Lotto Soudal's Jelle Wallays has explained how the news of teammate Bjorg Lambrecht's Tour de Pologne crash over his race radio brought back memories of Stig Broeckx's crash three years ago. Broeckx has been left trying to recover from severe brain damage, while Lambrecht died on Monday as a result of his injuries.
"The news of Bjorg's fall came through the earpiece. You heard there was panic, and I immediately knew it was serious," Wallays told Ann Braeckman of the Belga news agency on Tuesday. "There was a feeling of déjà vu for me, because I have already experienced it all with Stig Broeckx."
Wallays was at the 2016 Baloise Belgium Tour when his Lotto Soudal teammate Broeckx crashed as a result of two motorbikes colliding. Broeckx suffered severe brain damage, and was in a coma for more than six months, emerging in December 2016, since when he's been working on his recovery.
On that occasion, the Lotto Soudal team pulled out of the race while safety questions were raised, but the team chose to ride stage 4 of the Tour de Pologne on Tuesday in memory of Lambrecht, whose crash is still being investigated.
The decision as to whether to continue at the Tour de Pologne beyond Tuesday's stage will be left up to the individual riders, the Lotto Soudal team has said.
"Stig is still alive; he can still laugh and chat," said Wallays. "Unfortunately, that isn't the case for Bjorg.
"At the finish, the same thing happened as with Stig," he said. "We were immediately led to the team bus, and then had to wait for all our teammates to come in. And then the news came. I already suspected it wouldn't be good. You have to be a cyclist to realise that; you have to have experienced that before. It came hard."
Back at the hotel, Wallays explained, everyone had their own way of trying to process and deal with what had happened.
"I'm someone who can talk about it well, but it's different for every rider," he said. "We were given a separate room at the hotel where we could all sit, and share, and talk, but it was also very quiet. These are very difficult moments.
"At 9.30pm, the sacrament followed, and [sports director] Mario Aerts and the doctor also arrived. They were devastated. They'd done everything they could to help keep him alive. They'd been there. He died, and they've been greatly affected," said Wallays.
At last year's Vuelta a Espana, Wallays and Lambrecht had been roommates. It was Lambrecht's first Grand Tour, and he was eager to learn what it takes to ride one of the world's biggest races.
"He asked a lot of questions and I was happy to help him," remembered Wallays. "It was always a laugh with him. I called him 'Kleinen' ['Little One']. He was such a smiley person, such a fighter, he went so hard for it. He had so much to offer, and I was looking forward to riding the Vuelta with him again this year.
"Bjorg had made so much progress over the past few months," continued Wallays. "You knew he was going to be able to do something beautiful at this Vuelta. We will miss him so much, but we will also carry him in our hearts, and at the races.
"For me, he will always be 'Kleinen' – that smiley person we will never forget."
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