Van Aert pays tribute to "a mischievous guy with an eternal smile"

Wout van Aert may have finished 13th place at Paris-Roubaix but there was no race report on the Belgian’s website as he said that the result and all others from the spring have “disappeared” from his mind after the death of Veranda’s Willems-Crelan team-mate Michael Goolaerts.

Goolaerts died after suffering a heart attack on the Briastre section of cobbles midway through Sunday’s race, passing away in hospital in Lille a few hours later surrounding by his family and loved ones.

In an emotional tribute posted on his personal website, Van Aert described how Goolaerts’ death still felt “unreal”, and how he was trying to come to terms with the death of a rider who he’d been riding with and against since childhood.

“I have known Michael since I was a junior,” Van Aert wrote. “We were both born in 1994 and from the same region, so we have been together for a long time, albeit as competitors.

“I remember Michael as an ever-cheerful guy, never bad-tempered and always extremely motivated, a barrel full of talent, even though he needed a bit more time to grow than I did, because he had taken a big step forward this year. The fact that he kept working for me all spring says it all about his mentality.

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Van Aert also described how Goolaerts had dreamed of riding Paris-Roubaix, which both riders were competing in for the first time on Sunday.

“Paris-Roubaix was also Michael’s dream race. On Wednesday we went with the team to recon the cobbles. Michael had real enthusiasm as he rode off.

“It was only after the race that I was informed about the situation, and I spent the next few hours with my team-mates, first on the team bus and later in the team hotel, looking for support while we continued to hope for positive news. Unfortunately that did not happen.”

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Paris-Roubaix was Van Aert’s final race ahead of a break from competition after a tough winter where he completed a full cyclocross season, winning the World Championships in January, before embarking on a road campaign through the spring Classics.

Despite the events of Sunday, Van Aert and his partner Sarah have decided to cancel a planned holiday to the United States, with Van Aert saying that they “would not enjoy it anyway and I do not want to miss Michael’s funeral.”

Van Aert completed his tribute to Goolaerts by wishing strength to those close to him: “I want to wish everyone who loves Michael a lot of strength. Please, keep the memory of Michael alive!

“Remember him as I will: that mischievous guy with an eternal smile. He will always be an inspiration. Rest easily up there, mate!”