Death in the afternoon

Two weeks ago I started preparing a post about the Giro d’Italia, and why it was one of my favourite races of the calendar. I wrote a bit about the parcours, about the tifosi, about the unpredictability, the doping par excellence, and about the grandeur of it all. I got a bit bored with writing it, and I let it languish in my drafts folder until some unspecified event in the second week of racing could jolt it into being interesting. Then Wouter Weylandt died.

Weylandt crashed on an otherwise routine descent of the Passo del Bocco. I was watching the stage when this happened. By [all accounts]( Weylandt was treated almost immediately for his injuries. His helmet was cut away, CPR was performed, the race helicopter ferried him to the nearest hospital. He died almost immediately after crashing. His girlfriend is five months pregnant with their first child.

The Giro is famed for its disregard for its riders. 2009’s edition saw Rabobank’s Pedro Horrillo fall into a ravine. The peloton staged a [protest]( after that event, refusing to race the 102 mile ‘super criterium’ in Milan, save for the last 4 laps. At the time the organizers called the peloton “emotional,” and moved on. Horrillo was brought out of an induced coma a day later, and soon after retired from racing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Weylandt’s death had nothing to do with the Giro’s attitude to course design. He smashed his head onto a concrete whilst probably traveling upwards of 65 kmph. The only way to prevent this sort of death is to not ride bikes fast. Or at all: a quick browse of the [statistics]( shows that there were 820 serious injuries and deaths in the second quarter of 2009 alone. The Guardian furnishes us with this UK specific factoid, “the average cyclist in Denmark rides over 10 times further than his or her British peer every year but runs only 20% of the risk of being killed.” Weylandt’s death, like hundreds of others every year, was not preventable in the ‘useful’ sense of the word. Speaking as someone who has been run over by a van, there is only so much preparation one can take against unforeseen events.

The last time something like this [happened](, the UCI reacted by implementing a mandatory helmet rule for flat stages and descents, later widened to include ascents as well.

If you are looking to ‘learn lessons’ from this tragedy, turn instead to the reaction of the cycling world, which has been occasionally heart warming, mostly dutifully sombre, and sometimes galling. Racing carried on the next day, although neutralised for one stage as a mark of respect. Weylandt’s team [headed home]( and his race number has been ‘retired’. A [fund]( has been set up to supply for his family, with associated [paraphernalia]( being sold by benefactors. Cycling often like to view itself as a community, albeit one with rigorous hierarchies, structures and schisms. Weylandt’s death has gone some way to proving this to be true.

Apart from that, though, the race has carried on. Weylandt’s death rightly overshadowed David Millar’s achievement of being the first Brit to wear the leader’s jersey in all three Grand Tours. It hasn’t, however, stopped the talk about racing, attacking, doping, sickness and postponements. Life has very much carried on.


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