Six months after Astrid and Antoine Demoitié were married, Astrid found herself back in the same church they’d been married in, saying her final goodbyes to her husband.
A week before that, in late March 2016, Antoine had been hit by a motorbike in Gent-Wevelgem, and died a few hours later in hospital.
“Antoine was a bon vivant, someone who always cared about others,” Astrid says. “I think he maybe cared more about others than about himself.
“He was always joyful. I fell in love with the love-for-life. That’s how many people remember him, as joyful and full of life. He was my first love and will always be a part of my life.”
It’s been five years. Antoine never left the heart of his wife (and now widow) Astrid but he also left a lasting impression on everyone who came across him and worked with him, including me – I was the press officer of Antoine’s team, Wanty-Groupe Gobert – Gent-Wevelgem organizer Griet Langedock, and teammate Enrico Gasparotto. “It’s so important that people still say his name,” Astrid says. “That way he lives on.”
Astrid and Antoine met when they were 14 years old but their relationship became serious when they were 18. She a student-nurse, he a talented rider from Wallonia. The fact she was a nurse helped her accept his death on that fateful Sunday in March 2016.
“I was at the side of the road with Antoine’s father,” Astrid says. “Antoine had crashed but we had no news at all. Gaetan [Bille, Antoine’s teammate and best friend] didn’t know anything either but he was in Catalonia for a race. I started calling hospitals but they said Antoine wasn’t there. In the end Jean-Francois Bourlart [manager of Wanty-Groupe Gobert] told me to go to Lille. I did and I immediately knew it was bad.”
I was at home and also got a phone call. During Gent-Wevelgem I had already spoken with sports director Hilaire Van Der Schueren and he seemed down. I thought it was because all of the riders had missed the decisive echelon, until I got that phone call too. “Il va mourir; Antoine va mourir.” Those were his words. “He is going to die; Antoine is going to die.”
“One of the motorbike regulators called me and said a rider had crashed badly,” race organizer Griet Langedock remembers. “Things were a bit unclear because what is bad? Antoine crashed at a site just across the border with very low cell reception so things were all unclear at first. The ‘good thing’ was there was a medical team onsite. It was clear his brain damage was severe but they kept his body going.”
“I started working as a nurse when I was 21,” Astrid says. “I had been to many hospitals but the wait in that waiting room while they were working on Antoine seemed so long. When the doctor joined us, he wanted to explain in easy-to-understand language what was going on. As a nurse I wanted to know the details and all the medical terms, no matter how hard the message. I needed clarity to understand what was going on.”
Antoine was brain-dead. The blow to the back of his head had been too hard. There was no life left to be lived. Astrid and Antoine had spoken about organ donation and she knew straight away Antoine would have wanted to donate his organs. Just after midnight he was declared dead and his organs were used to help others live on.
Enrico Gasparotto, Antoine’s teammate, was alone when he heard the news. “At the airport in Catalunya we were all together as a team when we heard about the crash,” he tells me. “We were crying but we didn’t know how bad it was. I had to leave the team behind and catch my flight. At home I heard Antoine was not going to make it. I was in shock but couldn’t cry. I didn’t sleep for one second. I was just thinking about life in general. The next day I drank too much. To try and forget.”
Antoine died at the moment I had finally found some sleep after an evening with many phone calls and media appearances. I scrolled through the folder ‘Antoine’ that photographer Kristof Ramon had made during the January team camp to make a memento for social media. It struck me there would never be a new photo added. “Never” is such a definitive thing.
— Circus – Wanty Gobert – Tormans Cycling Team (@CircusWGT) March 28, 2016
The funeral was packed with people. Seeing a casket and knowing there was a 25-year-old man there, in the same place he got married six months earlier, changed me profoundly. It changed everyone who was there.
“I wanted to go to the funeral so badly,” Enrico Gasparotto remembers. “I was at Tenerife to prepare for the Ardennes week. Dani Moreno was there and he was a great support. Sports director Hilaire Van der Schueren also told me to stay there and focus. It was the hardest time in my life. It was the first time I ever lost someone so close to me.”
The preparation paid off. Gasparotto came in second at the Brabantse Pijl but in the post-race interview he was distraught he didn’t win. He wanted to win for Antoine.
