"I wanted to gradually slow down trainings and to start walking marathons. Taking it easy."
(Gert-Jan speaking about his plans after professional cycle racing)
When writing somebody's biography one can make a choice between a chronological narration of events and arranging information after themes. Since a listing of very diverse happenings might give the reader a somewhat jumpy feeling, I have decided to split the story into a couple of subjects. This means that a paragraph sometimes touches upon a subject that is discussed more detailed in another part of the article. Nevertheless, I'll try to stick to the chronology as much as possible. The single paragraphs can easily be read as little stories on their own as well.
Stepped down for good
In March 1995 it became obvious to Gert-Jan that he was no longer physically able to continue cycling at a professional level. Heart trouble forced him to give up definitively in the second stage of the Tirreno Adriatico. Further medical tests and medicine followed and with the prescribed period of rest, also a pause in media attention began. Of course I kept on checking the sports supplements in the daily papers; my eyes have become trained in searching for the name Theunisse and even in the bigger articles I usually find it instantly. Knowing how fond he is of cycle racing, it was just a matter of time until he'd show up in that particular branch of sport again. And indeed, in June of that very same year the National Championship time trial is won by Mario Gutte and the newspaper mentions that Gert-Jan had helped him prepare with material and training with the derny.
Apparently, assisting (young) racers was his new call in life and what started purely as a hobby would eventually turn into a full-time job. But who could have had the slightest idea of the proportions this adventure would assume at the day Bart Brentjens stood at Gert-Jan's doorstep? The brother-in-law of Theunisse was at a sportive low and found, as would prove later, right there the entrance to the ultimate mountainbike-top.
Leaving the paved path
After Bart Brentjens - at that time riding for the American Eagle team - broke with his coach Eugene Janssen, Gert-Jan took care of him. He only stepped in as a friend, for Gert-Jan didn't think much of those "strange blokes" in the MTB-scene. What these pioneers in mountainbiking were doing stood far from professional sports, he thought. But then commerce discovered MTB and while becoming an insider, Gert-Jan noticed that things changed substantially. Today he even speaks of sheer top-level sport, "harder than any mountain stage in the Tour de France". Mountainbiking is a sport for single riders, rather than one of team tactics and this big difference with cycle racing on the road is most appealing to einzelgänger Theunisse. An MTB-rider is left all to himself during the race, because 'combines' (cycling jargon for collusions) are not possible. In this sport it is all about the racing techniques, power, endurance and suppleness of the individual sportsman. "The great thing in this branch of sport is that the best almost always wins. You cannot, like on the road, stay out of the wind for most of the race and then strike in the final sprint."
He also praises the relaxed atmosphere and the amicable way one treats one another. When the race is done, it's like one big family: time for a chat with the opponents and even some exchange of tips. Gert-Jan never expected this to be possible in a topsport environment. Had he himself, during his prof career, not regularly dealt with secret agreements, suspicion and envy?
Anyway, autumn 1995 the name Theunisse re-appears in the newspapers: Bart Brentjens is winning again in MTB cross country and it is Gert-Jan who helped him get there. Bart has won a great many of races, but since this is a tribute to Theunisse in the first place, I will not dwell upon these victories too much. Of course there is room for the special moments in which the story of Gert-Jan plays an important role as well. For specific information on Bart, I'd like to refer to his own fan-site.
A golden duo once more
The 'Champion of Trainings', as some people liked to call Gert-Jan scornfully, found out quite soon that the way Bart Brentjens used to train was way too one-sided. Not working towards excelling in the most important races, Bart trained similarly for both the local competition and a World Cup race. Without any KNWU (Dutch Cycling Union)-certified courses, but fully going by his own experiences and a few tips and tricks from the literature, Gert-Jan worked out a personal training scheme for Bart. Just because he himself had been doing it all wrong from time to time, he knew like no other which mistakes one could make and what consequences that would have.
From his early years on, Gert-Jan has always been trying new methods, no matter how extravagant. In his book we read how the kid even stripped his pants, because somebody claimed that without he would go much faster. Nothing was too absurd to be left untried. During his professional career he kept this keen interest in novelties in training - most of the times dug up out of one or another sport science book - and without any form of professional supervision he started bringing the newly learned theory into practice. And so, Gert-Jan was one of the first who worked with the heart rate monitor (?? - a device that measures the pulsation of the heart); at that time provoking skeptical remarks, nowadays it's an essential aid for the majority of the pack. However, without somebody who guides you through the forest of training methods, it should not surprise anyone that a training doesn't always have quite the intended effect. Therefore, it was very wise of him to keep a detailed diary allowing an afterward determination of the most successful method. Theunisse did not gain much advantage from this himself since it took him way too long before he had figured out the right scheme, leading to important loss of time with every new method he tried. Lucky Bart could now make use of all this with great effort acquired knowledge… he found a man at his side, who knew exactly what he was talking about and who coached him in a most professional way.
