"You always need a Noël, in any team". A portrait of Noël Dejonckheere

30min reading time   by Tom Vandenbussche on 26 December 2023
Noël Dejonckheere (67) died of pancreatic cancer on 28 December 2022. A year on, the former professional cyclist, team manager and operations manager at 7 Eleven, Motorola, BMC, CCC and the US national youth team, among others, is far from forgotten. "He was strict and perfectionist, but he always wanted the best for his riders and staff."

The frail Noël's cycling career got off to a slow start. "As a rookie, he barely raced," recalls his brother Richard, four years older. "Only in the juniors did Noël stand out for the first time. His Belgian junior points race title, on the Ostend track, was his first major victory. After that, Noël was keen to go to the World Junior Road Championships, but despite a second place in one of the selection races, he was not allowed to go.

Noël's problem as a youth rider was that he could not ride fast, but he could ride long. Sometimes he needed 250 km to get into his rhythm. When he won a stage in a multi-day in the pros, they were always the longest stages. In Milan-San Remo, he finished in the top ten twice. Only when the others started to get weaker did he come through. Noël had the ability of an enthusiast, but he was very economical. Now he would have less to his credit as a pro rider."

World points race title in Munich (1978)

Dejonckheere was trained on the track. That is also where he experienced his big breakthrough in the summer of 1978. In Munich, the 23-year-old Izegemnaar crowned himself world amateur points race champion. His compatriot Michel Vaarten experienced it from the front row, as a country was still allowed to bring two riders to the start in a points race back then.

"At one point in the race, Noël was so good in the standings that he had the prospect of the world title and I started riding in front of him," Vaarten recalls. "Closing gaps, snatching points from competitors... Noël finaly did it himself, of course, but I did my bit.

Forty years after his world title, in 2018, he organised a reunion, at his home in his garden in Izegem, with family and friends. My wife and I were also invited. Noël had never forgotten what I had done for him then. A nice gesture, I thought, and a beautiful memory of Noël."

Despite his world title on the track, Dejonckheere resolutely chooses a career on the road from 1979. "Noël was a sprinter, but in addition he also had endurance," Vaarten explains. "Those were and are the ingredients to perform on the road as well. We both turned pro in 1979.

We rode our first Six Days together in Bremen, but even then I had the impression that Noël didn't like those Six Days. Mentally, it simply wasn't his thing, so he quickly switched to the road. There he immediately started winning. On the track, we never saw him again."

Eight years in Spanish employment (1979-1988)

Dejonckheere did not make his pro debut in Belgium, but he was employed by Teka, a Spanish household electrical company. Of his 10 campaigns in the pros, he would end up riding eight for a Spanish team. "Noël has always had a special bond with that country," his brother Richard explains.

"In hindsight, he chose to build his career intelligently. Noël went to train in Spain during the winter, when nobody else did, not even the Spanish. Now they all fly there, even the cyclocross riders during the cyclo-cross season. People used to think that, as a rider, you had to rest during the winter and only started cycling a few weeks before the start of the season. A primitive way of thinking, but that was the way it was back then.

Noël went training in Spain during the winter, when no one else did. People used to think that, as a rider, you had to rest in the winter and they only started cycling a few weeks before the start of the season. A primitive way of thinking.
Richard Dejonckheere

Consequently, Noël always started the season furiously. By the time he was at the start of Milan-San Remo in March, he had already won about 10 races. In the first Spanish races of the year, he even rode as well uphill as Marino Lejarreta. (laughs) When the other riders were also in shape, Noël's advantage naturally fell away, although he still performed far from unkindly then. According to his capabilities, my brother did well. There are some who had much more talent but didn't get there."

Dejonckheere won 70 races during his professional career, including six stages in the Tour of Spain. He himself rated his stage victory in Paris-Nice in 1984 the highest. After a tough ride through the Massif Central, he left behind just about all the top sprinters of his generation in the finishing city of Saint-Etienne: Sean Kelly, Eddy Planckaert, Eric Vanderaerden...

