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ALANYA, Turkey — How much does Kris Boeckmans mean to his Lotto – Soudal teammates? Considering that sprinter André Greipel wanted to forego his 11th career stage win at the Presidential Tour of Turkey on Tuesday in favor of the 29-year-old Belgian, chances are he means quite a lot.
Now Greipel did not get the green light to hold back, but he was quick to express his admiration for Boeckmans in the post-race press conference in Konya.
“It would have been nice as well if one of the teammates had won,” said Greipel after he and five other Lotto riders ripped the peloton asunder in the crosswinds. “Kris Boeckmans deserved it for sure as it was so impressive that he was part of the front group. It would have been emotional if he had won, but we stuck to the plan, and I did the sprint.”
The soft-spoken Boeckmans was enjoying a banner season; capturing eight of his 11 pro wins, including two stage wins and a general classification at the Tour of Picardi (2.1), along with a stage and a GC at the World Ports Classic (2.1).
That was until stage 8 of the Vuelta a España in August, when he hit a pothole while drinking from his bidon, sending him head-first over the handlebars toward the tarmac.
Boeckmans was immediately rushed to a nearby hospital in Murcia, Spain, where told Cycling Weekly he almost died “six times” after suffering from a concussion, three broken ribs, a punctured lung and a broken nose and jaw that required eight hours of facial surgery. Boeckmans was placed in a medically induced coma for more than a week to treat his extensive, life-threatening injuries.
“The hardest part were the days alone at home laying down for some rest, because I did some efforts the day before and had to sleep for two days to recover,” Boeckmans told VeloNews prior to the start of stage 4 in Seydişehir on Wednesday. “But every week I felt myself progressing, and that was the reward. I still get that feeling every week and that keeps me motivated.”
For team sports director Mario Aerts, who wasn’t sure Boeckmans would live much less return to cycling, he is an exemplar of the human spirit’s strength.
“That was the first question, will he become good again as a person and that was soon OK,” Aerts explained to VeloNews. “Then, what will he be able to do in the sport as a cyclist? That was proved to be OK. The next question was if he could come back at the level he was before, and now that is also starting to solve itself.
“Kris has a lot of character, resilience and courage,” he continued. “He possesses a lot of drive to come back as a human being and as a cyclist, and he wants to come back to the sport’s highest level.”
Coming back is not always easy.
Boeckmans, who started his season ahead of schedule in March at the Handzame Classic, failed to finish the opening stage of Volta a Catalunya before finishing 66th in Schedleprijs earlier this month.
The Tour of Turkey did not start much better after being involved in a 30-rider pileup inside the race’s first 10km, which sent nearly one-fifth of the peloton home early. But three hours later, he was again fighting for position in the final.
“I made the right decisions during the crash,” explained Boeckmans. “I swayed left and right and rolled in the crash, I didn’t really crash, I touched my knee somehow, which I still feel a bit.
“Look, it’s been almost nine months now, and for me I feel like I am reborn,” he continued. “I took my time during recovery and never forced anything, but I also never took one day off — not one.”
Now with a podium to validate his comeback, Boeckmans, who lost 15kg (33 pounds) during his recovery, is not about to let one ounce of energy go to waste.
“Before I came to Turkey, I spoke to my trainer and physio, and afterwards I will speak to them again to prepare for my next steps,” said Boeckmans. “I still need to work on my power, as I have spent the last two months or more on endurance.
“I averaged 300 watts yesterday, so I am happy with that.
“But for me the best part of this journey is being here right now riding with the best teammates in the world,” he concluded. “It’s crazy that I’m even still here.
“I’m enjoying cycling as much as I did before the crash and I think that’s a huge accomplishment considering what I’ve been through.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a contributor to VeloNews.