Under the wings of Gert-Jan, Bart races from one MTB title to the next: consecutively, he wins the National Championship, the World Championship, the World Cup and the Tour de France VTT. The icing on the cake follows in the summer of 1996 with the very first Olympic Gold for his sport. "The most beautiful moment of my entire career. Even better than my victory on l'Alpe d'Huez", recalls Theunisse.
In an interview with a Dutch daily newspaper Bart would later say about this co-operation: "I relied blindly upon Gert-Jan. Perhaps a bit too much. It was easy, yet I never learned to be independent this way. (…) I realize now how difficult it is to work out a good training scheme." However, the specific advice concerning the training was not the only thing Gert-Jan contributed to the successes of Bart. He understood his brother-in-law perfectly and knew how to give him the necessary morale and self-confidence. When in 1999 Gert-Jan announces that he is physically - by then he has recovered from a lombal (?? - partial) spinal cord lesion and a heart attack meanwhile shouldering a manager function within a top team - no longer able to train with him, Bart admits to miss "the voice that gives me extra motivation for a competition." As the need for mental support remains, he asks skate coach Mueller to take over that job.
No cure, if it's in the blood
With the aid of the right medication and sufficient rest, quite soon after his official leave Gert-Jan feels well enough again to step back onto his bike every now and then. What do you mean, addicted to the bicycle? In February 1996 his name starts appearing in the newspapers again: he finishes regularly among the best at regional MTB races. While joining Bart Brentjens in training, he stays automatically in shape. When talking about this in a later interview, he says: "There is nothing better than cycling in the countryside for hours. I try to come along as much as possible, I still can. Thanks to these trainings I can still consider myself a serious sportsman."
Gert-Jan takes Bart, and from 1997 on the other riders of Specialized as well, to his favourite training resorts: l'Alpe d'Huez, South-Africa, Tenerifa and Lanzarote. However, this wouldn't be the story of the real Theunisse if no more dark clouds would turn up. That 8th September of 1997 there is suddenly a French lady, who happens to be driving at the wrong side of the road. Appearing like a jack-in-the-box she causes a head-on collision with Gert-Jan, who is cycling down that same road at a dazzling speed. In all the fuss of the moment several other team members - in training for the World Championship - hit the asphalt as well. Gert-Jan feels responsible for the well-being of his people and wants to get back on his feet to see how the others are doing, but he can not even move his legs…
In the hospital of Annecy it is wrongly concluded that the damage is not that serious and only few days later Gert-Jan returns to the Netherlands, enduring infernal pains on the back seat of a passenger car. At home there is not the slightest progress in his situation and in the end Gert-Jan decides to undergo a new and thorough medical examination. It takes a while, but then the horrific diagnosis is confirmed: a spinal cord lesion! (More details). From his hospital bed he continues to coach Brentjens by telephone, but his worrisome condition and his physical absence two weeks later at the World Championship in Switzerland have a negative influence on the morale of the mountainbiker. A result among the best is beyond reach and when the race is done, it becomes clear how much Bart had been thinking of Gert-Jan as he sighs "I really wanted to win that rainbow jersey for him".
Well, if this were about somebody else, the story would have been merely told by now - ending in low spirits. But since we're talking Gert-Jan Theunisse, you'd better drop that thought immediately! This man has been fighting his whole life through; whether with his bare fists, on the pedals of his bike, or with a lawyer beside him… Giving in? One can almost hear him think: 'only over my dead body!' And if a couple of doctors assert that a person who is lamed from his waist till his feet, will have to sit in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Gert-Jan would be the last to let his head hang down and give up. It must have been terrible to watch his fight from nearby and I really admire Lieske, who supported her husband during this difficult period. Needless to say, they got through it together; it didn't even take six months before Gert-Jan was walking again!
In spite of the constant pain and the fact that he could only move with great effort, he even took upon him the coaching and training of Bart again. Not without risks though: in April 1998 (about seven months after that horrendous accident in France) he meets the bumper of a car once more. The consequences are less severe this time and Gert-Jan is able to go on with his activities for the team. After a training excursion in South-Africa he noticed his condition was really good, so back in The Netherlands he kept on training and the 10th of January 1999 - few days before his 36th birthday - he even took part in the beach race of Egmond, only to come off triumphant. Using a one-day license he beats a pack of at least 100 well-trained mountainbikers. "The predictions were that I would never be able to walk again. That I win here, could be called a little miracle indeed." Gert-Jan, you can freely name it a huge miracle! Nowhere in the media, however, was mentioned that this exertion - ploughing the sand over 35 kilometers- caused a major repercussion… for the following 3 days Gert-Jan was hardly able to walk. Theunisse emphasized that this victory had to be seen as a one-time occurrence. Early in the year, those spontaneous actions were possible, but later on he would just not have the time for such things. Being a team manager and coach at Specialized, the rest of the year he would be too busy organizing all kinds of things for the team.
