Ride for Antoine

This week it’s been two years ago since Antoine Demoitié died in Gent-Wevelgem. I worked as a press officer for his team back then and I will never forget that week. His former teammates like Kenny Dehaes and Enrico Gasparotto remembered him too. Kenny won GP Denain with a #rideforantoine sticker on his helmet and Enrico tried to win in Catalunya because Antoine’s wife Astrid was there. The team still ride with #rideforantoine on their bikes. He will forever be part of Wanty-Groupe Gobert.

A death in a team of young, healthy people is something that leaves a huge impression. They ride their bikes and the staff accompanies them and support them in their jobs. Death is not part of the equation though cycling is a dangerous sport.

Gent-Wevelgem 2016 was on the final day of the Volta Catalunya. I covered that race for Eurosport and watched GW via twitter to see what the Wanty-Groupe Gobert guys did. They were all dropped in the crosswinds so I knew the sports director would be livid. Straight after the Volta finish I called him and he sounded distant and flat. He said something happened during the race with Antoine and that it was bad.

I drove home and called the team manager. I had already decided to leave the team due to other reasons but promised to stay on during the all important classics season. He said three words and I will never forget them: “Il va mourir.” He will die. I went upstairs and cried in my husband’s arms. Those were the only tears for a few days. I got to work.

The guys at the Barcelona airport texted me. I promised to leave all communication with the team and riders to the team manager. Lying to the riders was hard but we had to try and control the narrative. They knew because Gaetan Bille was Antoine’s best friend and he was in Barcelona. But I couldn’t tell them.

I was eerily calm and composed those days. So much to do. That night many media outlets called. Antoine was declared dead on social media when he was not. That has profoundly changed me as well. Yes he was in the news but he was also a husband, a son, a brother.

Just after midnight Antoine was taken off life support. His organs were donated.

The days that followed were about controlling the narrative, bringing Antoine’s personality to the front and steer away from the blame game. His family has thanked me for that and that means a great deal to me.

The day after Antoine died was a hectic day. Gent-Wevelgem is in the midst of the Classics season and all the press had gathered in Belgium. We needed to do a press conference and chose De Panne to do so. I entered the hotel and saw the sports director and the team manager. Big men who were crying. Many of Antoine’s teammates were there. I took control but God knows where I found that strength. The press conference went down in a blur. I translated, asked questions, helped the riders and staff voice their feelings. I didn’t cry.

Tuesday I drove home. I worked long hours that week. De Panne was cancelled for the team but Tour of Flanders was on that Sunday and we wanted to honour Antoine. We did in a big way. In t-shirts bearing his image, there was a minute of silence on the Markt in Bruges. It was the longest minute of the day. It still gives me goosebumps to see the images. So many people rallying behind those eight guys on that podium.

With incredible strength Marco, Frederik, Jérôme, Kenny, Tom, Bjorn, Kevin and Dimitri rode for Antoine that day, the staff did their jobs but it was hard for everyone. Dimi even managed a top ten place in the race. Tears after the finish line: his, mine, the cycling world’s.

I drove from Flanders to Wallonie, where Antoine was from. A small church could never house the amount of people attending his funeral the day after Flanders. Hundreds of people waited outside. I was inside the church, just behind Brian Cookson and Wouter Vandenhaute.

This was a big thing but it was very small and intimate too. The personal stories of Astrid, his wife, Antoine’s sisters, his friends and best man Gaetan Bille. The love for Antoine was palpable. This was a well loved guy in a lightly coloured casket in the middle of the church where he and Astrid had gotten married six months before. This should never have happened but it did. His team mates and I sat in silence. I saw tears running down their faces. My tissues had ran out. So much pain and so much love in one place. The biggest contradiction you can imagine.

I think of Antoine sometimes, like I think of Stig, who lived, and Daan who died. It changed me as a person. The day after the funeral I left the team for reasons unrelated to this event but for one day it felt like a team: we were there for each other. I was really grateful that I had stayed on to do this. It was hard but I was also proud of what I had achieved that week.

About once a year I drive to or through Wallonie and I visit his grave. It’s in a small churchyard not far off the main road. Cycling memorabilia line his grave: memories from his teammates and friends. Antoine was a vibrant guy, a well loved guy, a family man with a contagious smile. I will never forget that smile.

Ride for Antoine today!