Brother Richard: "A few years before, in Paris-Nice, Noël had once had to take a whole day off with rocky legs, but a teammate had waited for him in the closing kilometres and guided him to the front. He won the stage, but was embarrassed to celebrate on the podium. Whenever Noël saw the finish line, he could go that extra mile. He was hugely competitive. (grins)

That remained true after his career, even during a simple board game." Vaarten makes the comparison with Jasper Philipsen. "Noël was also a versatile sprinter who did not ride uphill very well, but could survive. With his weight, he had no problems. Only the Belgian spring classics were not for him. The much wringing, bad weather... Noël was a man of the sun. Multi-day races where people used to stay calm in the beginning of the race and then ride a solid final, that was something for him. Noël could then really explode.

During an interview with the Flemish cycling magazine Bahamontes a few years ago, Dejonckheere let slip that missing the points jersey in the Tour of Spain was the biggest disappointment of his career. After all, both in 1979 and 1984, he finished second in the points classification of the Vuelta. Especially the second time was hard for him to bear, after a puncture in the final stage of a transition stage forced him to leave the jersey to compatriot Guido Van Calster. "How many riders can say they have won the points classification of a big stage?" he wondered.

Greg Van Avermaet, with whom Dejonckheere worked at BMC and CCC between 2010 and 2020, himself won the points jersey at the Vuelta in 2008. "Noël was crazy about Spain," smiles Van Avermaet. "You often noticed that when talking to him. He was the first to help me when I wanted to book a flight or hotel. In the month of December, it often happened that I wanted to leave for Spain a few days earlier on training because of the bad weather. Then he said: you are quite right to go to Spain. (laughs) Noël himself was fond of the good weather there."

Debut as team leader in Paris-Roubaix (1990)

Dejonckheere hangs up his bike at the end of 1988, but he does not say goodbye to cycling. On the contrary. On Sunday 8 April 1990, he started his career as team leader with 7 Eleven, an American professional team with Jim Ochowicz in charge. The day before, he receives an unexpected phone call from his American friend.

"I myself was in the Tour of Texas with part of the team and another selection had ridden the Tour of the Basque Country," Ochowicz recalls. "On the way back from Spain, however, one of our cars got involved in an accident. Noël was already involved with our team at that time and had been in charge of the reconnaissance for the Belgian spring classics, among other things. So he already knew our way of working."

Remarkably, Dejonckheere finishes a close second after his first race as team leader, as it was only after a millimetre sprint on the Roubaix piste that Steve Bauer had to give way to Eddy Planckaert. "I remember well that Noël called me immediately after the finish to say that a photo finish was needed," Ochowicz laughed. "So yes, I remember that first day of Noël as team leader very well." Dejonckheeres brother Richard smiles. "Noël and Jim got to know each other when my brother started racing in the US as an amateur. So a connection was made that has lasted his whole life and defined him to a large extent."

Friendship with Jim Ochowicz (1976-2022)

Noël Dejonckheere and Jim Ochowicz got to know each other in the late 1970s when the Izegem resident travelled several times to the United States for several months to train and compete in better weather conditions. It is Roger Young, with whom Dejonckheere rode the Six Days of Ghent, who asks him if he wants to come and spend the winter in the US.

Young's sister Sheila, Olympic speed skating champion in the 500 metres and three times world sprint champion in track cycling, is Ochowicz's partner, who is also racing at the time and even competes twice in the Olympics with the US pursuit team. He can especially recall a race weekend in North Carolina

"All the top riders from the US and Canada were there, because that weekend was considered a sort of selection test for the 1976 Games. What happened? Noël won the road race on Saturday and I won the criterium on Sunday. That weekend is one of my oldest memories of Noël."

Noël told me that story at the time. I also know that he and Greg [LeMond] always stayed in touch after that and Noël played an important role when Greg came to live with you in Belgium (in Marke, ed.) when he was young.
Jim Ochowicz

Another amusing anecdote also dates from that period. At one point, Dejonckheere was training in the US with a group of young Americans, and at the end of the session, two riders remained: a Belgian and a young boy of 13 or 14. Dejonckheere asks the boy's name, who replies: I'm Greg, Greg LeMond. Dejonckheere gets talking to the boy and starts training with him again the following day.

