Jonny Bellis and a story of hope

Following in the footsteps of Kai Reus

While one family unites for the cycling world championships in Mendrisio over the next 24 hours, a few hundred kilometres south of here, in a hospital ward in the Italian city of Florence, another begs for an end to their suffering.


One of those families is the travelling circus most of us know as the professional peloton. The other belongs to one of that troupe’s junior members, Jonny Bellis. A week ago, Bellis was a first year professional for the Saxo Bank just beginning to make his way in this brutal sport. Since a motorbike accident on Friday night, he has had a much harder fight on his hands.

Most of us here at the world championships first encountered Bellis at the same event two years ago in Stuttgart. A bronze medal in the Under 23 race there underlined the Manxman’s rich promise. Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis was so impressed that he soon had Bellis signed up for 2009.

It is too early to say whether Bellis will be able to resume a career which flickered into life with some good performances in the Bayern Rundfahrt in May. On the whole, it ‘s been a tough debut season for the 21 year old. Quiet by nature, young even for a rookie, he has been used sparingly by Riis. While one mate, fellow Manxman and training partner, Mark Cavendish, continues his vertiginous rise to the top of the sport, another, Peter Kennaugh, has just scored a pro contract with Team Sky.  Meanwhile, their friend has spent the year toiling for little reward or recognition.

The good news on Friday was that an operation to remove a blood clot on his brain had been successful. Bellis remained in a coma, his condition still critical but stable. His parents and his former Great Britain Under 23 team boss Max Sciandri were at his bedside. Mark Cavendish, who Bellis had been visiting when he had his accident, was also due in Florence on Friday.

Jonny Bellis represented Great Britain at the 2008 Olympic Games
Jonny bellis represented great britain at the 2008 olympic games: jonny bellis represented great britain at the 2008 olympic games
AFP/Getty Images

If Bellis, his family and everyone who knows him need hope and solace over the coming hours, days, weeks and months, they can find it in the story of another rider who once stood on the podium at a world championships. The winner of the junior road race in Hamilton in 2003, Kai Reus turned professional with Rabobank in 2006 with a billing as Dutch cycling’s brightest young star. A year later, while his older team-mates rode the Tour de France, Reus crashed while training in the Alps and lay unconscious and unnoticed at the side of the road for several hours. When he was finally found and rushed to hospital, he, like Bellis, had a blood clot on his brain, plus a broken collarbone and three broken ribs. Reus remained in a coma for eleven days.

Reus was lucky. He survived. He held an emotional press conference in September 2007 to describe what he called his “horror story”, while well aware that many more challenges lay ahead. A prickly character, even before his accident, now, in his own words, he became downright “rebellious”.

To his parents’ horror, one day he announced that he wanted to travel alone to New Zealand. “I needed to be on my own. I needed to know I could look after myself.  Don’t underestimate what happened to me. I completely lost grip on life. Everyone around was concerned about me and tried to look after me. But there came a point when that started to do my head in. I know people meant well. But all I wanted was to look after myself again without the help of others,” Reus told Leon de Kort for Procycling magazine last year.

The Dutchman’s trip to the Southern Hemisphere cemented his desire to return to cycling. Or at least try. Rabobank supported him, but sensibly decided that he should start slowly, in their Continental Division team. The first race of his comeback was to be the 2008 Tour of Missouri. He managed to finish. In 58th place.

Dutchman Kai Reus has had a tough time after his life threatening crash in 2007
Dutchman kai reus has had a tough time after his life threatening crash in 2007: dutchman kai reus has had a tough time after his life threatening crash in 2007
AFP/Getty Images

Kai Reus is another rider who has come back after a serious accident

A year later, just a fortnight ago, Reus won for the first time since his already miraculous return, in stage 2 of the Tour of Britain. In his post-race press conference, he cried, but couldn’t bring himself to convey what torment he’d endured. In London later that week, after Reus had lost the race leader’s jersey, even Rabobank directeur sportif Erik Dekker admitted he couldn’t begin to imagine how hard Reus’s journey had been.

“I think it’s very difficult for us all to understand what Kai has been through, even this year,” Dekker told me. “At the start of the year, we told him that we were including him in the squad, but that he’d be treated like all of the other riders. It wasn’t going to be a sympathy vote. In the first race of the season, the Tour Down Under, he abandoned after three stages. After that, he was in really bad shape all spring. I kept telling him he wasn’t riding well enough to get picked. But in May and June, he finally came back to do a few races, then he started riding well in the Tour of Austria in July…”

Dekker says that Reus’s season has been a test of resilience in the face of constant setbacks. After his encouraging performances in Austria, his fortunes and morale plummeted again in August…

“He was really targeting the Dutch national time trial championships, was really motivated … then he got a puncture in the first five kilometres,” Dekker recalled. “He sat there in the bus that afternoon, crying his eyes out, saying, ‘When is this shit going to end? Why is everything against me?’ He wasn’t even supposed to ride here at the Tour of Britain but then Stef Clement called me up last week to say that he was sick, and I decided to replace him with Kai.

“It’s hard to say if the crash has changed him as a rider or a person,” Dekker continued. “He always had a tendency to withdraw slightly, and he perhaps does that even more now. In Austria, at the start of the week, he’d always be the first to get up from the dinner table and go to his room, but you could see him open up as he started to feel better. Here, this week, I could tell straight away that he would have a good week because he was open like that right from when we arrived. Again, it’s hard to comprehend what it’s been through. It’s still a battle for him.”


Jonny Bellis began a battle like Kai Reus’s last Friday night. With a bit of luck, a lot of strength and even more perseverance, hopefully it won’t before we’re telling another story of survival.