Hobby or full-time job
The Olympic medal Bart Brentjens harvested did not only bring chauvinistic Dutch fans into raptures, also the sponsor world looked with great interest at this achievement (read: the promotional value of the title). All of a sudden all kind of people seem to want something from Bart, making Gert-Jan gradually extend his activities: apart from being his coach he also becomes Bart's personal manager. In this function he negotiates with Manfred Krikke (not a stranger to him, since the man used to work for the successful PDM-team where Theunisse had had many glory days) of American Eagle, the team that had Bart under contract. Pretty soon it becomes clear that it is impossible to keep the Olympic champion within the Dutch team; besides the financial picture Bart has also a couple of organizational demands.
Because MTB cross country became an official sport at the Summer Games of 1996, the preparation of Bart had been fully focussed on excelling in Atlanta. Even though there is no such thing as team performance in mountainbiking, with Gert-Jan as coach, his wife Lieske and Bart's own wife Petra as soigneurs Bart appears at the start with an outstanding team. As to the contribution of Gert-Jan, the general public has not a single doubt. TV-reporters call Gert-Jan the man behind the gold medal: "This victory of Bart is definitely also a victory for Gert-Jan, who has set himself completely to coaching Bart." Yet, the presence and work of his wife and sister-in-law was of no less importance to Bart. They knew exactly how to improve each other's strengths and abilities - like in a successful family business - and things were supposed to remain that way in future. Thus, when Bart signs October 1996 a new contract for three years (and an optional fourth) with the American top team Specialized-Mountain Dew, it was stipulated in the criteria that Petra would reinforce the assistance team and Gert-Jan was to be appointed team manager.
As soon as the preconditions for a smoothly running team had been established, Gert-Jan received more and more responsibilities. His work had grown into a full-time job. Was he initially hired as a trainer/coach for the riders, not before long he was also in charge of all sorts of organizational stuff such as arranging hotel accommodations, the material supplies and the supervision of contracts. Soon Gert-Jan records working-weeks of 60 to 80 hours. Until that dramatic day in September 1997, when a collision with a car turns Gert-Jan into a disabled man. The gravity of the situation is also in the MTB-scene quickly recognized and like anywhere else, here too applies: one man's meat is another man's poison. The Frenchman who after the accident had shown interest in Gert-Jan's function, seemed to have declared him dead a little too early, though. Despite the sad prospects, sponsor Specialized kept great confidence in his recovery and decided to renew his contract. In a magnificent interview with Dutch newspaper Het Parool (edition 27 December 1997) Gert-Jan speaks openly about his 'miraculous recuperation', and how during his rehabilitation his wife Lieske had a hard time leaving him all by himself at home, while she represented him abroad. About the man who tried to snatch away his job, he says: "I'll walk (!) cheerfully past that Frenchman next season. No need to think that I am going to miss even a single race. I won't."
Upon Gert-Jan now the almost impossible task to create for his pupil the ideal conditions within the team. Since the inside knowledge of professional cycling is less to be found in America than in Europe, Gert-Jan needed quite a few longer discussions to convince the big boss of the sponsoring bicycle manufacturer of the necessity of training excursions, well-balanced preparation schedules, etc. Eventually, decision-takers understood that Gert-Jan was an expert in this field and they gave him a free hand. Specialized turned into a team of champions. One of them, Spanish talent Marga Fullana, mentioned Gert-Jan when speaking of her successes. "I have followed the training programme of my new trainer, Gert-Jan Theunisse. That involves jogging, swimming, roller skating, gymnastics and so on." Although I never heard the opinions of the other riders, I am quite certain that they highly appreciated him.
