Iljo Keisse's victory in the penultimate stage of the Presidential Tour of Turkey – despite a crash on the final bend – was far more than just the Belgian's finest hour on the road. Keisse's glittering Six Day career has also been repeatedly scarred by controversies and tragedies, the last of which came a year ago next week when his dear friend Wouter Weylandt died at the Giro d'Italia.
The following story first appeared in Procycling magazine in December. It lends some context to Keisse's victory at the weekend…
Iljo Keisse doesn't recall the exact date, but it must be around the spring of 1999, give or take a few months. Frank Vandenbroucke is "God" in Belgium even more than in his own mind, and Keisse like everyone else his age venerates him. Keisse's father, Ronny, was a cyclist himself. He now owns the De Karper café, a Gent institution just down the hill from the legendary Sportpaleis, or ‘Het Kuipke', where they hold the Six Days every winter.
Ronny also coaches at the track. His son is among his pupils, not to mention maybe the best track-racing prospect in the whole country. At least that's what Iljo thinks until one day the nephew of his athletics teacher stomps into the velodrome, his thighs almost perforating his shorts, his helmet perched comically on top of a baseball cap. When the gun or the signal or whatever it is sounds, the kid explodes across the boards and within seconds has completed a lap that no one in the track can bring themselves to forget. Keisse's jaw drops. He's seen a lot of track cyclists in his sixteen years, including some of the best in the world, but this was something else. He has a mate at school, another budding cyclist called Wouter Weylandt, whom he can't wait to tell. What was the kid's name again? Dimitri – Dimitri De Fauw.
It turns out that Dimi – that's what everyone calls him – isn't only a phenomenon on the bike. Keisse has never met anyone quite like him. They're now both on the national track programme and have become like brothers. They train together, muck about together - with Dimi these are one and the same thing. They ride past old men and Dimi steals their hats. Or he'll win a sprint on the track and start thumping his chest and yowling like Tarzan. It's a laugh a minute… Well, it is for a few years, anyway. Now Iljo has met a girl, a lovely girl called An-Sophie, and the Athens Olympics are on the horizon. It's time to knuckle down. Get serious. Act their age. The day comes when Iljo has seen one prank too many. Out of the corner of one eye, Dimi catches Iljo rolling both of his. "Dimi, can you not just…?". But no, Dimi can't. It's the only way he knows. The bond snaps. They drift.
November 26, 2006. One of those special Saturday nights in the Gent Sportpaleis, the old Kuipke. Smoke fills the air, magic intoxicates the senses. Iljo's old mate, mentor and partner Matthew Gilmore hasn't recovered from a nasty crash in a crit in Ninove in July and has had to retire. In front of his dad and home crowd, Keisse premieres his new partnership with the German Robert Bartko. De Fauw is riding with another Belgian, Wouter Van Mechelen. Four and a half nights in, Keisse and Bartko lead the overall standings, while De Fauw dominates the time trials. Dimi is his usual irrepressible, irreverent self – clown, circus lion and ringmaster all rolled into a single bundle of muscle. In the Madison, he clips the Spaniard Isaac Galvez's wheel. Galvez falls. A metal rail at the top of the track and with it the whole velodrome shudders as the Spaniard hits it. Blood spills everywhere. Doctors arrive, but the injuries are too serious. Galvez is dead.
Photo: Luc Claessen
Over Christmas, in their respective homes just outside Gent, De Fauw and Keisse try to come to terms with the horrific event of a month earlier. One copes better than the other, although it's all relative. Keisse is terrified of getting back on the track for next big "Six", Zürich. He might have another ten, fifteen years of this, he thinks, and by that he means risking his life. He's tried to console De Fauw but isn't convinced it's had much effect. The first time Dimi went back to the Kuipke to lay flowers, he keeled over. The second time, he stayed ten minutes.
If Keisse ever wanted to spend less time on the track, he could devote more to the road, because the boy can shift. He finishes third in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2007, then watches his friend and training partner Wouter Weylandt win stage one of the Ster Elektrotoer from nine positions back. He's now riding for Chocolade Jacques – the same team as Dimi. Dimi's doing better, not that they've seen an awful lot of each other. In January, Het Laaste Nieuws printed allegations from an unnamed former Quick-Step rider about doping in the team, and the word is that it was De Fauw. Sometimes when he and Weylandt are heading out for a long ride, Keisse suggests calling Dimi, but Weylandt shakes his head. If they see him out on the roads around Gent, he tags along and it's friendly enough. Dimi's OK in small doses – one or two hours, no more.
Winning in Gent – the best feeling in Six Days. Keisse experienced it once in 2005 and now he's just tasted the nectar again, three years later. The phone rings. It's his directeur sportif from Chocolade Jacques. "Iljo, your urine sample on the last day in Gent was positive". Keisse's world collapses.