“It was my first podium in a while and I should have been happy but I wasn’t,” Gasparotto explains. “Friends and teammates all told me to focus on the Amstel Gold Race next. I had won that race before so I know how hard it is to win.”
As we now know, Gasparatto managed to take a stirring victory in honour of his fallen teammate.
“It was a cold and rainy Sunday,” he recalls. “I felt I could not win again. On any other day I would have not been able to do what I did that day. My teammates were all so dedicated and I wanted to win so badly. For Antoine and for Astrid who we met as a team the day before. It was all so emotional.
“Antoine gave me something extra that day. I pushed over all my limits and won. The picture of that day is still in my home.”
Fast forward five years. Astrid now works as a data manager at an oncology department at a local hospital. She is in charge of researching the latest clinical trials to see how they might benefit her patients. After the accident and death of Antoine she left her job at the hospital before returning a bit later.
“At the beginning it was really hard to work there,” she tells me. “I was still so fragile. I left after a year but found out that caring for people is what I do best. I needed some time away, that was all. Now I am back. At work at the oncology ward I feel that the death of Antoine has helped me. I can understand people who are about to lose someone but in the beginning that was too hard.”
Her family was a lifeline but meeting a new man proved to be even more important. His name: Louis Vervaeke. His profession: professional bike rider with Alpecin-Fenix.
“Louis came into my life at a time when I was so down and out,” Astrid says. “I was mourning Antoine, crying all the time. There were pictures of him all around the house. It was not easy for Louis but he was and is amazing. His personality is a lot like Antoine. I think a lot of the character, the perseverance comes from their profession. Louis is a sensitive man too who cares about others. I hope and know Antoine protects him.
“I am lucky to have met him. He helped me survive losing Antoine. I always say I have two big loves in my life. One is in heaven and the other one with me here. Antoine will always be a part of our life together. His pictures are in the house and we talk about him regularly.”
Astrid and Louis got married. She now has to wave goodbye to Louis when he goes away to races. “To say I am never scared is not true,” Astrid says. “I hope that Antoine protects him. I always tell him to be careful. Louis is always considerate and will try to call me as soon as possible after a race.
“Three years ago, he crashed in Paris-Nice and it was not good. He hadn’t called me yet and I didn’t know how bad he was after the crash. I was home alone and didn’t know what to do. I said to Antoine: ‘please protect Louis.’ Louis had a concussion and that was the reason he couldn’t call me but that was stressful.”
I left Wanty-Groupe Gobert after Antoine’s funeral for other reasons but I am profoundly grateful that I could do the work I did that week for Antoine. As a journalist and commentator his death changed me too. The first thing I think about when there are serious crashes are the rider’s friends and family. Never speculate, never share unconfirmed news. Pray.
I sometimes still visit Antoine’s grave when I travel through Wallonia. It’s the smallest town you can imagine with a little walled cemetery. The graves are old apart from one. There is cycling memorabilia on there. People still visit. I say hi to him and look at the clouds. And I remember his smile.
Race organizer Griet Langedock also carries Antoine with her. She spoke with Antoine’s father and his widow Astrid. They all knew no one could have prevented his death. The race organization created a little memorial at the site where Antoine crashed in France. They also have a ‘Ride for Antoine’ memorial every race at the Rozenberg, after roughly 192 km, a nod to Antoine’s race number. The number 192 will never be worn in Gent-Wevelgem again. Antoine’s memory therefore remains a lasting one in West Flanders.
“His picture is part of our race office,” Langedock says. “He is always there to remind us of the vulnerability. I didn’t know him personally but as a firewoman I have lost a young colleague. I know the grief of his family and friends. The family knows it was an accident. It could happen every day and it can happen again. His picture is here to remind us to always be alert and keep an eye on safety in everything we do.”
Losing a teammate, losing Antoine, has changed Enrico Gasparotto. “The year after Antoine I lost my best friend Michele Scarponi but Antoine was the first death that was so close to me,” he says. “That made it harder. Losing them both made me realize even more I had to live a good life and do good. You never know when goodbye is really goodbye. I am happy Astrid and now Louis are still in my life. What we share is so much bigger than a bike race can ever be. We share the memory of Antoine.”
“It’s important that people remember Antoine,” Astrid concludes. “His name is still out there and while it is, he is still alive. People didn’t forget him. That is a reassuring thought. Everyone who knew Antoine would remember him. He just was that kind of man.”