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On a descent at the 2016 Gent-Wevelgem, a four rider crash on the left hand side of the road turned tragic when Antoine Demoitié (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), was hit by a motorbike as he lay on the ground.
Early the following morning, with his wife and family by his side, Antoine Demoitié passed away. His death sparked widespread mourning, along with soul-searching from his fellow riders and the institutions of cycling. On a more personal level, Demoitié’s death tore a hole in the lives of those who witnessed it and were affected by it.
Astrid Collinge, Demoitié’s widow, has had a grief-stricken but admirably productive life since her husband’s death. She’s maintained a connection with cycling – “if you live together with a rider, the bike will take over your life,” she said this week – and feeling a void after Antoine’s death, even returned to the sport with her work as a nurse at the Tour de France and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
She has also found love again, with another cyclist – Louis Vervaeke (Sunweb). In a wide-ranging interview with the Belgian publication DeMorgen, the recently-married pair have opened up about their relationship, the death this month of Bjorg Lambrecht (Lotto-Soudal), and the fear of injury and death that permeates their life together as a cyclist and a spouse.
Since March 2016, Belgian cycling has been rocked by tragedy at a cruel rate. On the same weekend that Antoine Demoitié was fighting for his life in a Lille hospital, Daan Myngheer (Roubaix–Lille Métropole) suffered a heart attack at the Criterium International, dying two days later. Two months later, Stig Broeckx (Lotto-Soudal) was placed in a seven-month-long coma following a crash with a motorbike at the Belgium Tour. In April 2018, Michael Goolaerts (Verandas Willems-Crelan) died following a heart attack at Paris Roubaix. And, just two weeks ago, Bjorg Lambrecht passed away after a crash at the Tour of Pologne.
For Collinge and Vervaeke, each incident has brought uncomfortable memories flooding back. Following the death of his compatriot, Bjorg Lambrecht, Vervaeke asked his wife whether she wanted him to quit the sport. Her perspective: “I don’t think life can be that cruel. This cannot happen to me a second time. ”
Collinge, having mourned the loss of her first husband in just his second WorldTour race, has a first-hand awareness of the agony Lambrecht’s family is facing. She breaks down the painful aftermath of the death of a professional cyclist: “They are now on their way to the hospital. Now they are going to see his body. Now they are waiting for the results of the autopsy. Now they are waiting for his repatriation. Now they have to organise the funeral. I wake up at night myself and imagine what they are doing. The accident throws me three and a half years back in time. That’s difficult.”
Vervaeke, a Belgian rider of the same generation as Lambrecht, Demoitié and the other mourned Belgians, disputes that accidents like this should be accepted as a part of racing. “I think that is completely ridiculous. For a long time [it was] said about Formula 1: cars explode or ram each other. And yet they have adapted the sport and invested in safety measures. And look now: a fatal accident is exceptional.”
“I’m [most] afraid of motorbikes,” Vervaeke continues. “They are super frightening, and I think 80 percent of the [riders] also have that feeling. You have to imagine: you are riding in a peloton at 60 kilometres per hour, everyone is nervous, fighting for his place and you know: only one rider has to make a mistake and we are all there. That happens often, but usually without much harm. We are all so light. But then there are motorbikes that will need to overtake the pack with a 500 kilo machine. Then you risk situations like with Antoine and Stig.”
The hazards of her husbands’ profession can be frightening for Collinge, as with a crash involving Vervaeke at Paris-Nice. “I saw on TV that Louis had fallen in Paris-Nice. That happens quite often, but this time he did not return to the peloton,” Collinge told DeMorgen. “And then the SMS came, just like with Antoine: “How is Louis?” I panicked. There was no news. The team didn’t have my number, they couldn’t even let me know if it was serious.” Vervaeke, meanwhile, rode on with a serious concussion: “I hardly knew the race I was riding,” he said.
In the wake of this crash, and the death earlier this month of Bjorg Lambrecht, there has been a fresh round of soul-searching from Vervaeke. “I thought about it this week: is this still worth the risk? But cycling is what I have wanted to do since childhood.”
Collinge understands the emotional pull of the sport. “[It] is his passion. It makes no sense to ask him to [stop].”
Vervaeke and Demoitié were friends and contemporaries, and Collinge cherishes the connection that the two shared. Her Facebook profile features a background photo of Vervaeke and Demoitie next to each other on their bikes, training in Malaga. “I remember Antoine coming back very cheerfully from that trip, very excited that he had met that nice guy [Vervaeke],” Collinge told DeMorgen.
After Demoitié’s death, Vervaeke reached out to Collinge to express his thanks for her strength and dignity in the wake of unfathomable loss. A connection was reforged, which eventually blossomed into love.
”We fell madly in love with each other … I was also worried because Astrid would once again be with a cyclist. But now I don’t ask myself any more questions,” Vervaeke said.
“I will always be Astrid’s second man. She has already had a husband, I have accepted that. That is also part of who she is and how she looks at life. Astrid is who she is because of what she has experienced. And without Antoine I would never have met her,” Vervaeke told DeMorgen.
For Collinge’s part, since entering into a relationship with Louis Vervaeke, things are “much better. [Before,] I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t sleep … it was very hard. I still have moments of depression, but Louis is always there and thanks to him, I see that life can still be magnificent. In the beginning, I sometimes felt guilty about that, but it is impossible that I can no longer be happy.”
“When I introduced Louis to my family and friends, they were crying with happiness. It was a relief for them, I think. Louis has appeared in our lives as a guardian angel, full of new life. And he respects Antoine and the special place he occupies in our lives,” Collinge told DeMorgen.
“Antoine will always be there. He loved life so much … But that is also the lesson: Antoine has lost his life and I am still here. The only thing I can do is live. That is the greatest tribute I can give him. He no longer has that chance.”