The start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is usually one of the most joyous occasions on the calendar: the first race of the year in the world’s most passionate cycling nation. The crowds gather in Ghent’s Sint-Pietersplein not only to welcome the peloton back to Belgium and cheer for their favourites, but also to herald the end of the winter and celebrate a fresh beginning, like some ancient pagan festival.
The same old rituals were all dutifully carried out before the start. Local fans swarmed around the Omega Pharma-QuickStep bus, eager to catch a glimpse of Tom Boonen. Makeshift beer kiosks did a brisk trade despite the early hour. Rider after rider on the signing on podium dutifully told speaker Michel Wuyts that it felt like the first day of school.
And yet for all the comfort of routine, a distinct sadness lingered in the low grey skies over Ghent on Saturday morning. Kristof Goddaert’s tragic death in a training accident in Antwerp ten days ago meant that there was one empty place on this first day back.
The 27-year-old Goddaert would have been a part of IAM Cycling’s team for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, eager to help his leaders Heinrich Haussler and Sylvain Chavanel, and perhaps better his own 14th place of two years ago in the process.
While the peloton had already commemorated Goddaert with a minute’s silence at the Tour of Oman last week, there was a particular poignancy about paying tribute to the Belgian in his homeland, amid his fellow countrymen and ahead of one of the great landmarks of the season.
The eight members of the IAM Cycling team went to sign on together, and they were greeted by generous applause as they stood in line on the podium. “It’s a hard moment for the team but we’ll try to do well today. That would be a good way to honour Kristof,” Sylvain Chavanel said.
Heinrich Haussler grew especially close to Goddaert during their time as teammates, and he had already eloquently expressed his feelings on the tragedy in a thoughtful blog post. He was visibly moved on descending from the dais on Saturday morning but determined to commemorate Goddaert by making an impact on the race.
“It’s a special day. I didn’t have the chance top say goodbye, he left everyone so suddenly and tragically,” Haussler said, his voice raw. “He was always happy, always laughing, always full gas, always telling jokes. He would have said to stop crying, go out in the race, attack and go full gas.”
The IAM Cycling riders were waved through to the front when the peloton gathered on the start line, where a minute’s silence was held for Goddaert and a rare hush descended over the normally raucous Sint-Pietersplein.
“For that minute, I’ll think of all the good memories with him. He’ll be riding with many riders today.” Tom Boonen said as he made his way to the start. “But it remains sport. As soon as we’re racing, it’s different.”
A burst of applause broke the silence, and moments later, the flag was dropped and the 164 starters pedalled off towards the mists and cobbles of East Flanders.