Life long struggle

Since a few months I have started to share some stories about my life long struggle against the kilos. Since I got many reactions by many different people, both men and women, I will elaborate a little on the subject.

When I was younger I was an avid swimmer, training 3-4 times a week and competing on the weekend. I lived at home and my mum cooked healthy meals. I was 73kg at 1.83m. Strong and never skinny but that runs in the famlily: we are big-boned ☺ I had some teenage trouble with the fact that my stomach wasn’t flat but I don’t recall having issues as a teenager. It was in the 90s, well before any social media.

When I quit swimming due to a shoulder injury and moving to Amsterdam to study at the university, things got out of control. Amsterdam is a big city but it can make you feel very lonely. I started eating and battled depression. I ate a lot. In about two years time I gained almost 40kg, maxing at 112kg.

Yes I was and am an emotional eater like many. When I feel down, sometimes even caused by the way I look(ed), I ate because hey, it didn’t matter anyway: I was already fat. It’s a vicious circle of being unhappy with yourself, finding a temporary way out and then being extremely disappointed at yourself again because you let yourself down.

Having cancer didn’t help either. I remember joking to the doctor who just told me I needed chemotherapy that ‘at least one good thing would happen and that was losing weight.’ He looked at me and said no, not anymore. You will probably gain weight. And I did. The worst part being the hormone treatment which despite doing a lot of sports would prevent me from losing weight.

The change came when I accepted who I was (and ended the hormone treatment). It sounds very easy to write down that sentence but it took me 17 years to accept who I was. Even a short while ago, back in 2015, I was fighting myself. The trigger then was working around pro athletes in a Belgian men’s cycling team. Everyone was skinny and that made me stand out like a sore thumb. I also worked the UCI women’s world tour at the same time and just couldn’t look at pictures of myself with riders. Where I worked, there were always people thinner than I was.

But the thing is: there will always be people skinnier than I am. The trick is to accept that that is just fine.

Another major change was the bike. Putting on lycra is a huge hurdle for many people, especially women. Up until October last year I was really reluctant to ride with other people. I would always be slower and fatter than others. Then a pro rider asked me to ride with her. She asked me as a friend and we did a 4h ride. There were pictures made and a friend commented how good I looked. I could also follow her around, a world champion many times over, for 108km. That was a turning point. I could say that I wasn’t fat anymore. And I believed myself when saying it. I could look in the mirror and not look away. I look strong and I became a decent rider on my own level.

The weight loss journey is a tough one. There is so much temptation out there. So much apple pie, ‘kroketten’, Ben and Jerry’s and chocolate to be eaten. And I eat it. But only when I really feel like it and can honestly enjoy it instead of munching away mindlessly. I don’t know how that changed but I don’t feel like eating all the time anymore.

The weight loss journey is also linked to my bike riding. Every success story, every PR on Strava is an extra motivation to keep on riding. I haven’t even lost that many kilos (about 7-8, I estimate) but I became very very strong.
My jeans size went down from 34 to 30. I have had to buy new cycling clothing in smaller sizes three times already and will probably have to again this year. I now admire my legs and the new muscle definition that is so clearly visible. I enjoy riding up the mountains and see on Strava how strong I have become. Less kilos means faster and faster and faster (though it still hurts). And I don’t feel my stomach anymore when in the drops!

I ride the Wahoo Kickr inside when I don’t have time to go out and see how my watts improve and my climbing times up the Watopia Volcano or Box Hill evolve. I adjusted the weight in the settings to 95kg. It’s a constant boost to try harder.

I don’t have the golden rule for you because everyone has their own rule. I started by accepting myself and then I challenged myself to be stronger and faster. I don’t know at which weight I will end up. It doesn’t matter. Thee most important thing is: I make myself smile again when I look in the mirror and can honestly say: I am not fat anymore, I am strong and I look strong and I love it! I am happy and that gives me the biggest smile.

To podium girl or not to podium girl: a personal story

Today, Flanders Classics announced they will no longer use flower girls, or podium girls as we call them. It spiked some controversy. People automatically assume I am against podium girls and grid girls. And however political correct that may be, I am actually not. If they like their job, let them have the job. But let it be for the right reasons.

There is an underlying stream of everyday sexism that bothers many with regards to podium girls and grid girls. There is a sense that there is no place for women in cycling – or sports – apart from being pretty, smiling and silent. A picture to look at, not a competent colleague to work with.

