Iljo Keisse: “Wouter Weylandt is always with me”
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Saturday, May 05, 2012

Iljo Keisse: “Wouter Weylandt is always with me”

by Ben Atkins at 5:58 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Giro d'Italia
 
Belgian rider talks about missing his childhood friend ahead of the first anniversary of his death

iljo keisseStage three of the Giro d’Italia will be a poignant one, as the race will pay tribute to the late Wouter Weylandt, who tragically died in last year’s race. The Giro has retired the number 108, which Weylandt was wearing at the time, and keeps his memory alive with the words “Sempre con noi” - always with us. There is one rider however, who is not riding this year’s Giro, who always feels that Weylandt is with him: childhood friend, and former teammate Iljo Keisse of Omega Pharma-Quick Step.

Although Keisse was almost two year’s older than Weylandt, the two riders grew up together, coming through the same junior ranks in their hometown of Gent. While Keisse specialised on the track, Weylandt was excelling on the road; they were finally united on the Quick Step team of 2010 however, but Weylandt elected to take his own chances with Leopard Trek in 2011.

Keisse has been through a difficult time in the last few years; a lengthy legal battle with the International Cycling Union International Cycling Union (UCI), over a positive test he returned at the 2008 Gent Six-Days, was only resolved at the beginning of this year. The loss of one of Keisse’s best friends however, has put all this into perspective, as he explained in an interview with Het Nieuwsblad.

“I have known some difficult years with my suspension and my legal battle,” he said, “but the sport is one thing, what happened is of something else entirely. I am talking mainly about Wouter; he was unfortunately not the first, hopefully the last. I lost a team mate with Frederiek Nolf [who died in his sleep at the 2009 Tour of Qatar - ed]; afterwards Dimitri De Fauw [who was involved in Isaac Galvez’ fatal crash in in 2006, and took his own life in November 2009 - ed], who used to my best friend. I rode with Frank Vandenbroucke and called him every day before he died; and then Wouter... For ten years we saw each other every day.

“Since my move to Sleidinge and the birth of my son Jules, we saw each other much less, but my head is full of memories of him.”

Like most of those who knew Weylandt, Keisse had problems coming to terms with the 26-year-old’s death, but has since found ways to deal with it and now draws strength from his friend’s memory.

"In the beginning it was difficult for me to talk about it,” he said. “I had a lump in my throat and it was blocked. I still get goose bumps, but by talking about Wouter he is more present, and when I’m alone on my bike I think of him. Many people at Omega Pharma-Quickstep: staff, soigneurs, mechanics knew Wouter.

“It sometimes goes unspoken,” he explained. “When I was in the lead at the Tour of Turkey [stage 7 - ed], Kurt van Roosbroeck - a soigneur who was at that fatal Giro - drove beside me.

“He shouted: ‘Come on, mate. Hang in there, mate. Believe it, mate.’” he laughed. “He did that because the end of each sentence sounded like Wouter. Without saying his name, I felt Wouters presence. A few months ago I found those things difficult, now it does me good.”

Keisse managed to hold off the peloton on the way to the finish in Izmir and, despite a spectacular slide on the final corner with less than a kilometre to go, he remounted and won his first ever WorldTour victory.

The 29-year-old denies that he has found religion however, but simply feels that his friend is always with him.

wouter weylandt“It is not faith, but rather a feeling that Wouter sees everything,’ he explained. “When I sit on my bike; if I win; if I finish a good workout. That gives me strength, I'm going to work harder because Wouter is watching. I like that he is happy. When I returned from the tour of Turkey I went to Wouter’s grave to tell him everything about my victory, but at the same time I thought: ‘what can I tell you?’ He has seen everything.

“They might sound like weird thoughts, but I draw strength from them,” he continued. “There's not a day goes by, especially when I ride, that I don’t think of Wouter. If all of those were negative thoughts, I’d have to stop racing; I try to think in a positive way. In the beginning I couldn’t, but you can’t continue to push yourself in a pit. I hadn’t ridden for a while, and once I thought about it, that was my training over. I had a lot of trouble getting started again, but I had to move forward. I can’t think that the same thing could happen to me, otherwise my career would be over. In every race there are risks.”

Keisse admits that the two of them had begun to drift apart, as in 2011 they were on different teams, and personal circumstances had changed.

“In the end we saw each other less, after my move to Sleidinge, but mostly after the birth of my son Jules,” he said. “As a young father, I had my hands full, especially with the combination of the household, my training, traveling and other worries. Wouter didn't understand that I had less time. He was also going to be a father, but only when you are one do you realise how significant that is.”

Tragically, Weylandt’s daughter was born without her father, four months after his death. The tall, popular Belgian will be remembered on Monday’s third stage - which he won in 2010, and died in, in 2011 - and also on May 9th - the actual anniversary - but none will remember him more than those who were close to him.

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