How?! How is it possible?! How?! Keisse has been asking people all week, but neither they nor he have yet come up with an answer. He can see the doubt in people's eyes. The phone rings again. He looks at the alarm clock next to the bed: it's the middle of the night. "Dad? What's wrong…?" Ronny tells him that he can't sleep, and he assumed that Iljo would be the same. "No, Dad, I'm trying to sleep as much as possible. It's my only escape....". Iljo puts down the receiver and scrunches his eyes again.
Now it's morning, a day in February 2009. Another phone call, or a text message – Keisse can't remember which. His old team-mate Frederik Nolf has died overnight at the Tour of Qatar. How?! But how?! They tell him that Nolf had a heart attack, in his sleep. He was 21. Keisse's whole body numbs. A week later, he's at the funeral in Kuurne with all of his old Topsport Vlaanderen team-mates. Old because, a fortnight ago, Keisse's status changed from "non-active" to "sacked". He sits on one side of the church, they on the other. As the Nolf's coffin leaves the church, he feels a part of himself leaving with it.
Seeing someone die changes you, it changes everything about the way you look at life. Keisse knew it that night in Gent in 2006. It gives you perspective - just not to the extent where you'll accept injustice, not when your career and reputation are on the line. In March 2009, Keisse calls a press conference. The HCT, the diuretic found in tiny quantities in his urine, was also present in the supposedly legal food supplements given to his team by their nutritional sponsor, he announces. The second substance for which he tested positive, the stimulant cathine, came from a cold and flu medicine. "I am innocent," he reaffirms, his voice quivering with emotion. Within hours, the manufacturer of the supplement has instructed its lawyers to sue him.
Keisse can still race and so he does, as an unaffiliated criterium and kermesse rider. One day he joins the group ride which leaves Gent at 9 o' clock and heads out along the Schelde. They've not gone far when he has a vision: God himself. VDB. Frank Vandenbroucke. Keisse can scarcely believe his eyes, but the fallen divinity of Belgian cycling is soon nestling snugly in the chain-gang and, even more unbelievable, is pawing the pedals next to Keisse. Keisse doesn't dare speak. It's OK, because God breaks the ice. They chat and laugh about their respective misfortunes, slumming it in kermesses, how it'd be good to train together. They even swap phone numbers.
Photo: Roberto Bettini
The summer comes, we're still in 2009, and Keisse learns that his case won't be heard by the Belgian Federation's disciplinary panel until the middle of October. God has now become a big part of his life. They train together, do kermesses together, then go for pizza or drinks. Frank – that's what God likes to be called – is full of life, full of laughter, full of himself. He is always immaculately dressed, from head to toe in Gucci one day, Versace the next, then Dolce & Gabbana, not forgetting the matching belts. He's got to know An-Sophie and keeps promising that one day he'll take her to Paris in a helicopter. They all giggle. Iljo watches him on training rides, sees him tear up the Kluisberg in the big ring just like he once went up La Redoute, and says "Wow!", which Frank loves. God looks healthy and is now even talking about what until a few weeks ago was a taboo subject: his lost love, Sara. When they go to bars, he orders Gin Gin – gin with ginger ale – but he doesn't go overboard. Sometimes when Frank's stirring his drink, sure, Iljo looks across and wonders. God was once a multi-millionaire, but now he lives in his friend's apartment. He still has fast cars – but he's been crashing them all summer. Is all really as it seems? Then God starts talking again and the good times roll…
The 2009 Six-Day season is only a fortnight away and, all things being equal, Keisse will be allowed to ride in Grenoble at the end of the month. He glances across at his bedside lamp, thinks about it for a second, then looks back at the television and decides to check the news headlines before calling it a night. He brings up Teletext. "VDB dead". That is all he sees or remembers.
Grenoble sees Keisse reunited with De Fauw, at least insomuch as they're both competing. In the despair of VDB's mysterious death has come Keisse's best day yet: the Belgian Cycling Union has just acquitted him of all doping charges. In the hotel it even feels a bit like old times, when he and Dimi are spinning Steven Deneef's bed and horsing about with Keisse's partner for the week, Gianni Meersman. At the track, though, it's a different Dimi. In the races, when he wins a sprint, he unfurls the old Tarzan routine or some variation, but in the cabins in the track centre he barely speaks. His booth is detached from the other seven, behind a small wall, and whenever Keisse pokes his head around the corner he sees Dimi scribbling in his diary, listening to music or watching DVDs. Then when the racing finishes on the last night, Dimi asks for a lift back to Belgium, Meersman and Keisse say "fine" and he piles into the car, and it's the old, old very best version of Dimi all the way back to Gent. When they arrive, Dimi's girlfriend is there to meet him. Iljo says, "Hey, Dimi, Gent's only a couple of weeks away. We may as well do some training together. Call me tomorrow or the day after." Dimi nods but never calls. Three days later he has committed suicide.
