Remembering Wouter: Elke Weylandt continues on in the sport that took her brother’s life

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Six years ago, Leopard-Trek rider Wouter Weylandt lost his life at the Giro d’Italia. The Belgian was a former stage winner in that event and the Vuelta a España, but passed away following a crash on a high-speed descent. Now he’s remembered with pride by his sister Elke, chief press officer with Trek-Segafredo. In a story that first appeared on VeloClub in January, and is now published on CyclingTips on the anniversary of his passing, she talks love, loss, recovery and reminiscences, plus the team’s ongoing tribute to her brother.

“Family is not an important thing, it’s everything.” – Michael J. Fox

It may be over 2,000 days since the moment that changed her life but, speaking to Elke Wyelandt, what strikes you is both her emotional strength and also her tenderness for her brother Wouter.

The 26-year old was killed in a tragic accident on May 9 2011. Speeding down the descent of the Passo del Bocco close to the finish of stage three of the Giro d’Italia, his left leg clipped a low wall and he crashed at high speed.

Weylandt died instantly, becoming the fourth rider in the history of the race to lose his life.

Over five years later, Elke Weylandt sits close to the reception area of a hotel in Albir, Spain. Several months earlier she became the chief press officer with the Trek-Segafredo team. She is now here at a pre-season training camp, coordinating interview sessions between the media and the squad’s riders and also planning for the year ahead.

At a glance Weylandt looks like her brother. It’s hard to tell precisely why; looking at their photos side by side don’t reveal what in particular is reminiscent, don’t show what features are shared. However there is definitely a visual parallel between the two.

Talking to her, though, is where the real connection can be noticed. Whatever about physical similarities, she feels emotionally close. It must be difficult to talk about someone who passed away, leaving such a void, but the Belgian speaks with real tenderness about her younger brother.

“In the end I don’t think he’s really gone,” she tells CyclingTips, speaking openly about a difficult subject. “Okay, I know it’s a mental construction, but for me my brother is always with me.

“Even though I do not really believe in an afterlife, for me he’s always there. And I know that because he’s in my heart. He’s in my head.”

Talking to Elke Weylandt was something that took several months to come about. Contact was first made towards the end of August, shortly after she became the chief press officer of the team. At the time she said that she’d speak about her brother, but didn’t want to do so over the phone; she suggested it would be best to talk in person at the team’s winter training camp.

Months later, she and CyclingTips sat down to discuss the topic.

First up, the aim was made clear: the meeting wasn’t about raking over Wouter’s passing, but rather discussing his memory. What type of person was he? What type of cyclist? How do she and others remember him?

“He was a very nice guy. A big mouth, small heart,” she smiles, using a Belgian phrase. “I don’t know if you say that in English but, it’s like he was….really a tough guy, he dared to say a lot of things, but in the end he was just a very sensitive guy. And the best brother in the world. basically.

“He didn’t really show his emotions. He was not always very sure of himself. And he tried to hide that, of course, with a pose. His image was important for him, but still I think his image was quite close as to who he really was. So it wasn’t really a pose all the time. But it was like a way of showing him a bit more assured than he might be.

“He had just had a big heart for his friends and his family. And then he was someone who you could really rely on. He would do anything for his friends and family. He was a very social guy. He had a lot of friends. He laughed a lot and he loved to laugh. He was a great guy.”

Trek-Segafredo press officer Elke Weylandt at the team’s training camp in Albir, Spain, December 2016.

Cherishing a childhood bond

“Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet.” – Vietnamese Proverb

Wouter Weylandt was born in Gent, Belgium, on September 27 1984. Elke is five years his senior. Their father worked as a fireman, rode his bike a lot and eventually raced with those in the fire service. This passion filtered down to Wouter, who took up the sport at 15 years of age.

Being older, Elke brought him to races until he was able to get his own driving licence. She had previously watched the sport on television and, being around events, learned more and more about it.

Thinking back, she has a swirl of memories, but some stick out.

“Away from cycling, I remember that we fought a lot when we were kids. But for me it’s not an negative memory at all because it was just how we were,” she smiles.

“I can remember the fun we had…just laughing. And also, it’s a typical thing, I think, between brothers and sisters, that you just bond together and you make a union against the parents.

Elke Weylandt and her younger brother Wouter.
“There’s only one person – well, that depends on how many brothers and sisters you have – but there’s only one person that knows exactly what you mean. If you say, ‘aghh, you know what he or she said?’ then the other one could go, ‘yeah….’ So that’s a really strong connection between siblings.

“I’ve always sensed that, but since he’s gone… I miss him as a person, for sure, but that sentiment, that feeling of connection between siblings….I miss that a lot.

“You just have no other person in exactly the same position as you to share your feelings with. And the responsibilities also – as your parents grow older, you become more responsible for them. I’m on my own now. So in the end I just know it will fall on my shoulders. It would be nice to have him with me.”