A decade later, Greg LeMond wins the Tour de France three times. So many years later, Ochowicz can still laugh tastefully about it. "Noël told me that story at the time. I also know that he and Greg always stayed in touch after that and Noël played an important role when Greg came to live with you in Belgium (in Marke, ed.) in his younger years."

It was also during this period, in the late 1980s, that Ochowicz and Dejonckheere began to work very closely together. Ochowicz: "With my team 7 Eleven, I wanted to race more often in Europe. At that time I was still active as a speed skater and I was in Inzell in Germany with the national team, after which I travelled to Belgium to spend the winter and participate in some six-day amateur races.

I remember well that I went to see Noël in Izegem and was impressed by how far he had come, while I was still trying to do my best in a pair of woollen bib shorts. (laughs) It was the beginning of a fantastic relationship between our families, a relationship that remains to this day with a lot of love and respect for each other."

Motorola's service course in Hulste (1991-1996)

In 1991, 7 Eleven merges into brand-new main sponsor Motorola, which remains in the pro peloton for six years. Dejonckheere continues to work there as team manager and takes charge of the service course for the team's European programme in Hulste. It is during this period that the Izegem native leaves a big impression on Ochowicz.

"Noël had an instinct for the course that I didn't have myself. In my first period as owner, as general manager of a cycling team and sometimes as team manager, I learned a lot from Noël about cycling. What exactly? Not only what you see in front of you, but also that which you cannot see. (short silence)

Noël had a certain instinct to see things during a race that had not yet happened. The predictions he sometimes made before a particular race were often very accurate. In cycling, you also sometimes have to make a decision very quickly where you don't know if it is the right one. A race can last many hours and a lot can happen in that time span. You can choose to join the breakaway, but maybe it's the wrong attempt and you've used too much power as a result. You can also save energy, you can eat and you can anticipate for the finish.

But whatever you choose, the only certainty is that the other teams will do everything they can to win. All that has to be analysed by someone. In our case, that was often done by Noël."

Dejonckheere's period at Motorola also stays with his eldest daughter Charlyn (°1988). "I was only a child, but I can still see the floor and the desks in the service course in Hulste. I also remember perfectly the people my father worked with back then," she smiles. However, Charlyn and her sister Naomi (°1992), who is four years younger, often do not see their father for several weeks.

"It happened that he wasn't there when I got up and at that time we didn't know how long he would be gone," Charlyn says. "That was quite normal for us. It even felt abnormal when he was home for more than three or four weeks. We never complained about that either. Mum still had a shop in Izegem at the time and we were always well looked after by our grandparents.

He always took good care of us, but parenting and housework was our mum's job.
Naomi Dejonckheere

It may be strange to say, but his absence during the season was often compensated in winter by longer trips of two or three weeks. We also knew he was doing that for us. He was not at home because he was working and not to sit at a café."

Naomi nods. "He wasn't there often, but when he was there, he was there. And he made sure we had everything. For my solemn communion, he woke us up at night and we went on a surprise trip to Disney World. He always took good care of us, but parenting and housework was our mum's job."

The American toppers of tomorrow (1999-2009)

After Motorola ended, Lance Armstrong, who had made his pro debut with Ochowicz's team, offered him a job with US Postal, but Dejonckheere declined. As a team manager, he is away from home too often, so the Izegem native switched to the American federation, where, as 'European Operation Manager' in the 2000s, he oversaw great talents such as Tyler Farrar, Taylor Phinney, Tejay van Garderen and David Zabriskie.

"My brother made a serious contribution to the development of American cycling," notes his brother Richard. "Nobody believed in American riders, Noël did. He completely redecorated our parental home on Kortrijkstraat in Izegem and gave it the name Cycling House, which still exists today and is rented out to foreign cycling teams."

Dejonckheere's youngest daughter Naomi remembers it like it was yesterday. "I grew up in that house, so to speak. Whether it was after school hours, in winter or summer, there were always American riders here." Sister Charlyn nods. "When school was done, I would drive to the riders' house. Mum cooked there every night and some of the riders were brothers of ours at the time. That sounds weird, but it really felt that way.

