GAVERE, Belgium (VN) — When Bart Wellens sent his Telenet-Fidea team management an innocuous text message saying he was starting to feel a little bit sick on the eve of the 2012 Belgian championships, no one could have predicted the life-threatening drama that would unfold just a few hours later. And when he landed in the intensive care unit at the University Hospital of Antwerp, feverish and experiencing heart trouble, fewer would have guessed he would ever ride a bike again.
But Wellens is back — and not just back, the 34-year-old two-time elite world champion is on his best form in years. His third-place finish on a heavy course in Gavere on Sunday was his best in nearly a year, and his first podium in a major-series race since the health scare that nearly ended his career last January.
After Sunday’s race, the usually ebullient Belgian was overflowing with emotion: the bittersweet feelings of someone who nearly lost everything and had it all returned to him, and immense satisfaction that his renaissance unfolded at one of European cyclocross’ monumental venues.
“This is a big classic, Gavere,” Wellens told VeloNews. “So many days of racing here, so many years. So many days when there were races for the history books. I had very good race days here, very bad race days here. It’s so nice to be on the podium. And it’s not easy with Sven, with Niels, with Kevin. If you can get to the podium it’s so special, and especially after last year with my heart troubles, to be on the podium with the big guys, I’m so happy.”
Wellens’ troubles before the Belgian championships in Hooglede-Gits started simply enough: while riding with his brother, Geert, he began to experience muscle aches and signs of fever, but the symptoms quickly escalated. By early the next morning he was gravely ill. He began to experience multiple organ failures, and, concerned for his life, doctors rushed him from his local hospital in Geel to Antwerp. With quick treatment by doctors in Antwerp, Wellens recovered, but it was not clear until weeks later that he would be able to ride again.
Though the incident sparked immediate rumors of doping, Wellens steadfastly denied them, admonishing reporters in a press conference after he was released from the hospital for reprinting rumors without evidence. A police investigation later formally cleared him. Doctors, meanwhile, isolated the cause of his illness as septic shock, a bacterial blood infection that originated in an infected tooth and spread throughout his body. In February, Wellens underwent a three-hour operation to remove infected tissue from his jaw and repair the damaged crowns that allowed the infection to take hold in the first place.
Since then, Wellens, whose rise to fame in Belgium was fueled by a hit reality TV show, Wellens en Wee, has slowly returned to his old self: playful, hard working, and a fierce competitor. But, although he scored second places in a local race in Laarne in early October and in a depleted field at the mid-week Nacht van Woerden, the podium in a major race had remained elusive. On Sunday, he ticked that last box off the list that maps out his road to recovery.
After the race it was clear that Wellens was not just celebrating victory, he was celebrating a second chance, not just at bike racing, but life itself.
“After last year I thought my racing would be over,” he said. “I see this year, I think it’s actually better than last year. The Koppenberg was better this year. I was better here. I’ve had two or three bad days — Hamme-Zogge was not so good, Zonhoven too — but the rest of my races have been better than last year’s. So I’m not too old, and I’m just so happy that I can still race. Every training day, every race is fun now.”