Despite its highly-publicised problems, professional cycling is undoubtedly a beautiful and thrilling sport, as a participant and as a spectator, whether watching at the roadside or on TV, and May 9 started as a day that promised to be one of the best. The first of the year’s Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia, had begun two days earlier, and the Isle of Man’s larger than life, sometimes controversial, sprinter Mark Cavendish was in the Maglia Rosa, the ‘pink jersey’ of race leader. The day was to end with another Briton, David Miller taking it off him, as Cavendish slipped slowly down the standings. Tragically Miller would be saying that the moment meant absolutely nothing to him.
The start town of Reggio Emilia heralded a beautiful early summer’s day and the riders were pretty keyed up. Being early in the race there was still a full field; no-one had dropped out, no-one was overtired as they’ll be when the race reaches the end of its three weeks, and there was still everything to play for.
The big guns have a tendency to ride conservatively and keep their powder dry for the important stages where they can make gains on their rivals either in one of the time trials or in the high mountains.
The Giro d’Italia has earned a good reputation in recent years for being a more open and exciting race than its big rival the Tour de France. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, Le Tour has become so important and high profile that it can become a bit of a procession. The big guns have a tendency to ride conservatively and keep their powder dry for the important stages where they can make gains on their rivals either in one of the time trials or in the high mountains. Once they have a time advantage they tend to avoid any risky attacks as the rewards for winning are so high. Secondly, the Giro organisers have tended to force more open racing by adding in more, and higher, mountain stages thus making it harder and any time gaps bigger to encourage more attacking racing. They have also started putting these stages early in the race.
The third day of the Giro was to be a medium mountain stage of 178 kilometres and, at about 40 kilometres from finish, as things would be hotting up for the last hour of racing, a third category climb, the Passo del Bocco, This is the first proper climb of the entire race. The descent is described, at best, as ‘technical’, in fact, as even the official race book states, it’s ‘a treacherous toboggan run, if wet’.
But these thrilling descents, where 200 hundred riders twisting and turning like shoals of fish negotiate hairpins at speeds of 80 km an hour or more on tyres only a centimetre wide, are one of the joys of watching bike racing. To the observer it looks (like it’s gravity and free-wheeling) as if not much is happening, but the riders are constantly making split-second decisions, constantly checking which riders are around them, looking out for and skilfully avoiding the TV motorbikes, the team cars. The descents demand mutual respect. After all if one rider falls they are likely to bring plenty of others down with them.
As the riders descended the Passo del Bocco, Eurosport commentator David Harmon, could hardly contain his excitement, watching the beauty of the whole thing, the bikes flashing down, the sparkling greenery of the trees, the occasional glimpses of the blue Mediterranean far below. Soon, and for the remainder of the day, he’d sound like someone who’d rather be a thousand miles away.
The shots from host broadcaster Rai TV, cut suddenly to a rider lying prone on the ground. Briefly, mercifully briefly, it was possible to see someone who appeared to have serious facial injuries, a very smashed nose at the least. A car had a stopped and someone was attempting to cut the rider’s helmet away. Blood was pumping out pretty fast, whether from the nose, the head, the lungs, it was impossible to say.
It’s not unusual to see footage of a crash. Professional road racing can be a spectacularly ‘gladitorial’ sport, accidents happen, and it’s customary for motorbikes carrying cameramen to stop at the scene of a crash and film the aftermath. It’s not all gratuitous: Is it one of the favourites losing valuable time whilst lying on the tarmac? Will he get up and carry on? They usually do. This time, however, the situation is clearly different. The director quickly cuts away, and the last we see is other riders threading through the obstruction of motorbikes and cars. Some are gesticulating at the cameras, whether because they understand the seriousness of the accident, or whether from frustration because their way is blocked is unclear.
There was now a pall hanging over the whole event.
The mood had changed, and inevitably confusion reigned. The race was still on, most of the riders unaware of the drama, but among those who were, and those watching, the earlier enthusiasm of the day was long gone. There was now a pall hanging over the whole event.
Viewers waited for the director to cut back to the crash scene. It’s customary to see the outcome, the rider getting back on, or changing their bike or a wheel, or even getting into a team car too hurt to continue. The fact the cameras didn’t cut back for a very long time only added to the sense of growing unease. When they finally did, it was to a long shot from a helicopter showing, through the trees, the rider still on the ground, being worked on. Shit, is that doctor doing CPR? The longer this went on the worse it got. There is the ‘golden hour’, the critical time from the moment of an accident to arriving at the hospital. This accident had occurred more than 30 minutes ago. An ambulance stood by, but he wasn’t being put in it. An air ambulance hovered overhead. Not good, not good at all.
And meanwhile the race went on. The commentators began to report that the fallen rider was Wouter Weylandt, a Belgian riding for Leopard-Trek.
Then another announcement came: the organisers had cancelled the podium ceremony at the finish.
The cameras went back to the scene. Another long shot.
There was a white sheet. Oh God. Then, finally, the news.
He loved Italy so much that he had learnt Italian and he tweeted just before the start ‘These are good times!’
Wouter Weylandt was 26. A middle ranking professional he was extremely well liked and hard to miss, over six foot with blonde spiky hair making him appear taller, and with an extremely positive outlook allied to a laconic sense of humour. He wasn’t even supposed to be riding the Giro but was drafted in as a late replacement for his teams other sprinter Daniele Bennati who had broken some ribs in a crash at another race some weeks earlier. He loved Italy so much that he had learnt Italian and he tweeted just before the start ‘These are good times!’ However some reports state that he had texted his manager on Sunday night to express concerns that racing was getting more dangerous in it’s search for spectacle and it was spooking him. His girlfriend is five months pregnant with their first child. One of his major successes was to win Stage 3 of last year’s Giro. This was Stage 3 of Giro 2011.