Those are personal memories, but she also has reminiscences of what he was like with others. She describes him as someone who didn’t like to be alone, who had many friends that he spent time with. If they weren’t around, he would often be on the phone instead. She also remembers his sense of style and his love of good clothing.

But the strongest recollections are of Wouter’s character. His spirit. His emotions.

“If I have to name one thing I remember, it is his laugh. The sound of his laugh, but also the way his face changed when he laughed. He could burst into laughter and then, ‘wow, look at him…’

“I am still very, very proud of him. As a person and as a cyclist. If you ask me for my memories of him as a racer, I think I remember a lot of his races when he was younger, when he was not a pro rider yet.

“We were driving to races and always listening to the same song… ughh. But I remember that song.

“When I hear that song now, it touches me.”

Wouter Weylandt competes in the 2011 Dwars door Vlaanderen.

A jarring loss

“And now we get to the hard part. The endings, the farewells, and the famous last words. If you don’t hear from me often, remember that you’re in my thoughts.” – Paul Auster, Moon Palace

May 9 2011 changed things completely for Elke Weylandt, and also shook the world of many others. Family and close friends were the most affected. These included Wouter’s then-pregnant girlfriend An-Sophie, who would give birth to their daughter Alizée a little under four months later.

Some saw the traumatic events unfold on television. While the crash itself wasn’t broadcast, the aftermath was transmitted. Overhead shots showed medical staff fighting to save Wouter’s life.

At the finish, the mood was grim. Whispers of the seriousness of the accident gradually coalesced into one awful fact: for the fourth time in the Giro d’Italia’s history, one of the riders had died.

The race staff, the media and the fans were shaken by the news, while Wouter’s Leopard-Trek team was distraught. Luca Guercilena was director sportif on the day in question and tells CyclingTips that the accident left a deep emotional scar.

“Clearly that was the saddest moment of my professional career,” he states. “I was in the car following him when what happened happened.

“It is really difficult to think of that moment…it was affecting me a lot. For sure it is something that you will never think of experiencing in your life. Unluckily that happened. But I would like to remember him as a strong young kid who was enjoying life, enjoying the bike. I think that is the memory that we all have about him.”

Guercilena is now the general manager of Trek-Segafredo, Leopard-Trek’s successor. Like Elke Weylandt, he too was speaking at the team training camp. He shared his own early memories.

“I knew Wouter since he turned pro with QuickStep because we were together there and then we moved together to Leopard. Clearly he was a guy with a big engine, a big talent. He was a nice and funny guy enjoying his life.

“As regards his ability on the bike…the big example was the stage that he won in the Giro d’Italia. That was really a super-strong victory. The team was in a difficult situation [needing a win – ed.] so it was really a nice relief to have this victory.”

But the standout for him came from another time, away from racing. He doesn’t go into details but it’s easy to imagine the high jinks and the laughs on that occasion.

“I remember when he turned pro in the first training camp,” he states, smiling. “We organised a small sprint race around the hotel during the night. It was something fun to do. We had a lot of fun together.

“That is the best memory I had with him and I think that is what I will keep with me forever.”

Rebuilding: ‘I tried to cherish the happy memories right from the start’

“She heard him mutter, ‘Can you take away this grief?’
‘I’m sorry,’ she replied. ‘Everyone asks me. And I would not do so even if I knew how. It belongs to you. Only time and tears take away grief; that is what they are for.”

– Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

Almost six years have passed since that awful day. Time has helped dull the pain but, inevitably, it’s still tough for Wouter’s family and friends to deal with what happened.

Looking back, Elke said getting through the loss was a question of just pushing on, day by day. She is clear that her husband was an immense help to her.

“He is my rock,” she says, then pauses. That brief delay before speaking again lets the words sink in.

“At the time I watched a lot of videos. And I read a lot about my brother, things I maybe didn’t know. But in the end, to deal with the grief, I had my husband. Of course you never know what you would have done without him. But I think it would have been a lot more difficult. He took care of me.”

Guercilena said that he too had a tough time, but recognises that his ordeal paled in comparison to what the Weylandts endured.

“Personally it was quite difficult. Unfortunately I was the one to sign the paper of the official death. I was there with him on the road all the time when the emergency staff were trying to reanimate him. It took a lot for me to recover from that.

“I needed to go on doing my job and my work. I lived again that situation many times. But for sure the family was more affected than me. His wife, his daughter, his sister, his parents.

“In the end for us, or for me, it took a while but I can move forward, keeping with me the good memories. But for sure I know that for the family it was hardest.”

Elke speaks openly about that time. She says that the weeks and months after the crash were very painful. “That first year was horrible. Really horrible. I think it’s the same for everyone who loses someone. The second year was tough as well.

“People told me before the first two years are the hardest and I think they are right.”

After that, things became a little less difficult in some regards. But, paradoxically, the loss became more pronounced on other levels.

“The first two years are the hardest, but then the missing becomes bigger because every hour or every day or every week…let’s say it’s one week [more] that you didn’t see him, that you didn’t talk to him.

