From life-threatening crash to Belgian champion

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You probably haven’t heard of Dries De Bondt, unless you’re an avid fan of the Belgian semi-classic Halle-Ingooigem, a race De Bondt has won twice. But you’ll be hearing De Bondt’s name more now, and you’ll certainly be able to spot his jersey in the upcoming Classics. His story is an amazing one: from a promising rider on the Belgian Continental circuit, to a nearly fatal crash in France, to an unexpected full recovery, and now, a Belgian road title.

I got to know De Bondt in a shoddy old campervan with a broken toilet. I started a PR job with a small Belgian third-division team: Veranda’s Willems. I had some pretty bad experiences in my previous team and needed an environment where cycling equaled fun again. Team Veranda’s Willems was exactly that. A team of guys enjoying racing. Most of them were not earning a salary but they helped each other wherever. It was a group of friends. It was a great atmosphere for De Bondt’s return to racing.

“In 2014 I had a great season with a team called Josan-To Win,” De Bondt recalls. “My manager Willy Teirlinck taught me to win, to not race for second place. I got second in my first stage race that year and he was actually mad at me. From that stern talking to I started to win a lot.”

That caught the attention of many other Belgian teams, both third and second division. No less than seven teams contacted De Bondt. Only one called after that one day in France in October 2014.

“It was in the Tour de Vendée, one of the last races on the calendar. I don’t remember it anymore,” De Bondt continues. “Those final 30 minutes hadn’t been transferred to my long-term memory just yet. I later understood that my rear tyre exploded. It was on a descent and I couldn’t control the bike anymore. I got catapulted into the front of a house. The helmet saved my life that day but I did suffer two fractures to the base of the skull. The race doctor stabilized me.”

Then followed a sequence of events that can be defined as luck, or maybe a miracle. Everything that happened in the weeks to follow ended up in De Bondt’s favour. There was a football pitch nearby where a trauma helicopter could land. He was brought to the university hospital of Nantes where all the right specialized care was present. There was a moment his life hung in the balance but the scale tipped in his favour.

“There was swelling in the brain which is very dangerous,” he explains. “My parents were in Nantes with me and they were told there were three options: a full recovery, a life with disability, or a vegetative state. The doctors told my parents that the first option was highly unlikely, that it was more likely they had to say goodbye to their son as they knew him or a definitive goodbye. That was a really hard moment for them.”

But De Bondt defied all the odds. He made a full recovery. After a 13-day coma he woke up. He had lost 13 kilos. He couldn’t support his own weight. He couldn’t speak due to the intubation. He had to learn how to swallow again. He did it. A mere four days after he woke up, he walked behind a walker. He was transferred back to Ghent. Four weeks after the accident he came home.

“My friends were sitting on the couch at my home and the first thing we did was order fries,” he remembers with a smile. “I continued my recovery in a local rehabilitation center where I worked with a speech therapist and physiotherapist during the day. I went home at night. I was on a trainer bike that same week. I went on training camp in November, with my new team. It all went crazy fast.”

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Of the seven teams who had shown interest in De Bondt before the crash, only one contacted him: the third-division Continental team Veranda’s Willems, managed by Ivan De Schamphelaere.

“[Sport scientist] Kristof De Kegel and me had tested Dries earlier that year,” De Schamphelaere says. “We were impressed and I had given him my word. I am not a man to break my promise so I wanted to contact him and reassure him there was a place in the team if he managed to come back after that crash.

“I contacted his father and he said, ‘wait a few days and then visit us.’ I came to visit in the hospital in Ghent and brought an Eddy Merckx book to serve as inspiration to him. I said: ‘I don’t expect anything from you in 2015 but I believe you will win again in 2016.’ He already attacked in the first race in 2015. A week later, on March 8, he rode to his first podium place. And he won again.”

“I will always remember what Ivan told me in hospital: ‘I see that fire in your eyes’,” De Bondt recalls. “He is one of the good guys in Belgian racing. He brought me along to that training camp. I experienced there again how fast descents can be. Somehow things clicked in my head. I also talked a lot with Kai Reus, my teammate. He had experienced a similar thing [Reus crashed during a training ride in France and was also kept in an artificial coma for 11 days – ed]. At the end of that training camp I found back the fun in cycling. The love for the sport is bigger than the fear.”

He never looked back.

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This all led to the past Tuesday: the Belgian championships. Dries De Bondt is now part of the Alpecin-Fenix team where he gladly works for Tim Merlier or Mathieu van der Poel. He is thankful for the faith his colleagues and people like Ivan De Schamphelaere and the Roodhooft brothers — owners of Alpecin-Fenix — put in him. In Alpecin-Fenix he finds a team where he gets his chances in smaller races. The Belgian championship are by no means a small race but De Bondt knows how to take an opportunity when it arises. And so he did.

“I did many recons of the course,” he recalls. “I knew every hump and turn on the way. I knew when to go and when not to. I rode and still ride many kermesses. If you are a ‘smaller rider’ like me who can’t win big races, you still have to learn how to win races when the opportunities come. I decided in a split second that I had to continue the attack when Pieter Serry crashed. That’s that winning instinct you create in Belgian kermesses.”

De Bondt powered on. In the background other riders like Jan Bakelants and Iljo Keisse tried to get De Bondt back but De Bondt’s teammate Otto Vergaerde expertly countered all attacks. The gap grew from five to 10 to 20 seconds. He held on to win solo, six seconds ahead of a chase group.

During this highlight of his career, you would expect that De Bondt reflected back on the path behind him. He didn’t.

“During those final 10 kilometers on my own I didn’t think back,” he says. “I never looked back. You just can’t when you want to function again in bike racing. I created a way to put everything in perspective.

“Things can always be worse because they have been worse. It can never be worse than it was six years ago so when there is a setback I quickly get myself back on my feet and think: let’s go again!”

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