Return of the flying Dutchman

World Champs in Val di Sole was brutal last year. Many riders bit the dust hard. Among them was Tom Bersselaar, the Flying Dutchman who crossed the finish line unconscious.

He was sixteen seconds back, but his goal remained in sight. Clear half the field and, hopefully, secure more sponsors for next season. He could hear the crowd as he approached the last turn. This was his moment. The culmination of seven years of hard work and, possibly, the gateway to a career as mountain biker. He hit the pedals as soon as he excited the turn and sprinted towards the final jump. But as his front wheel left the take-off, his bike started to tumble. The ground came at him like a freight train.

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Pinkbike

The Return of the Flying Dutchman

Photos by Sebastian Sternemann and Luc Delhaye

World Champs in Val di Sole was brutal last year. Many riders bit the dust hard. Among them was Tom Bersselaar, the Flying Dutchman who crossed the finish line unconscious.

He was sixteen seconds back, but his goal remained in sight. Clear half the field and, hopefully, secure more sponsors for next season. He could hear the crowd as he approached the last turn. This was his moment. The culmination of seven years of hard work and, possibly, the gateway to a career as mountain biker. He hit the pedals as soon as he excited the turn and sprinted towards the final jump. But as his front wheel left the take-off, his bike started to tumble. The ground came at him like a freight train.

Tom Bersselaar was the only rider wearing orange at the World Championships last year and the first Dutch competitor since Anneke Beerten in 2004.

His younger sister Amy and his father Walter had made the long haul to Val di Sole to support him. They were standing in the finish arena, right beside the finish line, when Tom made his way down.

‘I was watching the screen where you could see Tom’s time, when suddenly I heard my father scream’, Amy says. When she looked down she saw Tom lying on the finish line. ‘We jumped over the fence and ran towards him, but we had to make way for the medics.’ A few friends took Amy aside and tried to calm her, but she was overrun with horrendous thoughts. ‘He was unconscious for so long.’

‘Mom, he’s not moving. I think he’s dead.’

Tom’s mother Ine had stayed at home in the Netherlands. She was struggling with the Redbull live feed when she received a call from her sister in law Janine.

‘Ine, are you watching’, she asked.
‘I’m trying, but the live feed won’t work.’
‘Tom Fell.’

Ine didn’t think much of it at first. ‘Tom has fallen so many times’, she says. ‘I just felt bad that his race didn’t go as planned. But when Janine told me she was coming over, I knew it was bad.’ Ine quickly called her daughter to see if Tom was okay, but Amy answered the phone crying. ‘Mom, he’s not moving’, she said. ‘Mom, I think he’s dead.’

Tom grew up on a farm in Schijndel, a small rural village in the south of the Netherlands, where he spent most of his days outside with his friends. When he was sixteen his parents gave him a mountain bike. ‘I never liked to go on long rides, but instead I built jump lines in our local woods’, Tom says.

Tom had a real talent for riding and was progressing fast. ‘He was always watching videos online and trying to imitate what those guys were doing’, Ine says. He had stumbled upon a video of a bike park in Winterberg in Germany, which is the closest bike park to where he lives. ‘That looked like so much fun to me’, he says, so he persuaded his father to go with him. The trip proved to be a success. Tom loved it.

With only one of four races outside of the top ten and a win in Thale, he took the overall title in his first year.

The next year, in 2010, he enrolled in the junior league of the IXS German Downhill Cup and immediately qualified first in Winterberg. With only one of four races outside of the top ten and a win in Thale, he took the overall title in his first year.

In the following years, Tom kept putting in good results and he became more serious about his training. He hit the gym every day after work and hardly ever partied. ‘He even wanted to build a pump track in the yard so he could ride more’, his mother recalls. Amy wouldn’t let him though, because she had an arena for her horse there.

Tom began to take notice from Ingo Kapherr, the team manager of IK Pivot Cycles. ‘I was watching Tom for years. He is a good rider, yet in his previous team (a small Dutch team) he didn’t look happy’, Ingo says. He approached Tom’s father at a race in Leogang and asked him to bring Tom over at the next German Downhill Cup. He joined the team a few weeks later.

In his new team Tom’s riding improved immediately, Ingo says. ‘He took two wins in the Elite Men of the German Cup the following year. That was a first for our team.’ His results earned him UCI Points, which Tom was eager to use. ‘I had strong drive to make it to the top’, Tom says. He enrolled in two World Cups, making the cut in Leogang, and ultimately, the World Championships in Val di Sole.

‘That first week in hospital was hell’

 Ine stood in unbelieve as her daughter said the words. ‘I was home alone, far from Val di Sole and there was nothing I could do other than to wait for news. Minutes passed like hours.’

‘It was horrible’, Amy says. ‘Tom was lying there for so long and we didn’t know anything. Had he broken something? Was he paralyzed? Was he breathing? It wasn’t until the crowd started applauding that we knew he was alive.’

Tom was flown to a hospital, where his injuries proved severe. He had dislocated his hip, punctured a lung, broken his collar bone and chipped off a piece of one of his vertebrae. Not to mention the many grazes and bruises.

‘That first week in hospital was hell’, he says. ‘My injuries were spread over my body diagonally, so I had to lie completely still. Worst of all was that I wasn’t allowed any food for four days, because I couldn’t go to the bathroom.’

Amy felt so bad for her brother that he was starving while she and her dad were eating Italian lunches, that she decided to make the ultimate sacrifice. ‘Tom, when we get home, you can build your pump track’, she said. ‘He was so happy.’

Tom was equally happy when after four days the doctors brought him four dry, little crackers. ‘I ate three. Then I was full’, he laughs.

After a week in an Italian hospital, Tom was transferred to the Netherlands where he was allowed one night at home before moving into a new hospital for another three weeks. ‘That first week wasn’t all too bad. I had my own room, a TV with motocross and nurses who were constantly checking on me.’ But when doctors told him he would need an artificial hip in the next few years, Tom hit a low point. ‘I remember him telling me: “This isn’t worth it to me”’, his mother says. Tom got lucky. Three experts and as many opinions later it was decided his own hip would heal well enough.

With his crash, reality had come down hard on him as well.

Tom was in hospital for four weeks and spent another two weeks in a wheel chair. In all that time, he had never really thought about quitting racing. Not really. But with his crash, reality had come down hard on him as well.

He lost his job as his contract was due just a few days after his crash. ‘I had secured a few months of sick leave and could come back after my recovery, but I would be needed in the weekends, which interferes with racing’, he says. ‘Since I had hardly done any training for six months, effectively competing in European and World Cups this season seemed like a stretch, so I thought: Without a job, I can’t fund future races, so I best just take it.’

Of course, Tom being who he is, he won’t shy away from racing completely. “I’ll ride the German Cup just to have fun and get comfortable on the bike again’, he says. Will he be back on the World circuit in 2018? His sister Amy is certain. ‘If he does well, he won’t be able to help himself.’

For now though, he’ll focus on his first race since his accident which is in Winterberg this weekend. Where seven years ago, his racing career began.