“So the distance grows bigger. That makes it harder from some kind of perspective.”

Loss is unfortunately part of life. Every one of us will encounter it at some point, whether it is a grandparent, a parent, a sibling or a friend. Relationships, too, can peter out, leading to a different type of absence and adjustment.

But losing a younger brother is particularly hard. What way did Elke Weylandt approach things during this difficult time?

“I think I tried to cherish the happy memories right from the start,” she states. “Even though I think the first year was really tough, especially because I wanted to insist on a positive side and think back in a positive way on what happened.

“But you know what happened is one moment in your life. And it changes all of your life, that’s right, but the almost 27 years we had before then are for me are more important.

“What I try to do is not to focus too much on what could have been, because then it makes me even more sad. I do miss him a lot. I miss him as a person. I miss him as my brother. But I want to focus on the good things. And I want to think back on him as he was, a great guy.”

Luca Guercilena during the minute’s silence for Wouter Weylandt. Years later, he is clear on the parallels between sister and brother. “I think they are really both kind, intelligent people who are able to deal with people and they love their job. In that I see a lot of similarities.”

“He will be with us as long as this team goes on”

Both the Leopard-Trek team and the Giro d’Italia were badly affected by the crash. In the weeks afterwards both reacted touchingly. The Giro organisers announced that they would retire Wouter Weylandt’s race number, 108, from the event.

The Leopard-Trek team said that the departed rider would always remain part of the squad and that it would display his initials on the team bus. And while the team structure and sponsors have changed considerably since then, WW108 continues to appear with the stencilled list of rider names on the exterior of the vehicle.

“Wouter passed doing his job with our team, our bikes,” says Guercilena. “I think it is a sign of respect that he will always be us as long as this team goes on.”

But there is another connection. Elke Weylandt studied languages and communications at university. After that she taught French and Spanish for over ten years at Gent University and also acted as communications manager at the language centre there.

At the end of 2014 she was asked to join the team as second press officer, and has been part of Trek-Segafredo ever since.

“I have a lot of experience in communication but not all that much in cycling communication, even though I grew up in a cycling family.

“I knew the sport but had never worked in cycling and I always wanted to do that. The team called me at exactly the right time.”

Speaking Dutch, French, Spanish and English fluently, she also has a solid grasp of Italian and some German. She is very capable at dealing with people and has thrived in the role. When the team’s previous chief press officer Tim Vanderjeugd opted for a new position within the Trek company last summer, she stepped up a level to replace him.

Between her presence and the WW108 lettering etched on the team bus, the Trek-Segafredo link to the Weylandt family is a strong one.

Professional sport can be ruthless at times and it is touching to see how that link has persisted.

However Guercilena is quick to stress that she has earned the job on her own merits.

“Essentially it is not linked to what happened,” he states. “We were looking for an assistant and Elke sent us her curriculum. And effectively her curriculum was one of the best. That is why she was selected, firstly as an assistant. Right now she proved her capacities and so we decided to have her as chief press officer.

“But it was an independent story,” he reiterates. “It is not linked to that [the crash], that is for sure. Having her here is helping us to keep alive the memories of Wouter. But I think it is just a side story to what her capacities are for the job we need.”

Elke Weylandt says that it is important to her that she has earned the role. Her modesty means that she doesn’t presume it but, watching her work and also hearing Guercilena’s perspective, it is clear that she is where she is because of what she knows. Not because of her family name.

She’s earned her job, not been gifted it, and is very good at what she does.

Still, she does recognise that life steered things in this direction.

“You know, I wouldn’t have met all those people in this team without my brother. I have to admit that,” she says. “And I don’t care…for me it’s not a problem to admit that indeed, without my brother, I would probably never have met these people and they would not have known that I was looking for something else and that I would like to do something with my languages, my communication skills, in cycling.

“So yeah, for sure, it’s linked. But I hope that in the end they choose me for my skills.”

Being at races means she remains in the milieu that her brother loved. She enjoys the job and also enjoys dealing with riders, helping them and supporting them as she once helped her teenage brother many years ago.

She also gets to meet with fans and others, people who share their own thoughts and memories of Wouter when they realise who she is.

She sees that as a gift, an ongoing reminder of her brother’s character and effect on others.

“Sometimes when I see people who don’t know me, or who only know me as Elke, when I have to spell out my last name they say, ‘…wait a minute, are you related?’

“‘Yes, it’s my brother.’ And it always strikes me how people are so friendly… ‘ah, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.’

“‘I say, no, it is okay.’ And then they start talking about my brother. I find those the most precious moments, because it is someone new, someone who I didn’t know, or who didn’t know me and who was speaking about my brother.

“I can tell from the most different sides of cycling, people speak with a very warm heart about my brother. And, yeah, I think that’s special indeed. I cherish that a lot.”

Click below to hear audio extracts from this interview:

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