Peter Broeckx is an impressive man. Tall, like his son, but not as lean. A solid dairy farmer from the Kempisch village of Dessel with a face sculpted by the weather, the wind and the misery of the past year, and steel-blue eyes where you can read the emotions.
He has become more emotional, he admits. “I start crying at the slightest thing. The first months I was ashamed of it. Not any more. Why should I? Everyone knows what we’ve been through.”
You expect the cliché of the introverted, rough farmer. Doesn’t fit at all. He is a warm guy and eloquent from his years as a board member and chairman of various agricultural unions. His story comes pouring out, as if it’s doing him good to be able to share the whole tale for once, rather than the bits and pieces he can unload in the village.
He’s not mad about the press. The family has been shocked by the invasive cameras and the sensationalism of certain media. He even uses the word trauma. That’s why he chose to pull up the drawbridge, preventing information about Stig from seeping out. That’s also why his wife, Marie-An, still remains in the background. And that’s why he only wants to tell the story once: “Because the cycling world deserves it”.
“Four times Stig squeezed through the eye of the needle,” recalls Peter. “The first time was when he crashed. He shouldn’t even have been allowed to start the penultimate stage of the Tour of Belgium. The previous day, he’d fallen on his tailbone at the beginning of the Paddestraat. He couldn’t sit or stand. Marie-An saw him at the start the next morning, trudging out of the team bus like an old man. [His directeur sportif] Herman Frison thought it irresponsible for him to start, but Stig still wanted to give it a go. After a ten-minute warm-up, he returned with a smile. ‘I’m starting.’ That’s the last thing my wife heard him say.”
Peter was working at home. The afternoon news, which he didn’t catch, mentioned a massive crash in the Tour of Belgium. Its most serious victim, Stig Broeckx, was taken to Aachen in an emergency helicopter. In the stables, Peter received worrying messages on his phone.
‘How is Stig?’ ‘Any news?’ ‘Stay strong!’
Alarmed, he walked into the house. Sporza confirmed the nauseous feeling in his gut. The scenario he had always dreaded had come true. His son. It was bad. Real bad.
“In a state, I tried to ring people from the team. No one picked up. Through Kurt Van de Wouwer, I managed to get the number of team doctor Servaas Bingé. His tone gave away the seriousness of the situation. The word ‘survive’ was dropped. And it was followed by a question mark. Marie-An was standing along the route with some friends. She still knew nothing about the crash.”
Peter told his wife. She rushed to Aachen. For hours she paced the hospital corridors, while her son was fighting for his life. She returned late at night without having seen Stig.
“The next day we were allowed to be with him for five minutes. You could hardly see him, covered in bandages, between eerily beeping machines. The left side of his skull was caved in. The eye socket was shattered. That face – totally destroyed. You can’t describe what it’s like seeing your boy lying there like that. I can’t get rid of that image. No one prepares you for that. You can’t. It’s a slap in the face.”
On Sunday, Stig’s condition was stable. “Briefly, we felt a bit of relief, but that was soon blown. On Monday, he was critical again. The internal bleeding had put pressure on his brain.
“In the evening we heard that there were complications and that he was back in the operating theatre. They had to lift the caved skull to stop the bleeding. We wanted to jump in our car, but they told us we’d better stay home. ‘We’ll call in a few hours.’ So we went into the night knowing that our son could die any moment. You become bystanders.
“The only thing you can do is wait for a phone call that doesn’t come. Sleeping wasn’t an option. I spent all night wandering round the house like a zombie. Every minute was an hour. A couple of times, we couldn’t stand it any longer.
“We called the hospital, but encountered a wall every time. It was night-time: all lines were put through to reception. And they’d never heard of Stig Broeckx. Only the next day did we discover that he was registered under a different name – Stefan Brücken, the name on his wristband. We hadn’t noticed before.”
Tuesday: more complications. The phone rang in the afternoon: “’Come to the hospital!’ No need to do you a drawing of how it feels when you go to Aachen in that situation. I was prepared for the worst. With the tension killing us, we sat down opposite a row of ‘white coats’. His condition was stable. The previous operation had caused new bleeding, which they had stopped by accessing his brain via the jaw.
“In four days he had narrowly escaped death three times. And on Friday, he’d done it again. Pneumonia. We knew the risk was there, because he was under artificial respiration. Because of the tube going to the lungs, more germs end up unfiltered in the body. He had a 41-degree fever. They put him in a cold bath to lower his temperature, but the fever persisted.
“The third day, his blood values were so much worse that a fatal shock was imminent. The doctors said things had to improve quickly or it was over. The next day, the temperature was down to 39 degrees. Phew, we were back again. Four times through the eye of the needle, in one week. The word nightmare doesn’t even begin to cover the tension we went through.”
Fighting for life
Stig had won the battle against death, but the fight for a life was far from over. Three weeks after the crash, he was transferred from Aachen to intensive care at Genk hospital. He was in a vegetative coma.
Getting out of a coma is not like in the movies, the doctor in Aachen had said. “People don’t regain consciousness like in the films. You have to pull them out of the coma. We did everything we could: by inviting his best friends to come and talk to him, by playing his favourite music, by holding massage oil under his nose, by squeezing his hands.
“In September, almost four months after the crash, something seemed to change in his eyes. The dull look was gone. At first, I didn’t dare tell Marie-An. False hope was the last thing I wanted to burden her with. But she had seen it too.”
Stig’s parents brought up the hopeful signs at the weekly meeting with the medical staff. They reacted very cautiously. But two weeks later, the main nurse said that she too had noticed it. This first minimal change accelerated everything. Once again there was a real reason to hope.