I was 14 or 15 and racing interested me. There were so many American riders there. Farrar, Phinney, Van Garderen, Brent Bookwalter, Zabriskie, Danny Pate who became world time trial champion in the U23s too... For me personally, that was the most fun time."

Tejay van Garderen, now team manager at EF Education, remembers well when he first stayed in Izegem. "That was in 2006. I was 17, had heard a lot about Noël and was even a bit intimidated. As a youngster, you want to leave a good impression on the person who has all the responsibility over you. It was a great time that you can't imagine now.

We had no Garmin or Strava and just rode around the region. In the Belgian cold, sometimes starving, not even knowing where we were, not speaking the language and not knowing the local culture, trying to become a professional cyclist one day, just maybe. Some, like me, succeeded, others did not. When I look back on that now, surely that was also somewhere a frightening period of my life."

An edge ahead over the rest thanks to Noël

Dejonckheere left a big impression on Van Garderen, who a few years later at BMC finished fifth in the Tour de France twice. "I especially remember the Tour of the Future in 2008. Noël always remained calm as team leader and could read the race tremendously well. But if we made a mistake, he was the first to say so.

During the stage in which Jan Bakelants captured the yellow jersey, I was in the breakaway with him. Noël said to me: it doesn't matter how you handle it, but don't let Jan ride away. However, I made a mistake and was not with him when Bakelants attacked. Noël was angry, but at the end of the story he turned out to be right. After all, Jan Bakelants won that Tour of the Future."

Meanwhile, Van Garderen is a team manager himself. "A lot of things have changed in this job in the last decade. We have a lot more software at our disposal now, but Noël was one of the team leaders who was extremely well prepared back then, even though he didn't yet have the modern technology at his disposal. Details that many team leaders didn't see, he had an eye for. I always felt that, thanks to Noël, we had an edge ahead over the rest."

Noël always remained calm as a team leader and could read the race extremely well. But if we made a mistake, he was the first to say so.
Tejay van Gardenen

Who also remembers much of Dejonckheeres years at the US federation is his contemporary Dominiek Vandromme. "Noël and I got to know each other when he was still racing and a customer at the Bank of Roeselare for which I worked. Noël's salary was paid in cash through foreign coins that had to be exchanged. It clicked and actually I could write a book about our friendship.

When Noël was team manager of the US youth team, I went with him several times to the Tour of the Future, the Tour of California and the Circuito Montanes in Spain. I retain a special anecdote from the 2004 Dauphiné Libéré.

In start city Albertville, Noël arranged accreditation through Johan Bruyneel, who was Lance Armstrong's team manager at US Postal. Armstrong was wearing the yellow jersey. I got on the bus from US Postal and there we were talking to four Izegemnaren: Noël, me, Bruyneel and Freddy Viaene. I had a digital camera with me to take pictures. At one point I turned around and found myself face to face with Armstrong, who immediately said: no pictures!!! He sounded adamant and I was shocked hard. (laughs) But luckily Bruyneel said we were friends of his and Armstrong disappeared again afterwards."

120 staff at BMC and CCC (2010-2020)

Meanwhile, old friend Jim Ochowicz started a new project in 2007: the BMC Racing Team. In 2010, the American wants to step up and be part of the pro peloton. Dejonckheere appears to be the perfect person to make the project work. In Eke, near the E17 motorway, he takes charge of the service course of the brand-new WorldTour team and is suddenly in charge of 120 staff.

"At BMC, Noël was the man who organised everything for the team," says Greg Van Avermaet, one of the world-class riders with whom Dejonckheere will work between 2010 and 2020. "It was an advantage that Noël had been a cyclist and team manager himself, because therefore he knew perfectly what we, both riders and team managers, needed. That was his strength. You can be strong administratively, but if you don't have a feel for the race, it is very difficult to do this kind of job.

Noël and I often saw each other on the service course in Eke. Whenever I needed something, I went to see him. He was a perfectionist. That was a necessary quality, because on such a service course someone has to lay out the rules. Sometimes you had to negotiate with him. It was not all good for him just like that, but if your question made sense and it was to improve your performance, you could get a lot done from him. Noël also knew that whenever I asked for something it was always for a reason. It was a very nice collaboration."

