Wout Van Aert crossed the line in 13th place in Paris-Roubaix, closing out a highly successful first major Classics campaign with yet another impressive ride. But the Verandas Willems-Crelan rider cannot look back on the season with joy after the death of his teammate Michael Goolaerts.
Goolaerts, 23, suffered a cardiac arrest during the race and despite prompt medical attention, later died in the hospital.
"It does not matter how I did, my thoughts are with my teammate Michael Goolaerts, who lost his life yesterday," Van Aert said on his personal web site.
Van Aert was informed of his friend's condition after the race, and spent the evening with his teammates hoping to hear positive news. "Unfortunately that did not happen: late in the evening, Michael lost the battle, a battle that he apparently could not win.
"No race report on my website today, because it just does not matter Yes, I had worked weeks for Paris-Roubaix - my favorite cobbled classic - I wanted to finish a strong spring on the road in style, and after that to enjoy a well-deserved holiday together with [his partner] Sarah. It is unfortunately completely different: all results of the past spring vanished with the death of our teammate Michael Goolaerts. I close my road campaign with a very bitter aftertaste."
Van Aert said he has known Goolaerts, mostly as a competitor, since his youth. Both were born in 1994 in the same part of Belgium, and raced the same circuit.
"I remember Michael as an ever-cheerful guy, never bad-tempered and always extremely motivated, a barrel full of talent, even though he needed a bit more time to grow than I did, because he had taken a big step forward this year."
Van Aert said that Paris-Roubaix was Goolaerts' 'dream race', and during the reconnaissance ride on Wednesday he was brimming with enthusiasm.
During the early part of the race, Goolaerts had been tasked with helping Van Aert as long as possible, but Van Aert was never told by the team management what happened to Goolaerts. "I never knew what was going on during the race. The team leadership made the decision not to inform me and I think that was the right choice. At that time everyone was still in limbo about Michael's condition. The hope that it would turn out OK remained intact for a long time."
Van Aert had planned a holiday to the west coast of the US but opted to cancel those plans to be in Belgium for the funeral.
"Finally, on behalf of Sarah and myself, I want to wish everyone who loves Michael a lot of strength. And another request - Please, keep the memory of Michael alive! Remember him as I will: the crazy guy with an eternal smile, he will always be an inspiration. Rest in peace up there, mate!"