Having survived the umpteenth disaster Gert-Jan carries on vigorously with his activities as team manager of Specialized. Successes didn't stay away and the managing directors of the US company know how to reward this; in 1998 Gert-Jan is appointed general manager of sports. The new job profile contains even more responsibilities and assignments, for the complete organization and planning of the team rests from now on with Gert-Jan… Apart from the riders and the material (not only the bikes and clothing, but also the trucks for instance), sponsors and a complete staff demand his attention, too. "You even have to make sure that the man who buys petrol for one of the team vehicles, gets back his money." When I finally met him personally in May 1999 in Plymouth (UK), he nevertheless gave the impression of still being the same person as the rider he once was and who I admired that much. Moreover, it seemed to me as if he were even better approachable now; despite his high position in the team and the responsibility that goes with it, Gert-Jan took his time for a chat with a fan - with me! Cool, a manager without the fancy grey suit, a 'bigwig' who pays attention to the plain man/woman in the crowd. And that same year words of approval could also be found in the official World Cup Guide: 'Just as the downhillers are heavily US influenced, so Mountain Dew-Specialized's cross country boys and girls hold true to the European MTB groove, under the team's famous manager Gert-Jan Theunisse, he of the Tour de France fame. Originally, the salt/sweet matchmaking of Palmer (DH) and Brentjens (XC) appeared full of gloomy portent, but Specialized has proved an open-minded squad, ant its riders are thriving. Theunisse is a singleminded mentor, who has crossed the cultural divide seamlessly. As they say themselves, "Rather than just being a team, we are a family that lives, eats and works together. Not one team or staff member is treated any different than any other. We are all equal."' (Mountain Bike Guide 1999, page 168)
Not less than nine months per year Gert-Jan is away from home visiting countries such as Japan, the USA and Australia; unlike the profs on the road who mainly ride in Europe, the competitions of mountainbikers are being held worldwide. As a consequence, the budget has to be much higher than that of a normal cycling team. And when Gert-Jan eventually arrives home, there are still the countless telephone meetings, which usually take place in the middle of the night for reasons of time difference with the States. All in all, Gert-Jan's workload increases every day and by the time his calendar shows a working-week of approximately 100 hours, his body simply decides to call him to a halt. In the first week of June - not even a month after I shook hands with him in Plymouth - he is struck by a heart attack.
Completely overworked, Gert-Jan balances on the thin line between life and death one more time, but he still won't give in. After one week of rest ("that's exceptional already, because I never take vacation") he is back running around at recreational park Kwintelooyen in Rhenen where he shepherds Bart Brentjens to a second ranking at the National Championship.
Gert-Jan is certainly well aware of the fact that he cannot carry on like this much longer. "Frankly, I've had enough of this. A wheelchair, heart disorder, a heart attack, no, this is not how I had planned life after professional cycling. This time I am really going to slow down. Things will have to change within the organization of the team." After which he takes the team to the United States of America for another seven weeks of training and competition...
In 2001 he still holds the function director of sports, leading me to think that not that much has changed since. Add to that the difficult task to find a new sponsor for 2002, and one would suspect that the pressure rather has been growing. Nevertheless, he still finds time to step onto his bike every now and then. "I have to sweat properly from time to time, it makes me function better."
Picture: Gert-Jan racing the Beach Classic, 2001
Bart Brentjens' contract with Specialized was not renewed at the end of 2000; he switched to team Giant. Another Dutch talent, Bas van Dooren, came to replace him. Unfortunately, the American bicycle manufacturer announced in the following year, that Specialized would no longer wish to be the main sponsor. For Gert-Jan this meant a lot of extra stress in 2001 to find another good financial source and save his team. There is every appearance that he did not succeed in this mission. November 2001 my daily newspaper confirms the termination of the team. Bas van Dooren decides to return to cycling on the road; what was to happen with European Champion Filip Meirhaeghe (Belgium), Ladies World Champion Marga Fullana (Spain) and their manager Gert-Jan Theunisse was not mentioned.
I'll keep ears and eyes wide open and once there's news about Gert-Jan, I'll try to publish it on this site as soon as possible (the regular visitors know that in my case this usually takes a while). Of course I welcome any insider tips and additional information.
You can imagine how happy I was when somebody notified me that there was an article about Gert-Jan in the Dutch magazine Aktueel (no. 30 of 2002). Unfortunately, my joy only lasted a few seconds and was quickly replaced by quite a shock. It turns out he and Lieske divorced in the autumn of 2001 after which Gert-Jan and his young new girlfriend moved to the Spanish island Mallorca. According to the article, he has adopted the life of a hermit and is pedalling away at least 150 kilometers a day. After meeting them both in 1999 it is hard for me to believe how they are no longer together. I have so much respect and admiration for the way they went through all the trouble of past years, that this news comes as an unpleasant surprise - and somewhat disappointing, too. Difficult to accept the fact that he now leaves his wife, while she has always been there for him. On the other hand, I can imagine that Gert-Jan would like to turn his back to the extreme and crazy life that happened to be his - including everything and everyone that was part of it - to try and start all over. In this recent interview he explains:
I have found peace here. At last!
I am a happy man.
* Climbed to great heights;
* Cycled through deep valleys;
* Honoured, reviled, forgotten;
* Fallen a thousand times...
* ...and gotten up again!
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© September 2002 Christina