perfection? Reijnen wondered if cycling could ever provide as much satisfaction as his brother seemed to find every day.

Kiel Reijnen (right) and his brother Nash. Photo: Kiel Reijnen

Kiel (left) with Nash as boys in a family photo. Photo: Kiel Reijnen

The tight right-hand turn onto the Oude Kwaremont produces an exhilarating scene unlike any other in professional cycling. The road narrows to the width of a bike path just before the tarmac gives way to rutted cobblestones. After several hundred meters of punishing bumps, the lane squeezes between enormous VIP tents, where thousands of screaming fans fill the air with a deafening roar.

Elbows bump into handlebars as the peloton squeezes into the narrow lane at 35mph.

“You’re in it, and it just feels like the way bike racing is supposed to feel,” Reijnen says. “When you were a kid dreaming of being a pro cyclist, looking at the magazine photos and wondering what it would feel like to be a pro, that’s the feeling.”

After two weeks on Bainbridge Island, Reijnen’s mind began to wander back to bike racing, to Flanders, and that scene on the Kwaremont. He woke up late and spent days crying, embracing his family, and trying to process Nash’s death. He helped Charlotte complete the stacks of paperwork for bank accounts and social security. He grieved until, as he says, “I ran out of steam.” During an afternoon spent sailing with his father, Reijnen decided it was time to fly home to Girona.

The time at home kept Reijnen off his bicycle for nearly two weeks, and he wondered if his legs had the strength to race. By chance, a spot opened up on Trek’s roster for the cobblestone races after a teammate was injured in a crash. Reijnen could take the spot if he wanted to, management said. He spent an evening contemplating his return with Jordan. She told him he should return to the races—maybe the camaraderie with his teammates would provide more support. Two days later, he rolled to the starting line at the Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne.

“I had a really hard, emotional night. I was sad and it didn’t feel right to be there,” Reijnen says. “And then I got up the next morning and fell into the race routine. You go to breakfast, put on your kit, and by the time you’re at the race you’re focused.”

The sadness came back that night, and the next. After each race, Reijnen felt himself lifting out of the fog. He felt embraced by his teammates and staff. He sought advice from the team’s communications director, Elke Weylendt, who lost her brother, Wouter, to a crash at the 2011 Giro d’Italia.

Reijnen embraced the suffering and pain of each race. Each event required hours of intense focus, and the events delivered a cathartic feeling of physical exhaustion at the finish line. That fatigue drew the emotion out of Reijnen after each punishing race on the cobblestones. He passed through a familiar progression of exhaustion, pain, sadness, recovery.

“These are all brutally hard races that leave you completely KO’d and empty by the time you’re done,” Reijnen says. “In these races it’s not about ignoring what happened and pretending everything is OK. It allows me to let some of these emotions out. It’s so physically demanding that you’re going to feel emotion no matter what.”

We see each other at the starting line at Scheldeprijs, three days after Flanders. Amid the crowds of fans, Reijnan stands beside his father, Derek, who has flown to Belgium to see his son compete. Derek tells me stories of how different Nash and Kiel were as children: Kiel the son who hurried home to train, and Nash, the son who ran outside to play.

Reijnen recounts his ride at Flanders, where he was one of just two American riders in the race. It was not the outcome he desired—he crashed early and spent much of the opening hours chasing back on. He was able to contribute to the team’s efforts, but by the time the group hit the Berendries at kilometer 162, his legs were empty. He raced for nearly six hours until his energy reserves were empty, and as he says, he “crashed, physically and emotionally when it was done.”

The emotions came to Reijen in the shower, and later that evening. He accepted that there were elements of Nash’s death that he would never truly process, never truly understand. He would take memories and lessons from Nash’s life with him forever, and the sadness of the loss would always sting.

And yet, Reijnen’s legs stung the next day, as they always do after an enormous effort. The only way to progress past the pain was to do what he’s always done: stretch, spin, eat a large meal, and rest. Race, recover, repeat—Reijnen knew he had returned to the daily ebb and flow of professional bicycle racing.

Reijnen straddles his bicycle to ride to the pre-ride sign in. Before riding off, he stops, and compares his grieving to a bicycle race in a way that I’ll paraphrase below.

Pro riders come together, as a team, to work for a common goal. Yet every rider’s journey to the finish line is, at some point, a solitary and individual one.

Reijnen’s grief for Nash has followed a similar course. He will come together with friends and family, again and again, to mourn Nash’s death. The pathway Reijnen has chosen for his recovery, however, will be his own.