“We were advised to start looking for a coma and rehabilitation centre, but ‘coma beds’ are rare in Belgium. I couldn’t find him a place, and that made me very nervous. We were soon convinced that he needed to leave Genk as soon as possible. I’m grateful for everything the people there did for him, but they didn’t work with him. His whole body was cramped up through the muscular spasms. He was just lying there, folded double, bathing in sweat. That body was in a struggle against itself, it was going downhill. We were caught in a vicious circle: pneumonia, bladder infection, kidney condition… He was getting sick all the time. At his lowest, he barely weighed 49 kilos. Something had to happen.”
Because there was no rehabilitation place available, Peter did something that goes completely against his Kempisch down-to-earthness: he ‘used’ his son’s celebrity status. The name Stig Broeckx helped. The rehabilitation centre in Overpelt found a solution.
“That’s where the miracle took place,” says Peter. “Because that’s what it is – a miracle. Suddenly, he started reacting by winking. A couple of days later and with some effort, he could also give a thumbs up. I take my hat off to the people in Overpelt. They got going with him from day one. Physio four times a day: first in his room, then in the physical rehab room. He arrived there curled up like a baby. Slowly, they succeeded in pulling his body out of the spasms. They weaned him off the artificial respiration, until he could breathe independently again. And they taught him to swallow again, a highly complex movement if you have forgotten how to do it.
“When he could feed himself again – first liquids, then solids – they stopped the tube feeding. That too was an important step. He choked countless times, but every day it got better, like with the talking.”
When Stig had to stand up again for the first time, he was dying with pain. “All his toes were dislocated. The spasms had shortened the tendons and muscles. That was only discovered in Overpelt. They sorted his feet and put them in casts. Six weeks in plaster. Without those complications, he would have been much further today.”
At the Flandrien Gala in October, team leader Marc Sergeant released the news to the world – Stig is out of the coma. The ensuing media frenzy shocked the Broeckx family.
“We had asked the press for serenity and respect and they’d respected that. But after the gala, all inhibitions were gone. We received calls at home. Calls were made to the reception at Overpelt. Photographers set themselves up in public spaces to take photos of him. People accosted him or walked through the corridors looking for his room. I couldn’t believe it.
“The cameras had already traumatised us in Aachen. You arrive there worried to death and then you see that army waiting… At that moment, you see those people as vultures. The witch-hunt in Overpelt made me even angrier. With patients who’ve been in a coma for long, there is a risk of over-stimulation. Stress, crowds or unexpected events can disturb their recovery and even trigger epileptic fits.
“The only thing we could do was to protect him as much as possible. We bought neutral sports clothes to replace the sponsored team clothes. Whenever someone asked for him at reception, the red alert was immediate. They called us to check that the person in question was allowed to visit. Really bad to have to deal with that kind of thing at a time like that.”
But it worked and a year after the crash, Stig’s recovery is nothing short of spectacular.
“His brain works more consistently by the day. He is refilling his box of mental index cards by chatting a lot. Everything is becoming re-classified in his brain. He is re-experiencing every life phase.
“When he had just come to, he behaved like a baby. Then he started talking, first about his toddler years, then about high school, BMX riding and the cycling club. He remembered the names of young team-mates who’d we’d forgotten. I’ve only recently learnt the names of his first loves. He blabs it all out unembarrassed, which can be very funny at times. Recently, he told me a long theoretical story about artificial insemination. I didn’t understand where it came from. In the evening, I climbed up to the attic and found a presentation he’d done at school ten years earlier. About artificial insemination. The structure was all there, all stored in his head.”
The crash remains a black hole for Stig. He only realises what happened to him because his parents have told him. But his awareness of reality and his short-term memory are improving quickly.
“At the beginning of the year, he couldn’t even remember what happened five minutes earlier. Now he can tell in the evening who came around in the afternoon. Marcel Sieberg was one of the latest team-mates to visit him. In the evening, Stig said: ‘Greipel could make the effort to come round.’ But he’d already visited six times. He’d forgotten.”
His carers are impressed by all the work he puts in. ‘Has to be done’ is his catchphrase.
“Our son can’t take the depressing mood around some other patients. Not everyone has the strength to get back on their feet again. Stig does. He wants to ride again. Win races for his godchild, whom he is very proud of, for his uncle who died early April. Has to be done.
“The day after De Ronde van Vlaanderen, his team-mate Tony Gallopin came to visit with Herman Frison. ‘I need to get back into training now,’ Stig said. Frison answered that there was no rush. ‘Yes, there is,’ said Stig, ‘because you guys aren’t cutting it!’ He would never have said anything like that before. I just wanted to disappear in that moment. Frison laughed, even if it was a bit forced.
“Stig still feels like a rider. He looks forward to the daily physio sessions where he can sweat and go deep. Since May, he’s been allowed to do half an hour a day on a home trainer. They have already caught him resetting it for another 30-minute block, when his session was almost done. That’s how motivated he is.
“But there are also days where he is frustrated and impatient. Then he can be very tough on himself. ‘I’m a handicapped spastic,’ he once burst out in frustration. ‘I can’t do anything.’ What do you say to that? That it isn’t true, of course. And that he has to work hard to get back to his old self. So for the moment, we’re not trying to talk him out of racing. It’s his biggest drive.
“But I dread the day when he’ll realise that his cycling career is over. Of course, we hope that he’ll keep making such amazing progress, and that he’ll soon be able to come home for good. But we’re not under any illusions: the road is still very long. Not being able to race any more could be a trigger for depression. And depression would hinder his recovery.”
This article is a truncated version of an English translation by Olivier Nilsson-Julien that was published in Rouleur 17.7. The original Flemish version of this feature was published in issue 18 of Bahamontes in June 2017.