Paris-Roubaix ended on Sunday as it always does, with riders strewn across the grass in the middle of the Roubaix velodrome - elation for some, disappointment for others, exhaustion for all. Peter Sagan won the race, but the sporting contest soon paled into insignificance as it was confirmed that a life had been lost.
Michael Goolaerts, a 23-year-old Belgian riding Paris-Roubaix for the first time in his career with the Veranda's Willems Crelan team, suffered a cardiac arrest early in the race and, after being airlifted to hospital in Lille, was pronounced dead on Sunday night.
The Verandas Willems-Crelan confirmed the news, saying: "It is with great unimaginable sadness that we have to communicate the passing of our rider and friend Michael Goolaerts. He passed away Sunday evening at 22:40 in Lille hospital in the presence of his family members and loves ones, who we keep in our thoughts. He died of cardiac arrest, all medical assistance was to no avail."
His death left everyone in the sport in shock and forced to mourn the loss of another young rider.
Everyone at Cyclingnews would like to extend their deepest condolences to Goolaerts' family, friends and teammates.
A promising career
Goolaerts was born in July 1994 in Lier, a town in East Flanders 20 kilometres south-east of Antwerp. He played a lot of football as a youngster but it wasn't long before he became serious about cycling. He spent plenty of time on the track as a junior, and won medals at junior level in the Belgian national championships, including gold in the team sprint in 2012.
On the road he was a regional time trial champion, and caught the eye in the summer of 2012 with two podium stage finishes at the Sint-Martinusprijs Kontich followed by eighth place at the junior Tour of Flanders.
He got his first opportunity in the professional peloton in the second half of 2013 with a stagiaire position at the Verandas Willems team. He did enough to turn that into a full-time contract for 2014, enabling him to ditch his accounting studies at college. He immediately impressed on the opening day of the Etoile de Bessèges and later sprinted to third place on the opening day of the Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux. In March of that year he finished second at the Zuidkempense Pijl, an showcase for talent won previously by Tom Boonen and Verandas Willems manager Nick Nuyens.
The results were noticed by Kurt van der Wouwer, manager of Lotto Soudal's development team, and Goolaerts became a part of one of Belgian cycling's institutions in 2015, as a 20-year-old. In his first season he finished fourth at Paris-Chauny and seventh in the U23 time trial at the Belgian national championships, while in his second season he won the opening stage of the Tour du Loir et Cher, taking the four-up sprint ahead of Chris Lawless, now of Team Sky.
It was a season of injuries and broken bones but Goolaerts he still earned a stagiaire spell with Lotto Soudal’s WorldTour squad in the back end of 2016. That didn't materialise into a contract with the WorldTour outfit but he nevertheless turned professional in 2017, returning to Verandas Willems as they entered their first season as a Professional Continental team.
In the break at the 2017 Tour of Flanders
As the Belgian team earned invites to some of the biggest races, Goolaerts was regularly to be found in breakaways. At the Tour of Flanders, his first Monument, he made it into the early break and spent more than 200 kilometres at the front of the race.
"200 kilometres on the attack in Flanders' most beautiful race," he wrote on social media. "Goose bumps all day! A day I won't forget in a hurry." At Halle Ingooigem he earned praise from Tom Boonen for his showing in the break.
Goolaerts kicked off his 2018 campaign with three top-10 stage finishes at the Sharjah Tour, and he went on to enjoy a decent spring campaign in Belgium, finishing 20th at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne – a result he described as "not bad, not good" – and ninth at Le Samyn.
He didn't finish the Tour of Flanders but clearly relished the experience as he posted a photo on his social media accounts of himself on the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen, being roared up towards the chapel by the hoards of fans. It would be his last post.
A week later he took to the start line of his first Paris-Roubaix, the morning seemingly rife with possibility. So it was for his life and career but, tragically, we will never know what Michael Goolaerts would go on to do, achieve, or be.