Jim Ochowicz also looks back on the BMC period with satisfaction. "With that team, we evolved over the years into quite a big organisation. The difference with a professional cycling team from the eighties and nineties was huge. We therefore needed someone who could steer the ship from our office and ensure smooth cohesion between all staff members. Someone who had the discipline to make decisions and act accordingly.

He was a perfectionist. That was a necessary trait because on a service course like this, someone has to set out the rules.
Greg Van Avermaet

That was something Noël was very good at. Yes, he did not just allow everything, but in the end his decision turned out to be the right one and finaly everyone appreciated his leadership. It's hard to be a boss, but he was a good chief. In those 10 years at BMC and CCC, we've had a lot of great performances as a result of Noël's leadership in his role as operations manager."

Unique approach at BMC

Van Avermaet goes a step further. "In the race, you always need a Noël, in any team." Ochowicz nods tellingly. "You know what surprised me the most? That we were pretty unique in the way we approached it. In a professional cycling team, you can't do without someone to fill the role of Noël and yet there were a lot of teams that didn't do it that way, even if they had the same structure.

To this day, a lot of our riders from the BMC period are still riding around in the professional peloton and I regularly hear that those riders still praise the way we ran the team a decade ago. We did it in a way that we felt we should. By trial and error, but in an honest and constructive way, You just have to look at the list of riders who rode for us and analyse their achievements.

Cadel Evans won the Tour. Greg Van Avermaet became Olympic champion and won classics and stages in the Tour. Richie Porte won numerous stage races. Tejay van Garderen twice finished in the top five of the Tour. Rohan Dennis became world time trial champion."

Whether at 7 Eleven, Motorola, American Federation, BMC or CCC, Dejonckheere impressed with his organisational skills over the years. "Professionally, he was perfect," believes Dominiek Vandromme. "He could sometimes be tough, but he was very correct every time. He wanted the best for them. Noël was strict, but fair. Everything was organised down to the last detail. He knew exactly, down to the minute and maybe even down to the second, how everything would go. Noël was a perfectionist and just as well, because in a job like this, that is necessary."

Brother Richard can only agree. "Noël has always been fascinated by numbers. At school he was certainly not the smartest, but arranging something, that was totally his thing. When he was still a rider, he had the same thing: he knew his way everywhere and knew perfectly when to pilot his way to the front. He was an organisational talent. Even a year in advance, he anticipated all possible scenarios."

Working together with daughter Naomi

At BMC and CCC, Dejonckheere is working with his daughter Naomi for the first time. "It had always been his intention for me to follow in his footsteps as logistics and administrative manager. At first I wasn't sure if it would work out with my dad, but it actually went very smoothly. We have the same character and way of thinking. Without many words, we understood each other.

At first I mainly had a supporting role, but as I got more experience, he let me do my thing more and more," says Naomi, who today works as a project manager and is no longer connected to cycling. "However, I already got some offers, but for now it's good as it is. This gives a bit more stability, as we have a small child running around at home in the meantime, while in racing you often have to work on weekends. But it is and always will be my passion. I'm not saying I'll never return to racing."

I don't know how he did it, but in his head my dad could always plan ahead what everything would look like a year later. It was amazing. It wasn't on paper, it was in his head.
Naomi Dejonckheere

Naomi confirms her father's organisational talent. "I don't know how he did it, but in his head my dad could always plan ahead what everything would look like a year later. It was amazing. It wasn't on paper, it was in his head. He always thought four steps ahead of others. He also always took unforeseen circumstances into account and could predict very well when something would go wrong. He always anticipated a solution. This was his life. 24 hours on 24."

Sister Charlyn never worked with her father professionally, although her husband Glen Vandevyvere worked as a mechanic at BMC and CCC for many years as a colleague of his father-in-law. "Even when we went on a faraway trip with the family, he would organize everything in detail," Charlyn says. "It went so far that when Glen and I went on a trip, he would sit and think with us about how we could go about it. He just couldn't let it go and, with the exception of Naomi, had difficulty trusting anyone else. As a result, he worked extremely hard. A logical consequence: if you can't let go, you are up to your ears in work."

