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Sunday should have been a high point for the Veranda’s Willems-Crelan team. Granted a wildcard for Paris-Roubaix, the squad headed to the event with a genuine contender in Wout van Aert. Instead, long before the finish, one of its riders fell from his bike and needed immediate medical assistance.
Michael Goolaerts, a 23-year-old from Hallaar, Heist-op-den-Berg, suffered a cardiac arrest and died later that evening.
On Monday, the team was reeling. On Tuesday, attempting to cope, it gathered riders and staff together at a hotel in Aarschot, and tried to make sense of what happened. A couple of hours later, it held a press conference in a rustic upstairs room. The mood was sombre, the team members in shock.
Two riders and several members of staff were present, including the team manager Nick Nuyens. The former pro spoke about Goolaerts and what had happened. Others, too, gave their thoughts, as did riders Stijn Steels and Sean de Bie. Eyes were mournful, expressions downcast.
“It is not possible to prepare for a situation like this,” Nuyens, the 2011 Tour of Flanders winner, told CyclingTips afterwards. “You don’t want to think about it…you just don’t think about it. It is not what cycling is about, of course. But then it happens…”
Steels is the nephew of former Tour de France stage winner Tom Steels. He was part of the team lineup on Sunday, and expected something very, very different from the race.
“We thought that Roubaix will be a day to dream of,” he told CyclingTips, speaking with a quiet voice. “With Wout, we had someone who could win the race. Your mind is totally set for a perfect day, and then you see such an accident.
“You lose a friend, you lose a teammate, then you try to support each other,” he continues, describing the blur of the following hours. “It is surreal. You are devastated. You have so many emotions in the last couple of days. Yesterday, you don’t know what to do. You are just sitting in your house. You call each other but nobody knows how or what. It is one big disaster.”
Nuyens raced as a pro between 2003 and 2014. In his final year in the pro ranks he was forced to undergo surgery to treat a cardiac arrhythmia. He tried to find a new team after that operation but was unsuccessful in doing so.
He took over as the general manager of the Veranda’s Willems–Crelan in 2017. Nuyens helped guide Van Aert to two of his three cyclo-cross championship world titles, then this spring saw the 23 year old really begin to thrive in road racing with third in Strade Bianche, ninth in the Tour of Flanders and tenth in Gent-Wevelgem.
He hoped that a big result was in store on Sunday, but ended the day in the depths of despair. “It is really hard,” he says. “You start with seven guys. You look forward the whole year to this race, to this period, and then it becomes a nightmare.”
Nuyens never expected to find himself in the position of losing a rider, and had to find a way to help people deal with that tragedy. On Monday he and others were lost in their own thoughts; on Tuesday he brought the entire team together, talking about what happened and dealing with it as a group.
Steels felt that it helped. “It was the first day that were all together, including the riders who rode Sunday. And all the staff, too. So everybody could know what exactly happened.
“This afternoon we had a talk with a psychologist who is an expert in mass traumas, like terror attacks. He knew exactly what to do and say. He really helped us through it…it was very important today.”
According to Nuyens, people reacted in varying ways. Some spoke about what happened and also about Goolaerts as a person; others stayed in the background, listening to what others were saying.
“At the end of the session, we also had a visit of Michael’s parents and brother,” he said. “They asked to see everybody of the team. It was very, very, very emotional, very hard. But I think very good also for all of us.”
‘This could happen to anyone.’
Life must go on, and on Wednesday De Bie and six other riders lined out in the Brabantse Pijl event. They were the last team to be presented and, standing on the podium with arms around each other in solidarity, received a long applause from the crowd.
Each rider wore a black armband with Goolaert’s name written on it, his date of birth and Sunday’s date of his passing. It also included the hashtag ‘All4Goolie,’ referencing the rider’s nickname.
Immediately before the race start, the assembled riders in the peloton removed their helmets. A hush descended and, in front of the massive, Gothic-styled town hall in the historic Grote Markt square, a minute’s silence was held.
The bells then rang out for 12.30, and the peloton moved away. Respects had been paid.
Later that afternoon, Belgium’s Tim Wellens raced to victory wearing a black armband. His solo success was a display of strong form, but he was restrained in his reaction. “To be honest, I didn’t know Michael very well personally,” he told CyclingTips. “But I have two friends who were his teammates. That’s why we didn’t celebrate the victory.
