After years of trying, Antoine Demoitié had finally made it to The Show. On Friday, the 25-year-old lined out for his first ever WorldTour race at E3 Harelbeke, determined to honour the occasion. Television time is manna to a Pro Continental team such as Wanty-Groupe Gobert. During the pre-race briefing, the directeurs sportifs didn't have to look hard for a volunteer to enter the day's early break.
As Cancellara, Boonen et al gave chase behind, Demoitié duly rode his heart out at the head of the race. On the slopes of the Kruisberg and the Taaienberg, flanked by raucous Flemish fans, he must have felt that he was living the dream after years performing off Broadway with Continental outfit Wallonie-Bruxelles.
"He was always happy. He was happy because he was a cyclist. He was happy because he was on a Pro Continental team. He was happy because he was doing big races," Wanty-Groupe Gobert directeur sportif Hilaire Van der Schueren said on Monday afternoon.
"I said to him after the race on Friday: ‘Very good, now do the same on Sunday.' But he said, ‘No, no, I want to do a good classification.' And I knew with the wind at Gent-Wevelgem it would be hard for a break to go away, so I said ‘Ok, you can stay in the bunch.'"
Demoitié would not make it to Wevelgem on Sunday afternoon. His race ended when he crashed with four other riders at Sainte-Marie-Cappel, across the border in France, with 115 kilometres remaining. As he lay on the ground, he was struck by a following motorbike. He was taken to hospital in Lille, where he died shortly after midnight.
At a sombre press conference in De Panne on Monday afternoon, Wanty-Groupe Gobert riders and management were still trying to come to terms with their loss, and journalists were wary of intruding on their grief. The team had gathered at the Hotel Cajou ahead of the Three Days of De Panne but, understandably, they have withdrawn from the race. The riders watched in silence as Van der Schueren and team manager Jean-François Bourlart addressed reporters.
Van der Schueren has been a directeur sportif for more than thirty years, starting off with Jan Raas' Kwantum squad and serving at teams such as Novell, Collstrop, Unibet and Vacansoleil in the intervening period. But no amount of experience can truly prepare a man for a tragedy of this kind.
"In my career, I've been on races where riders have died, but it's never been one of my own," Van der Schueren said, his voice breaking. "It's so much more difficult to come to terms with it. The image of Antoine lying on the ground will stay with me for a long, long time."
Van der Schueren was behind the wheel of the team car when he arrived on the scene of the incident and it was a mechanic who first attended to the stricken Demoitié. "Antoine had just called on the radio asking for a bidon. Those were his last words," Van der Schueren said. "The ambulance was called immediately and then he was taken to hospital by helicopter. You try to keep hopeful but when they looked for the details of his wife and family, we knew it was very serious."
Wanty-Groupe Gobert manager Jean-François Bourlart paid a warm tribute to Demoitié, echoing Van der Schueren's memories of a rider grateful for the opportunity to perform at the highest level and keen to make the most of that chance. Despite interest from Lotto-Soudal, he finally opted for the Pro Continental team.
"It's true that I'd been following Antoine for a few years and finally this winter we made contact and signed him," Bourlart said. "On signing his contract, he spoke about how it was always his dream to ride in the WorldTour, to ride the biggest races. And that was a dream he'd started to live at E3 on Friday, by getting into the break as he was asked, and then staying up there with the leaders right up to the Oude Kwaremont."
Demoitié had already started his time at Wanty-Groupe Gobert with a fine showing at Etoile de Bessèges, but the centrepiece of his first spring at this level was due to come later in April. A native of Nandrin, near Liège, he was eager to line out at the Ardennes Classics.
"The next part of his dream was to ride Flèche Wallonne because it's in his back garden. He was so motivated for that," Bourlart said. "And we were very happy with him, both from a sporting point of view and human standpoint, too. He was always in good humour, very polite. It was a pleasure to have him on the team and he fitted in very well."
In Bourlart's words, Wanty-Groupe Gobert prides itself on a certain family atmosphere, and Demoitié had bonds with the team that extended beyond cycling. His long-term friend and new teammate Gaetan Bille served as his best man when he married Astrid in Nandrin last October.
"Antoine was very happy to be on a team with his best friend and best man Gaeten Bille," Bourlart said. "He was a happy person and he was very happy in his life as a rider."
- Riders, teammates and friends pay tribute to Antoine Demoitie
- Wanty-Groupe Gobert withdraw from Driedaagse De Panne after death of Demoitie
- Weekend Wrap: Tragedy at Gent-Wevelgem
- Antoine Demoitie will be truly missed, says UCI president Brian Cookson
- CPA calls for improved safety standards following death of Demoitie
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