Also notable: in his BMC and CCC periods, Dejonckheere still rarely went along to races. "Noël was never really a lover of racing. He was a lover of winning," explains his brother Richard. Daughter Naomi nods. "When there were several sports on TV, he didn't watch the race and started zapping. Basketball, football, golf... Meanwhile, he was also on his laptop and following the results on his iPhone. (grins) Yes, in that respect he was a multitasking man."

Charlyn smiles: "If my father had been able to, he would have hung ten TVs on his wall. I can't name anything he didn't watch. As a child, in fact, I often went to watch BC Ostend basketball games with him and Dominiek." Naomi: "Racing, that happened to be something he was good at. But that organisational talent, wanting to make sure his riders and staff had a good time, he could fully indulge in that and he passed on that passion to me." Brother Richard agrees. "Noël always stayed in cycling because he had the talent for it. That organising was totally his thing. Until he got cancer..."

Pancreatic cancer in 2020

When BMC ceased to exist at the end of 2018, Ochowicz sought and found a restart with Poland's CCC, but another two years later, the American's story in cycling was definitely over. Dejonckheere has since been diagnosed with cancer for the first time. Pancreatic cancer.

"I think he always wanted to hide how much pain he was really in," says daughter Naomi. "The only one who knows how much he really suffered is my mum. We watched him deteriorate, but I thought he maintained enormous courage right up to the very end. The week before he died, he went for a ten-kilometre walk. Why, I thought. Two km would have been fine too.

My father kept going to the extremes, even when he was seriously ill. He drew energy from that and you could see that he was always a sportsman. A normal person who is sick, I don't see him doing that. Actually, it's incredible how he did it, because that chemotherapy was not to be underestimated at all."

Brother Richard nods affirmatively. "Noël was someone who didn't give up. One day, it was freezing very hard, down to minus five, but he still went for a long walk. It took him an hour to get to the car, so to speak, but he wouldn't give up. Noël fought his illness and could not accept it. Everyone has their own way of dealing with an illness. Well, that was his way. That drive to win, he did have that.

Whenever Noël played a board game with Greg LeMond, they always got into an argument. Logical. When you have two almost pathological winners, things don't work out, lol. Eddy Merckx had that too and so does Mathieu van der Poel now. They don't want to lose and as a top athlete you need that somewhere, only Noël didn't have the constitution to become an absolute top rider. Maybe he would have had a chance if the Monuments were 400 km. (grins)

Even when he had cancer, Noël wanted to be the best after 150 km of cycling and he was." Dominiek Vandromme, too, can still have a tasty laugh at Dejonckheere's competitiveness. "It could be Rummikub, Noël was even playing that professionally. Richard and I were doing that for fun, but not him."

Until the last day, Noël tried to keep moving. He even made plans for the future.
Dominiek Vandromme

Charlyn and Naomi each experienced their father's final months in their own way. "Naomi lived in the house next door and I in Wingene, which creates a bit more distance anyway," Charlyn explains. "Evidently it wasn't, because we were in full corona period and I had just given birth to my second child. I also think I didn't want to take it so hard because I didn't want to face reality for a very long time."

For his best friend Dominiek, the last few years also remain a special memory. "Until the last day, Noël tried to keep moving. He was even still making plans for the future. We reeled off countless kilometres on our speed bikes. Sometimes we rode 160 km to Eindhoven to pick up a team truck. Those were blissful trips.

I am probably the only one who experienced Noël's illness every day. Every day we made phone calls. If he didn't call, I called myself. And our very last walk we did in 't Veld in Ardooie. Three kilometres."

American reunion via videocall

The first year of his illness, in 2020, Dejonckheere's family is organising a reunion via videocall with as many American riders as possible who once worked with him. Tejay van Garderen himself considers the moment as one of his fondest memories.