I have a personal story to tell about women in sports.

I am by no means silent: it comes with the nature of my job as a cycling commentator. I am actually the first female cycling commentator in the Netherlands and one of four female lead sports commentators in total.

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The Netherlands is a country many deem progressive. Let me tell you, we are not. Not in politics (never has there been a female PM), not in work (highest percentage of part-time working women in the world) and not in sports and media, where 95% of sports commentary and journalism is done by men.

My colleagues, the three female lead sports commentators, are all in tennis: a sport where equality is further progressed than my sport. They are also three former top tennis players. I never cycled professionally. I swam and achieved no better than a measly bronze medal at the provincial championships. My point being, I don’t hold this job because I was a wonderful cyclist.

Why do I have this job? At first it was pure luck from being in the right place at the right time. But then? At the beginning of my career I was not a good commentator, and I am the first one to admit that. I knew a lot of facts, results, names of riders, history and geography. I talked but it was not great. I was thrown in at the deep end. There is no school for cycling commentary. It is all about learning on the job. And I did. But having a woman behind the mic stirred something ugly with the many male viewers of the sport.

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I have never been a girly girl. There were two moments in my life where me being a woman was suddenly an issue: breast cancer with everything pink that comes with it, and sports commentary.

Some examples, in random order of my experiences as a commentator.

When I started as a general sports news commentator I was told, “I know you love cycling but a woman covering cycling is not something anybody is going to believe.” Whether it was said as a joke or not, it was not okay.
As said, I was never an elite athlete. People wondered, ‘How on earth could she possibly be in sports commentary?’ The solution to many was obvious. There were plenty of comments I read (only written, never in your face) suggesting that I must have slept with someone to land this job.

The same comments started again when I started as a PR officer for a men’s procycling team. Someone went as far as saying: “You are probably working in cycling because you can sleep with many men.”

Whether said in jest or dead serious: telling a woman she is probably only in a work position because of favours to men, is insulting.

“You know a lot about cycling…….for a woman” is not a compliment. I don’t want to be in this job because I am a woman: I want to do this because I am good at it.

The argument in the Netherlands that female radio dj’s or sports commentators are horrible to listen to you because of the pitch of their voice, once backed by ‘pseudoscience’, has long been debunked. “I have nothing against you personally but I just can’t listen to a woman doing cycling commentary,” has been heard many times.

That is everyday sexism. The culture that supports these attitudes is something you keep feeding by positioning women in the sport where they are only judged by the way they look.

I get many emails and messages on social media by young women who are in journalism school or sports communication who feel inspired by my story. First and foremost, I never planned to be a pioneer or to be inspirational but I turned out to be one.

I have encountered many #metoo situations in cycling, from jokes about sex to an uninvited team mechanic in my hotel room in the middle of the night, but I won’t be deterred. Not then and not now.

If I can show young women that sports commentary or journalism is a career path open to them, all the scrutiny, frequent insults and hatemail are more than worthwhile.

To conclude: whether your dream job is cycling commentator, podium girl or being the boss of the Netherlands, you can do it. No limits. Everything should be possible for all girls in the world.

For the love of the game

I have been a big fan of cycling, ever since I was about 15-16 years old. Before that, the virus was pretty dormant. My dad was an amateur cyclist and a team manager so weekends were spent at local races. My sister and I were always promised an icecream after the race was over but my parents met so many people on the way back to the car, that we kind of lost patience.

My love for the sport was truly triggered when Lance Armstrong dedicated his victory to Fabio Casartelli, who died a few days before. The drama of the story appealed to my teenage brain, I guess.

The epitome of my love for the sport, started when I really started avidly following cycling on the couch after my chemotherapy. On Twitter I met people who shared my love for this weird and wonderful sport and we bonded over 140 character messages.

When I was fortunate enough to call cycling work, I never lost that fan feeling. I must admit that despite the awesomeness of my work, it does become a job in the end. But sometimes there are those intense fan moments to really enjoy. In 2017 it was the unexpected world title of Chantal Blaak that did it for me. And there was not a dry eye in the house when Alberto Contador won atop the Angliru, in his penultimate race ever.

