“Every year by the last weekend of November I lose my traditional smile and my eyes turn sad while trying to retain the tears from rolling down.”
When we received this email late last year from our close friend Sergi Florenciano, we knew that we had to write a story about it. As you continue to read you can feel the eyes start to sting and vision blur slightly. Sergi wrote to us about his fallen comrade, his partner in crime–Issac Galvez. Emotion pours onto the page detailing this tragic narrative, about the lottery that is professional bike racing.
“He [Issac] got his second World Track championship, again with his beloved [teammate] Joan Llaneras…they were called to be the next Olympic Champions on Madison, the Kings of the velodrome. So by the fall of 2006 both Isaac and Llaneras put all their energy into the track season.”
“They took a break on the first weekend of November to go back home; Isaac got married, we were overjoyed that day. Isaac did not have a honeymoon, the track season still was on and he had to end it, so he got back to the races. The honeymoon was intentionally postponed till after Christmas. But none of us had the opportunity to have a next Christmas with Isaac. Three weeks after he got married we were assisting to his funeral. Isaac passed away on November 26th because of a crash during the super prestigious race of six days of Ghent in Belgium.”
An accident caused by a misjudged move, at high speed by fellow competitor, Belgian, Dimitri de Fauw. The high impact that Issac sustained when colliding with the barriers resulted in internal bleeding, as Sergi describes: “ribs broke and like arrows they pierced the heart”. Three years later on November 6th 2009, it was reported that Dimitri de Fauw had taken his own life. Maybe unable to cope with the mental scarring that night in Ghent had left him.
A few weeks after receiving Sergi’s email we are riding alongside him in Vilanova i la Geltrú, Catalunya. He’s excited for us to meet Issac’s father, Paco Galvez. Our journey takes us past the Issac Galvez sports centre, Sergi in his fervent manner explains how ingrained amongst the community the Galvez’s are. Regaling of his and Issac’s childhood adventures. How they were the boys about town on their bikes. An image forms of testosterone fuelled teens, racing and joking, lapping up kilometres to the backdrop of the Costa Brava.
Sergi then moves to a conversation he had with Paco not long after Issac’s death:
“By the beginning of 2007 Isaac’s father called me and said: “Sergi that fucking sport has stolen me what I loved the most, my son, it has taken away everything we got, all our hope….but also this fucking sport has given me all we have, the pride to be who we are, I want to build again the junior team…but I need your help””
When we arrive we are amongst the sleepy hours of the Spanish day. Paco Galvez is warm and welcoming, and ushers us off to a quieter area of the bar. Sitting across from him there’s a notable swelling of pride when he talks about the youth team he manages. Young boys aged 15-17 have the opportunity to train and race with his team, U.C. Vilanova.
The commitment Paco invests into the development of these kids is evident, so much so even his own wife has questioned him in the past about giving more guidance to his own offspring. Debora and Ramses are equally as talented as what their brother was, and so is Paco’s rationale that they didn’t need as much help as the other kids needed.
Issac intermittently drifts in and out of the conversation, it’s clear Paco has found the presence of cycling in his life as a way of dealing with the accident, his wife did not. The Tour de France initially was not a welcome old friend within the household; but as time has passed this has started to change. Cycling’s omnipresence becomes a feeling of comfort rather than rawness.
For Paco developing a youth development team has always been a balance between grief and comfort: “Yeah it helped, although when I said that I was going to start up the youth team people wondered what I was doing. They didn’t understand why I wanted to do it. But if I didn’t do it then no-one else would have done.”
The heavy heart this story should shackle you to isn’t the reality. The reality is a man who has taken his grief and uses it to guide and enable young talent to flourish. That’s the sort of leadership no budget can buy.
Sergi describes Paco’s eye for talent, which is greeted by a dismissive wave of the hand by Paco as he explains: “Ah, no you can’t always spot this. You can see if a kid has class but they change a lot and they can easily go from one side to another. For better or for worse. They all change so much throughout their late teens, from one year to the next. Some come young and fresh faced whilst others already have full beards.”
‘Los caballitos’ as he affectionately calls them, meaning the little horses, is full of challenges but also plenty of reward. Surprisingly though, some of the biggest challenges are not what you would expect.
“There are a few parents which are great, they understand what I’m doing and let me get on with it. But there are some that come and want all the attention to be on their son and not to bother with the others. They think theirs is the best.” Paco smirks.
Sergi chips in: “All parents want an Alberto Contador.”
Ah, parents! It’s incredible how parental love can blindside and reduce grown adults to quarrelsome adolescents. A role reversal. Who would have thought that managing 15 teenage boys is less demanding than a group of middle-aged, respectable citizens.
“Sometimes the parents are worse than the children” Paco chuckles. “There have been fights and disagreements. If we have a child in a training session and the parents are following and shouting commands this really pisses me off.”
For anyone who has raced a bike, you’ll agree the hours prior to a race can feel like a pressure cooker of emotion and nerves. Add to the mix a few jittery parents and you’ve got optimal conditions for ‘project meltdown’.
There’s a shake of the head from Paco, accompanied by a wry smile: “This is where I try and keep the parents under control so they don’t cause the kids to feel more nervous or more pressure. If they go to a race and don’t enjoy it, they won’t want to do it again. I want them to race feeling relaxed. If they do well, great, and if they don’t no problem either. If they race badly then I’ll show them how to do it better.”
Paco’s calming guidance has developed the likes of Marc Soler to the enfold of Spanish WorldTour pro-team Movistar. So much for his lack of an eye for talent. But Paco’s management style is not all sugar and light; one of the first lessons he teaches ‘los caballitos’ is the importance of losing: “It’s easy to win, the most difficult thing to learn is how to lose. Nobody knows how to lose, it’s one of the first things you have to learn. To have a good humour, to come out of it and not be angry and give excuses.” There’s definitely some current pros that could take note, alongside some of those parents. Bike racing is a learning experience, Paco explains you have to start young, let yourself and the bike basically become one. Like the best of friends–inseparable.
As we wander across the road to Paco’s workshop, medals and photos adorn the walls celebrating Issac’s successes. Paco rummages in drawers, ebulliently pulling out photos of his team, dressed in vibrant fluro pink and blue lycra–they look the part. As we nose up to photos and hold up team jerseys, I ask: “Do the parents ever ask about accidents in cycling?”
“Yes they do, but you know, this is the lottery you play when you race. It’s to do with luck; of course they will all fall at some point, but you learn to get back up.”
Spoken by someone whose passion has taken so much from him; passion that’s taught him to get back up again and use it to inspire and develop the younger cycling generation.
Some life lessons that aren’t just for kids.
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Words: Hannah Troop Photos: Robin Schmitt