Goolaerts was just 23 and in his second year as a professional when he died on this day last year after suffering a cardiac arrest on the second cobbled sector of Paris-Roubaix. Just seven days before, he had been in the breakaway at the Tour of Flanders, and this was his first appearance at Paris-Roubaix, something that had been a dream for the Belgian.
In cycling, it can be easy to get wrapped up in rivalries, whether it be between teams, organisers or media, but in reality, the cycling community is bonded by a passion for the sport and all were equally as shaken to see a rider go out to race and not come home. Of course, the toughest blow was to Goolaerts’ family, friends and teammates, who knew him well.
“You keep saying: that is not possible. Because Michael was even in a screening program, right from Lotto's promise team, he had been followed very closely,” Goolaerts’ agent Jef Van den Bosch, who was there on the day, wrote in the Belgian magazine Sport. “He was screened in November and nothing had ever been established. So, you think: it is impossible that something goes wrong with his heart, that is simply not possible.
“Of course, you ask yourself a thousand and one questions. Why exactly Michael? Why a cardiac arrest? Why didn't it happen while he was at the start or standing still somewhere? Would it have ended differently? But getting an answer to all the questions ... that is impossible. And finally, at the end of the ride: Michael is not coming back. So, you must try to give it a place. As far as you can give it a place because it continues to control your life. You sit at home with an empty chair.”
Efforts have been made to ensure that Goolaerts’ memory is not forgotten with Paris-Roubaix renaming the stretch of cobbles between Briastre and Viesly (known as Chemin de Saint-Quentin) the Secteur Michael Goolaerts, while the Heistse Pijl race has been renamed in his memory. Dutch commentator Jose Been has also set up a website, with permission from his family, where people can post their memories and thoughts of Michael, for his family to read.
Several of his teammates were in action at the Tour of Flanders over the weekend and will be at Paris-Roubaix this coming Sunday. One of those is Wout van Aert, who rode both Flanders and Roubaix with Goolaerts last year. Van Aert has been fighting with the favourites throughout this year’s Classics and says that the memory of Goolaerts pushes him to work harder.
“It happened a year ago now, so in this period I think even more often of him,” Van Aert said in a press conference last week, ahead of the Tour of Flanders. “Last year, it took a long time before I was able to reasonably deal with it. These days I consider Michael an inspiration and I hope that it strengthens me to ride as good as possible. Michael will always be in my mind during the race. That’s what I will try to do.”
And, in all of this, we must also remember Antoine Demoitie, who lost his life during the 2016 Gent-Wevelgem and all of those that have died doing the sport that they love.
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