Although Koen de Kort had already planned to hang up his wheels after the 2021 season, a serious accident ended his career a few months earlier with the Dutch national championships at the end of June being his last race. He looks back at that faithful day and is looking ahead to what the future holds.
“Some friends and I were driving around the mountains in Andorra and we went off-road with a buggy,” he says about the day that changed his life. “We were going to this ski lodge for lunch. It’s beautiful and you can’t get there by car. I don’t remember what happened exactly but the buggy rolled over and my hand got stuck beneath the roll cage and the ground. I looked at my hand and three fingers were just hanging lose. I was in a state of shock. I immediately knew this would be life changing.”
De Kort was quickly helicoptered off the mountain to the hospital in Barcelona which is not that far from the small country of Andorra. In the university hospital the best doctors operated on his hand but they couldn’t save the three fingers on his right hand. De Kort was left with his thumb and index finger (he is right handed).
“It all went very fast and still is a bit of a blur. Our team doctor Manuel Rodriguez was very important to me. I immediately called him after the accident but it was clear pretty soon that I would lose the fingers. They were hanging by a thread, so to say.”
I have known Koen de Kort for quite some time now and he is always the optimistic, cheerful guy in the media and towards the media. He interacts with fans on social media and is open and honest. Trek-Segafredo called him the peloton favorite when announcing his retirement earlier this week and the outpour of support shows that status.
“Being a favorite is not a bad title to have,” he says with a smile on my Zoom screen. He is back in the Netherlands for his recovery and to be close to his family. “To be honest, I didn’t read all the messages in the first days after the accident. Sometimes when people send a second message, I see that they sent me one on the first day too. I don’t want to read them because it brings me back to the day I want to forget. Also, reading all the messages wasn’t the first thing on my mind but I am happy with all the support because it shows I affected many people’s lives.”
After a few days in the hospital only De Kort started thinking about the future. It’s a mindset he knows all too well from crashes in his long cycling career. Bike riders always try to get back up and ride on.
“In the first days I tried to distract myself in the hospital by listening podcasts every minute I was awake and sleeping the rest of the time. But then, I still have the most important fingers [of the right hand] left and now take the time to figure out what I can do. I always used to type with ten fingers and now it’s seven,” he says.
“There is still so much I can do,” he emphasizes. “I have that cycling mentality and that focus on healing. The first step was leaving hospital but then what is the next step? I want to use the fingers as soon as I can but take a step by step approach and work towards goals. When you can throw a ball with your right hand you can also learn to do it with your left hand. It’s all about adaptation.”
De Kort is not a depressed person. On the contrary, he is still the same kind, open, honest and happy person he always was. Of course, he would have loved to say goodbye to his career he was already planning to end this year with a final Paris-Roubaix, a race he did 13 times as a professional and won in 2004 as a U23 rider.
De Kort’s career started nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s defined by helping others. De Kort never won many races himself but was pivotal in the victories of his teammates.
“I remember very well when the Tour de France started in Den Bosch, in the Netherlands in 1996. It was the first time I started considering cycling as a sport. You know that in the Netherlands everyone rides a bike to school but I fell in love with cycling [as a sport]. I still hope to ride my bike but I am still recovering now and its unsure what that future will look like.”
“I always enjoyed helping others win. Some of my best memories are from helping Marcel Kittel win the bunch sprints in the Tour de France. Or helping John Degenkolb win Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix and that Tour de France stage [in Roubaix]. I have great memories of those days we were more as a team than the sum of the individual members combined. I wasn’t often focused on getting my own results. It gave me a great feeling when I did a great lead-out or made a difference [for someone else].”
When Trek-Segafredo announced Koen de Kort would retire from the pro peloton it was also announced he stayed with the team in a technical support role as team support manager. It greatly helps the Dutchman transition from an active cycling career to a new one.
“This role, the corporate side of cycling, was something I always wanted. Glen Leven, who is one of the best mechanics I ever worked with, and I will be the connection between our great equipment sponsors and the riders. We test the products they make so they can take the input from procycling to improve their products. I will still be part of this sport, of the team and play a role in winning races.”
De Kort already started this week with the first meetings. He will officially take over from Matt Shriver in November.
“There are hard moments and moments that I am sad. Straight after the accident I wanted to disappear to family and friends but this new job helps me looking forward again and to be at the races and with the Trek-Segafredo team.”
When De Kort started as a junior in 1999 the cycling world looked different. He has seen it change throughout the years and will now play a role in further change when it comes to development of new equipment.
“The changes over the year have been small. We used power meters but it was early stages. Now we have them on all the bikes and it’s made cycling more scientific. The sport is controlled more by the trainers and the teams. You can simulate racing and prepare for races without racing [that much].
“We have the best women’s team in the world and I am excited to help them stay on top. Matt was alone in his role and always had to choose but with two people in this role now we have more time to divide. The level in women’s cycling is very professional but there is always room for improvement, women’s specific and in general. The first thing I need to do is listen to the riders to see what they want and then get started.”
When asked what Koen would advise his 18-year-old self back in 1999 he says: “I would tell him to enjoy himself. I had such a long career because I always enjoyed cycling. Maybe I could have won more but have a shorter career? I am happy with what I achieved and I have unforgettable memories and made great friends around the world. I have no regrets but I would tell him [18-year-old Koen] to not get in that buggy on the 24th of June in 2021.”
You can listen to this interview in the next CyclingTips weekly podcast.