This weekend my friend Ben Tulett became junior cyclocross world champion. I have known the Tulett family since seven years and saw Ben, his brother Daniel and sister Amy grow up. A few cold Sundays this winter I woke up very early to catch up with the junior categories at the cyclocross world cups and cheer the Tulett brothers on.

One race to go. Worlds

From 11am on that Saturday 3 February I sat in front of my screen following that little guy in the British Cycling kit. He never has a fast start but he is technically skilled. He is small but strong and that was a huge bonus on the tough Valkenburg course.

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After a small tumble in lap one, Ben started to lead the field from lap two. He remained very focused, did not make any more mistakes and rode with Charlie on his mind.

Charlie Craig was his friend and rival. In the UK they battled it out for the national titles and cyclocross national trophy wins. In January 2017 Charlie passed away. He went to bed. He never woke up. He was 15 years young.

Ben has always been adamant about riding for Charlie. It’s not just a hashtag, not something he just says: it’s his driving force. On that Saturday in Valkenburg Charlie rode along with Ben, every lap, every hill, every step of the way. It was a world title for two boys: one on earth and one up above.

For me it was a wonderful day because it brought back all those feelings that drew me to cycling in the first place: the excitement, the drama, the pain, the disappointment and the joy.

Ben Tulett’s joy made my day, my weekend. Next season I’ll be back to cheer him on again. In rainbows this time. With Charlie always riding along

Ciao 2016

At the end of another year it is always good to look back. Professionally it was a good year with fantastic races to cover for Eurosport with my friend Bobbie, following and enjoying the women’s cycling for the UCI and visiting the cyclocross world cups for the UCI. I volunteered as a press officer for Veranda’s Willems for six months to help them professionalize and take a step up towards the pro continental level. It has been a learning experience I enjoyed.

On a personal level it has been a tough year with very few ups but some very deep downs. The death of Antoine Demoitié and my job as a press officer for his team has been the toughest week of the year. Nevertheless I am proud of what I did that week for Antoine and his family. I learned that I am strong and focused when the going gets tough, when it matters.

We also said goodbye to Daan and too many young and promising riders like Ellen, Gijs, Etienne and Romain. I do hope we get to see Stig’s smile again because it was radiant and will never leave me. I would like to wish the families of these young people all the strenght they need. Their names will not be forgotten.

In 2017 I will focus on Eurosport, keeping you all up-to-date with cycling news on my twitterfeed and hopefully some new and exciting assignments to enjoy the world 0f cycling. Despite it being a difficult environment to work in, it is still the sport I love most and I call myself blessed to be calling it work.

IMG_2223I will try to ride 5,000 kilometers, try out disc brakes to learn more, get a new bike and enjoy what I get to do.

Sometimes it takes others to make you realize the kind of blessings you have in your life. In 2017 I want to see and enjoy those blessings the moment they happen because life is fragile. It sucks big time sometimes but most of all life is good when you are healthy, have a fantastic and supportive husband, a great job and the freedom to ride your bike.

Have a happy 2017, everyone!

Hooked

From the Ronde van Drenthe in the province where I grew up to the GP Plouay in beautiful Brittany, it was a life-changing experience. I did English voice-overs, interviews with riders and even hours of live commentary in a language that is not my own. It worked out great, thanks mainly to the incredible support of Rochelle Gilmore, the Vsquared production team and the UCI women’s cycling coordinator Andrea.

In April Sweetspot’s Guy Elliott called me, out of the blue again, and asked me to become a co-host for the inaugural UK Women’s Tour on ITV. “Are you sure, I have never done any on-camera work?” Yes we are, you need to do this. And it was an amazing experience to be in the UK seeing first hand how exciting women’s racing is and how big the crowds were there! And not for women’s cycling as a support act to the men. No, women’s cycling as it is.

Along the way I have see exciting races with Ellen van Dijk’s super solo in Flanders to Linda Villumsen almost making it to the top of the Mur de Huy. From the machine that Specialized-lululemon become on a time trial bike to my fellow Dutchies Chantal Blaak and Lucinda Brand’s thrilling victories in Vårgårda and Plouay. I got to know riders, their qualities, their skills, their humor and their intelligence and got a huge amount of respect for each and everyone of them.

Women’s cycling got me hooked this year and I hope for more next year.  I hope to show more and more people who these athletes are, to tell their stories and show their achievements on livestreams on the UCI Youtube Channel, on ITV and on Eurosport.