Frederiek Nolf died in his sleep last night at the Doha Ritz-Carlton in Qatar, ahead of the fifth stage of the Tour of Qatar. The Belgian of Team Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator, who would have celebrated his 22nd birthday in five days, is believed to have suffered a heart attack.

“Cycling is in mourning when you lose such a young talent, a guy like him,” said cycling legend Eddy Merckx, who is the technical sponsor for the team.

Nolf turned professional in 2008 with Topsport Vlaanderen. The Tour of Qatar was his first race of the 2009 season. He finished 90th in yesterday’s 141-kilometre stage four to Madinat Al Shamal, which Mark Cavendish won.

Directeur Sportif Jean-Pierre Heynderickx found Nolf dead this morning.

“I rode with the guys here earlier this week in Qatar. Yesterday, he was laughing and happy; he never woke up and died in his sleep,” Merckx said.

Topsport will not start stage five from Al Kharaib track to Qatar’s capital city, Doha. The remaining seven riders will ride to the start of the stage. The team announced it will also pull out of the Etoile de Bessèges, currently held in France.

Organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) shortened the stage out of respect for Nolf. It will also be neutralised.

It’s not the first time this type of occurrence has hit a cycling event. In 2003, 23-year-old French rider Fabrice Salanson died in his sleep during the Tour of Germany. Then-teammate Sébastien Chavanel found the La Brioche Boulangère rider dead in his room.

The Tour of Qatar, February 1 to 6, is in its eighth year. The same organiser as the Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organisation, runs it. Tom Boonen is the current general classification leader.

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