"Even guys you've heard of were there. John Devine, Saul Raisin, Mike Creed... Then I thought: wow, Noël has had a huge impact on me and so many others. That period in Izegem remains with me as the last step towards a career as a professional cyclist. For other guys it was an unforgettable chapter in their lives. Some went on to work in, let’s say, a bank and started a family.

It was impressive to be present at that videocall and see the impact of Noël. He was seriously ill by then, but I think it meant a lot to him to see all those guys again."

Wow, Noël has had a huge impact on me and so many others. That period in Izegem remains with me as the last step towards a career as a professional cyclist. For other guys it was an unforgettable chapter in their lives. Some went on to work in, let’s say, a bank and started a family.
Tejay van Garderen

From the US, Jim Ochowicz also experienced his good friend's illness intensely. "Noël was as strong in that battle as he was when he was winning races himself. He kept cycling, because that was his life. I rode with him several more times, both in Spain and in Belgium. I think his love for cycling even extended his life a bit. Noël never gave up.

Several times I discussed in his bedroom with him, but it was always about sports and never about his health. (smiles) Noël didn't want that. He was still the Noël I had always known. He talked about football. About cycling. He even still said how best to tackle something. That was Noël. He always remained the same despite his illness.

I am now 72 and hope that if I ever have to go through the same thing as Noël, I can go through that period the way he handled it. But I'm not sure I could. I am really proud that I knew him and we were good friends. Those memories will stay with me forever."

Walk of Life to Wissant (2023)

In the summer of 2023, his best friend Dominiek is organising a Walk of Life for Dejonckheere's family and closest friends. "When Noël was told in full corona period that he had cancer, a programme was shown on television about the GR129, the longest distance hike across Belgium. From Bruges to Arlon, up to 37 km a day. Noël wanted to do that and we did it. He was sick, but still very athletic. Uphill he was faster than me (smiles) That competitive spirit was still in him.

He also wanted to do the GR128 between Wissant and Aachen, but one stage, the last one to Wissant, was no longer possible. When it went uphill, Noël had to drop out. He put himself in a bus shelter and stayed there waiting for me. After his death, I absolutely wanted to walk that last stretch again. The last ride. Noël's Walk of Life, named after one of his favourite songs by the Dire Straits. In the evening, 35 of us toasted on the beach and had dinner at 't Rhodesgoed in Kachtem. It was a very beautiful day."

Daughters Naomi and Charlyn also keep fond memories of the day. "It was a particularly beautiful moment for all of us. We enjoyed it very much," confirms Naomi. Charlyn: "I am not the most sporty person, so I was a bit afraid about it, but that day flew by. It was a nice finish, I think especially for Dominiek and daddy's best friends."

Noël's smile

A year after his death, Noël Dejonckheere remains present in the lives of his family. "Somehow you are at peace with the fact that he is no more, although it remains painful. It was just too soon," indicates daughter Naomi.

“Yet we remain strong as a family and we try to keep doing everything he wanted. We have a house in Spain. It was dad's wish that we would continue to go there. So that's what we do. And I now live next to my mother. That was also dad's vision, so that we can take care of her later and she can also see the grandchildren often.”

Charlyn is also regularly reminded of her father. “It sometimes comes in at the most unexpected moments. To give just an example: when Remco Evenepoel won his third stage in the Vuelta in September, my dad was also mentioned on the radio because he also won three stages in one Tour of Spain. Then I thought: wow, we can be proud of that.

Every day something comes to mind: during a song, when someone talks about him, recently when someone at my work died of colon cancer... These are moments when I am thrown back into the past, in my case especially to the last days. before his death. That was waiting for something that you knew was coming, but you didn't know exactly when.”

Brother Richard: “Noël thought he could live well for another twenty or thirty years, but you have to play with the cards you are dealt. If you hold the wrong cards, you're out of luck.”

The closing words go to Jim Ochowicz. We ask him which memory comes to mind first when someone mentions Noël Dejonckheere's name. There is a silence, after which Ochowicz puts a blissful smile on his face. “When I entered the BMC service course in Eke and I had something important to arrange at my office, I always had to pass by Noël's office first.

Every time I looked in he had a smile on his face. That smile gave me the energy to sit at my desk and work really hard. I see that image when I think of Noël.”

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