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!

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