The whole of the race entourage, the riders, the teams, the organisers, the media, was in shock.
Perhaps surprisingly given the speed of the races, the terrain and the number of crashes there have actually been very few fatalities in professional cycling. The last fatal accident in the Giro was back in 1986, and in the Tour de France, there have only been three in 100 years, the last being Fabio Casartelli who died in 1995, in sadly similar circumstances. After the Kazakhstan rider, Andrei Kivilev died of head injuries in 2003’s Paris-Nice, helmets were made mandatory - but this wouldn’t have saved Wouter.
Dropped from the main group on the climb, he was racing down the other side of the mountain when, in one split-second, he made a mistake. According to a rider in the group behind him, as Wouter came out of one of the hairpins he looked briefly back over his shoulder (perhaps to see if it would be tactically better to let the group catch him). At the same moment the road narrowed slightly, his left foot and pedal smashed into a low lying stone wall, catapulting him and his bike almost a hundred metres down the road where he either hit the tarmac face first, or hit the dry stone wall on the right. Although the race doctor, a second doctor from another team, and an ambulance all arrived in within seconds, it was hopeless. Although Wouter was given CPR and adrenalin shots, an autopsy would indicate that death was instantaneous, caused by damage to the base of the skull and internal bleeding.
At the end of the stage, the new race leader, David Miller, one of the more eloquent members of the peloton, was unable to celebrate getting the jersey, saying. “It means nothing. Our sport is very tragic at times - it has been throughout its history. We get mixed up in a lot of stupid things in this sport. The bottom line is that it’s a sport that has its risks every single day. The guys here are the best cyclists in the world, and the best guys in the world can have a mechanical [fault] or find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“ I love cycling, and I've always been enchanted by the epic scale of it all, it was why I fell in love with it as a boy. Wouter's death today goes beyond anything that our sport is supposed to be about, yet we live with it daily, completely oblivious to the dangers we put ourselves in. This is a sad reminder to us, the racers, what risks we take and what lives we lead. Wouter was a sprinter, this means he was one of the most skilful bike handlers in the peloton, for this to have happened to him shows that we are all at risk every single kilometer we race.”
Inevitably after such a tragic event questions are being asked. Although Wouter fell on a relatively ‘normal’ descent, which was tarmaced, and while going in a straight line, there has been controversy over the course before this years Giro even started. In the search for spectacle and TV ratings are the organizers crossing a line? One of the favourites, Alberto Contador, a first class climber and descender, has expressed concerns about the previously unused mountain Monte Crosti on Stage 14 based on the fact that some of the 14 km descent is on unpaved roads with sheer drops and no safety rail. The organizers are intending to put up nets to catch the unfortunate. Also this years course has forty major climbs including ascending active volcano Mount Etna twice.
Wouter was a sprinter, this means he was one of the most skilful bike handlers in the peloton, for this to have happened to him shows that we are all at risk every single kilometer we race.”
All this adds further context to Miller’s words. “My wife was in tears when I spoke to her after the race because she couldn't understand why the live television was showing him receiving medical attention when in such a horrific state. All she could imagine was that it was me. I haven't told her yet, that like her, Wouter's girlfriend is five months pregnant. I am trying to imagine what that would be like to see the person I love most in the world in those circumstances. I can't, and in honesty, I don't want to.”
Race director Angelo Zomegnan said that it would be up to the teams and the riders as to how they wanted to proceed, but that there would be no music and razzamatazz the following day. How could there be? Overnight, Wouter’s team Leopard-Trek, David Miller, the other riders and teams made the decision that they wanted Stage 4 neutralised and no results to count. They would ride the 216 km, one of the longest stages in the race, briskly as one, with each team, apart from Leopard-Trek, taking a turn to ride on the front until the final stretch. With 3km to the finish line, Leopard-Trek would move to the front and ride to the finish, eight abreast, with Wouter’s closest friend, the rival American sprinter, Tyler Farrar, taking his place as the 9th rider in the line, the rest of the field following at a respectful distance.
It was another sunny day. The riders lined up at the start in Genova’s piazza, in silence as a military band played a lament. Each wore a black armband, fashioned out of black tape, and they rode out to muted applause.
Italy is a country long riven with differences, political or otherwise. In fact this years Giro is celebrating 150 years of reunification. (Only 150 years? Makes them younger than America…). But this was something very special. It seemed like the entire route was lined with spectators respectfully clapping. No other noise, no cheering. Just the patter of applause. This was particularly marked in the towns and there were signs of support everywhere; municipal flags at half mast, church bells slowly ringing, Belgian flags and at one stage a rash of what looked like pieces of A4 paper replicating Wouters’ race number reading “ 108 is present “. Meanwhile in Wouter’s home town of Gent, after weeks of sunshine, it was pouring with rain.
As the long train of riders finally approached the finish at Livorno, rather classily at pretty much the exact time as they said they would, and Leopard-Trek along with Tyler Farrar prepared to move to the front, David Harmon was finding it increasingly difficult to commentate and I can’t say I blame him. It was a beautiful but heartbreaking sight. At one point Tyler appeared to want to drop back slightly but was encouraged by an arm on his back and a slight push to stay in the line.
In the silence that followed the other riders quietly dispersed to the sanctuary of their team buses whilst Leopard-Trek stood astride their bikes in a loose huddle before briefly going onto the podium to acknowledge the crowd. A trumpeter played The Last Post.
They and Tyler Farrar left the race that night.
Gent, Belgium, 9 September 1984 – Passo del Bocco, Italy, 9 May 2011