Keisse now doesn't know what to think, where to turn. If only "Dimi" had ever used the word "depression", or seen Galvez's death for what it was – an accident, or realized that the Het Laaste Nieuws thing was bigger in his own mind than anyone else's. If only, if only…
WADA and the UCI have a month from the date of Keisse's acquittal to appeal the decision. December 2nd 2009 comes and goes. Keisse breathes. He is about to sign for Quickstep. But within days, yet another sledgehammer: WADA claim that they posted their appeal within the one-month window, even if it didn't arrive in the Court of Arbitration for Sport's mailbox.
Keisse rides a road programme with Quickstep in the spring of and early summer of 2010. The WADA appeal is still pending, his lawyers are still working, his bank account still haemorrhaging, but something has happened to provide more of that elusive "perspective", and for once it's not negative: An-Sophie is pregnant and will give birth in the autumn.
Another godsend: on the morning of stage 7 of the Tour of Austria in July 2010, Keisse discovers that he won't have to climb the Grossglockner. Why it's not a godsend: because CAS has upheld WADA's appeal and Keisse has been banned for two years, minus what time he's already spent on the sidelines. He'll be allowed to ride again in August 2011.
On November 3 2010 An-Sophie gives birth to a son, Jules. On November 11, the Belgian Court of Appeals overrules CAS and informs Keisse that he is allowed to ride on home soil, including at the forthcoming Gent Six. Keisse races and wins with new partner Peter Schep. The rollercoaster lurches forward.
Keisse finally gets back on the road with Quickstep in the early months of 2011. He rides a few Belgian semi-Classics in March and April, in preparation for his return to international competition in August. Before joining Tom Boonen at a high-altitude training camp at Font-Romeu in the Pyrenees, Keisse spends a couple of days in the Ardennes with his friend, Wouter Weylandt, who is about to leave for the Giro d'Italia. They haven't seen quite as much of each other since Jules was born in November, so it's great to catch up. If Dimi and Iljo grew apart, Iljo and Wouter remain as close as they used to be when they would skive off tennis together at sports school, or when they trained together practically every day in 2003 and 2004. Their last session in the Ardennes is a tough one – seven hours, with the last one behind a motorbike. They speak on the phone on the second night of the Giro and compare notes about the their respective exertions. Both have a tough day in store tomorrow – Weylandt in the hills of Liguria, Keisse over the cols of the Pyrenees. The following afternoon, Keisse wipes six hours' accumulated sweat and grime from his brow, poses his bike, and walks towards the hotel entrance. His mobile rings. It's Wouter's girlfriend, also called An-Sophie. "Iljo, I need the number of the Leopard-Trek directeur sportif who was at Quickstep last year." He knows instantly that she's talking about Luca Guercilena. Why? "Wouter's had a terrible crash. They're trying to re-animate him on the road. We don't know anything…." Keisse rushes inside and turns on the TV. The rest, we know.
Photo: Roberto Bettini
That same, helpless, awful feeling. By now Keisse knows it well. He is desperate to do something, even if nothing will help. He'll go home tonight. Boonen says no – he's too emotional. Wait until the morning. So he does and then he drives nine hours across France and doesn't stop until he's at home with Jules and An-Sophie in his arms. Why Wouter? Why us. Why, why, why, why?
At Wouter's funeral in Sint-Denijs-Westrem, both Tyler Farrar and Keisse read eulogies. Iljo ends his "so long, best friend," and then breaks down.
The UCI now say that Keisse shouldn't have been racing in Belgium when he was banned abroad, and now forbid him from competing there until January 27, 2012. The ruling means that Keisse will miss the Gent Six-Days. He doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. No, he's done enough of that.
Keisse sits in the centre of the Manchester velodrome on a night in November 2011, almost a free, completely free man for the first time in three years. Later he'll ride in a Revolution meet against, among others, the new world road champion Mark Cavendish. An-Sophie has come with him for company. They are both in their late twenties and neither looks any older, but there is a hardiness and a dignity about them that must be invisible to anyone who doesn't know these bare bones of their story. While Cavendish laps up yet more applause and more acclaim from the speaker Hugh Porter, Keisse leans forward. "You can say that I brought some trouble on myself, but, honestly," he says, "you can't accept it if you've done nothing wrong. You have to fight. I am 100% sure that I'm innocent. Now, if it was somebody else – if it was my best friend, and the same had happened to him…I think the best option for a friend would be to accept it, because it's not going to cost you a single euro to lawyers and you'll be free after two years."
Keisse glances at An-Sophie, takes a deep breath.
"I still have very hard days. Sometimes when you think about it all you get very sad, and sometimes I think about memories with Wouter, for instance, and it makes you happy. But they're far outweighed and outnumbered by the sad moments. These guys were all young, were all cyclists and if all this hadn't happened, I'd still probably see all of them within the course of an average month. We'd be having fun together. But instead of talking with Wouter, now I go to his grave…."
"We cannot ask for lucky times," he picks up. "It looks like every time I ask for the bad luck to stop, it gets worse, or something bad happens again, so I've stopped doing that. Of course I want some good times, but you can't ask for them. It has to come itself. All I can do, all we can do, is hope."