“We are thinking about his family. This could happen to anyone.”
Wellens is not wrong: in recent years, several riders have lost their lives in this way. Fourteen years ago Belgian rider Stive Vermaut and Tim Pauwels passed away due to cardiac arrests. Their deaths were echoed in 2005 by the Italian Alessio Galletti, in 2009 by the Belgian Frederiek Nolf, in 2012 by another Belgian Rob Goris, in 2016 by the Dutchman Gijs Verdick and by Belgium’s Daan Myngheer, and last year by the Egyptian rider Eslam Nasser Zaki.
As DW.com notes, a clear reason for these riders’ deaths is not known. Congenital heart conditions are one cause of cardiac arrest; another is thought to be the changes which can occur in extreme endurance sports such as cycling. Infections can also affect the heart and increase risk.
The publication quotes Professor Hans-Georg Predel, the head of the Institute for Cardiovascular Research and Sports Medicine at the German Sport University Cologne, who cautioned against automatically assuming a doping link in the cases of cardiac arrest.
There are many reasons, he said, and there was something that could be done to reduce the risk of athletes suddenly dying. “The annual team checkups, as they are conducted in Germany, should rule out such cases, with ultrasounds of the heart, cardiac stress tests and laboratory diagnostics,” he stated.
DW.com notes that not every country carries out such check-ups. However, for Goolaerts, this had been done. “Heart screening is carried out as part of getting a [Belgian] licence,” said Nuyens.
“I think in cycling they already do a lot of tests. So I don’t think there is anything more to say about that. Michael was tested, like everybody on the team. But then this happens.”
That’s not to say the tests are useless: on Monday, former rider Gianni Meersman indicated that such screening likely saved his life. The Belgian was racing for QuickStep in 2016 and won two stages in the Vuelta a Espana, yet walked away from the sport soon afterwards.
Tests had picked up heart issues, leading to Meersman retiring from pro cycling. “I was lucky that I had received a warning. Michael did not,” he said.
’I saw him growing step by step’
The days, weeks and months ahead will see Michael Goolaerts’ family try to recover from their devastating loss. The Veranda’s Willems-Crelan team will do the same. Time will help to some extent, but it is a tough process for everyone.
Steels had a distant expression on his face for much of the press conference. He was clearly very moved by what happened, and looked shellshocked at times.
He said that he considered it fortunate that he had a break scheduled in his programme. “For me it wouldn’t be possible to race tomorrow,” he said, referring to the Brabantse Pijl event. “I can’t imagine focussing on a race. It must be so hard.
“I have a lot of respect for the guys who are racing tomorrow, but for me it would be impossible.”
He said that he hoped he would be able to return to training in a couple of days. After that, he will build up again to his next competition. He knows that will be difficult.
“I think when I start racing again, the first time in the bus, it will be very hard,” he said. “But then I hope to find strength and the extra focus to do something special for Michael.
“It’s the first time that I’ve been so close to someone who died in cycling. In the past, when Wouter Weylandt crashed… I went to the same physiotherapist as him, so that was also was a little bit a blow to me. But this is the first time it is so, so close. It is really, really a shock. It is devastating.”
Nuyens has similar emotions, but one thing brings a smile. When asked to describe Goolaerts as a person, the concern etched on his face fades for a moment.
“I know Michael since he was a boy, when he started cycling,” he said. “He was living just a few kilometres from my place. When I was a rider, some days we went out training together. I saw him growing step by step. He became better and better each year…that’s why we took him in the team.
“What I appreciated so much about him is that he was always keen on learning new things and improving day by day. And also giving 100 percent for other guys.
“But what was really special about him was just his smile. Whenever you saw Michael, he was always smiling. Even after a bad race he was always happy to be part of the family of cycling, to be a professional. He was always in for a joke. That smile is what I will always remember.”
Steels echoes this, saying practically the same thing.
“He was a lovely guy, always smiling. Everybody says the same. Such a good guy, always happy, never complaining.
“We actually said he was too nice to be a cyclist. You need to be a tough guy, but he was never complaining. He was always happy. I think that is how we will remember him.”