The day Koen de Kort lost three fingers, he was going to have lunch in a ski hut on top of an Andorran mountain. In the morning the professional rider of Trek-Segafredo had trained, otherwise he didn’t have to do much that day. So when a friend asked him if he was going to the restaurant, only accessible by foot or an off-road vehicle, he jumped into a buggy, one of those four-wheelers with big, chunky tires and a roll cage around it, and off they went.
It must have been due to the surface that suddenly changed its composition, causing his buggy to roll over on the way. In response, he threw his right arm up, his hand sticking out of the cage. Just then, the buggy rolled over the knuckles of his middle, ring, and little finger.
At first, De Kort did not realize what had happened. He was hanging upside down, trying to break free. It was only when he couldn’t open the four-point seat belt he was wearing that he saw his hand and panicked. His friend, who was in another vehicle, had to free him.
De Kort is eventually driven off the mountain in a buggy and taken by helicopter to a hospital in Barcelona. There he is told that he must take into account that he will lose the three fingers. It remains to be seen whether his index finger can be spared, says the treating specialist – the skin has been completely ripped off the finger. De Kort only thinks: I can still move it, so you will succeed.
Four operations and eight weeks later, his hand is bandaged, but he still has his thumb and index finger. De Kort can write, call, type and even cut meat with it; you won’t see him fiddling in a restaurant. Only for eating with chopsticks you really need three fingers. He now does that with the left.
No goodbyes in Paris-Roubaix
The accident means the end of his career for 38-year-old De Kort. Last year he had already decided that 2021 would be his last season as a pro. While he watches all stages of the Tour de France from start to finish in the hospital, the realization sinks in: he will never cycle a race again.
He would have preferred to say goodbye at the beginning of October during Paris-Roubaix, for him the most beautiful cycling monument. When he sees teammate Mads Pedersen win a stage in the Tour of Denmark, he notices that he misses racing; normally he would have been there to help the Dane win.
He is not grieving about the abrupt end of his seventeen-year professional career. In the corona year 2020 he trained really well, he drove good results in digital competitions on the roller bench. But in the first races on the road, he was hopelessly knocked off by a new generation. He saw it as a signal from his body that it was done. Maybe he was just too old.
What helps is that the next step in his life is already waiting for him. Two days after his accident, De Kort hears that he can work for Trek-Segafredo as a team support manager, a liaison between the riders and the factory. He has to provide feedback on new bikes and related products. He also has to test them and order them for the cycling team.
De Kort conducted job interviews last year, taking into account that he would have to quit if the job was for him. He has always been busy with life after cycling. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in Human Movement Sciences in the same year that he received a professional contract. For the past two years, he has completed a master’s degree in sports management online. It’s almost completed.
Becoming a team boss in the long run, a role like Patrick Lefevere has at Deceuninck-Quick-Step, that seems interesting to him. He likes to work with budgets and direct people, as he did in his last years as a rider as a road captain. He doesn’t like the sports director, as many of his colleagues do. He’s been a rider for too long to sit behind the pack in a car. Too little challenge.
Business also attracts him. Not a nine-to-five job, but as a consultant giving companies advice on how to approach people. Or help fellow cyclists think about life after their active career. Few riders never have to work again.
De Kort looks back with pride on his career, even though, according to Velostats, he won two of the 1,413 races in which he participated: a stage in the Tour de l’Avenir in 2005, and the GP Eddy Merckx in 2004, with Thomas decker.
His job was to help others win. First as lead-out for Marcel Kittel, who won from his wheel in 2013 on the Champs-Élysées. He helped his good friend John Degenkolb to victories in Paris-Roubaix and Milan-Sanremo in 2015, and then assisted Alberto Contador as a foreman. In recent years he has been the road captain for Trek-Segafredo.
He might have won more often had he been a bit more of an asshole. But that’s just not in his nature. Often enough he had no problem helping someone else, even if they weren’t a teammate. He will get it from his parents, they are like that too.
In 2012, De Kort was perhaps in his best shape ever. He was the leader in the spring races, came third in Dwars door Vlaanderen, good results in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix beckoned. But in the semi-classic E3 Prize, he breaks a rib in a fall.
It is a turning point in his career. On his return, a German talent, John Degenkolb, is better in training. De Kort could have gone for his own chances, but that’s not teamwork. Nine times out of ten you only win if you have a strong team. So he chose to ride for Degenkolb.
It made him one of the most beloved riders in the peloton. Nobody who doesn’t think Koen de Kort is a nice guy. After the news of his accident, he received messages from teammates, former teammates and supervisors. Mark Cavendish tweeted him get well soon. While the Tour de France was about to start, the most important three racing weeks of the year. The fact that they thought of him at such a moment meant a lot to him.
Normally De Kort walks upright, chest out; cycling has given him a lot of confidence. But for the first few days after his accident, he walks bent over, his hand tucked deep.
He doesn’t feel like compassion, doesn’t want to be seen as pathetic. Thinks of everything he can no longer do. How can he get to know new people if he can’t even shake their hands?
After nine days, De Kort decides that enough is enough. His parents come over, he doesn’t want them to see him like this. Moreover, he is done with those negative thoughts, you will not achieve anything with them. Now and then he has a hard time for an hour, but otherwise things are going well according to the circumstances.
Making such a mental switch is normal, he thinks. It would be rather special if he couldn’t. But his girlfriend, and not only her, told him she would probably still be in bed crying by now.
It will be partly due to cycling. A sport in which you often lose and have to deal with a lot of setbacks. Three-quarters of a year of training for Paris-Roubaix and then you fall a few weeks before. It’s part of it, then you won’t sit around and moan for three weeks.
After such a setback, you build perseverance. The first day after his accident, it takes him three hours to open a bottle of water with his right hand. When his treating specialist hears that, he says he has never experienced anything like it.
The accident has made him more aware of his own mortality, his girlfriend says. De Kort always felt that nothing could ever happen to him. He went downhill mountain biking without protection every week, including during the cycling season. Falling, he didn’t think about that.
De Kort hopes that the accident will make him stronger. He is no longer afraid of anything, because losing three fingers is already quite serious. He has resolved to remain the same as before the accident. Although with three fingers less, he will make sure that everyone will think: wow, he can still do everything, he has remained the same Koen.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 21 August 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 21, 2021