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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Death in the family

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published May. 10, 2011
The Tour de France passed the memorial to Fabio Casartelli in 2001. AFP PHOTO JOEL SAGET

A tribute to men like Wouter Weylandt who die in bike races

The scene of Weylandt's crash. Photo: Gregg Bleakney

Crashes and the risk of crashing are constants in the life of racing cyclists. They all know the dangers of their profession and, like all of us who ride, they don’t expect to die on a bike. Wouter Weylandt’s death on Monday at the Giro d’Italia reminds us just how close danger lurks, and maybe his passing will stop us all from taking quite so many risks the next time we go out on the road.

I was thinking of those risks last Thursday during my annual birthday ride. While racing down Boulder Canyon, a curving downhill that drops 3,000 feet in 24km, I was conscious how close I was to the concrete barriers on the long 10-percent stretch they call The Narrows. It was on my May 5 ride in 2000 that I remembered Italian cycling legend Gino Bartali, who died that morning. He was 85 and died peacefully in his bed in the same village near Florence where he was born. That same day, I learned that an amateur cyclist had died in a race in Spain and Lance Armstrong suffered one of his rare falls when descending a mountain road during a training ride in the Pyrénées.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through May 8)
1. HTC-Highroad 18 (seven riders)
2. Lampre-ISD 14 (six riders)
3. Garmin-Cervélo 13 (eight riders)
4. Rabobank 13 (five riders)
5. Team RadioShack 12 (seven riders)
Movistar 12 (seven riders)
7. Saxo Bank-SunGard 10 (four riders)
8. Omega Pharma-Lotto 10 (two riders)
9. Liquigas-Cannondale 8 (four riders)
10. Sky 7 (four riders)
11. Leopard-Trek 7 (three riders)
12. Vacansoleil-DCM 6 (four riders)
13. Katusha 4 (three riders)
Astana 4 (three riders)
15. Euskaltel-Euskadi 4 (two riders)
16. Quick Step 3 (two riders)
17. BMC Racing 3 (one rider)
18. AG2R-La Mondiale 2 (two riders)

On my ride last week, I thought back a few years to the crash I had during Dave Chauner and Jack Simes’ annual Founders’ Ride, which takes place the day before the Philadelphia International Championship. I was in the middle of a small pack of cycling luminaries, most of them ex-pros, descending a steep hill to a narrow bridge when a Red Setter suddenly darted into the pack. I T-boned the dog and the others told me later that I did a complete somersault through the air and landed headfirst on the bridge. The pink helmet I was wearing split, but I was OK. That Giro d’Italia-themed helmet featured caricatures of Bartali and Fausto Coppi. I’m glad those cycling gods were with me that day.

Other crashes

During my birthday ride, I also thought about the crashes in the Tour de Romandie time trial I was at a week earlier. There was a curving descent in the TT’s opening kilometer that, in training, BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney said he didn’t need to use brakes. In the race, his team leader Cadel Evans went down that hill at full speed, maybe 70 kph, using his whole body to pull his bike around the turns like a motorcycle racer. He got down safe.

Phinney, though, skidded out, smashed his bike into four pieces on a low, stone wall … and escaped with road rash. Shortly after Phinney’s fall, HTC’s Leigh Howard also slid out at top speed, hit the wall and went over the top. He was taken to the hospital, but nothing was broken, and he’s now back in training for his next race.

That’s it. Crashes happen all the time. Most likely, we’ll get some road rash, maybe a chipped tooth or a broken collarbone. When Coppi crashed he was prone to breaking legs that interrupted his long career. But he died at age 40 from malaria, which was mis-diagnosed. Coppi’s brother Serse, also a bike racer, died from a brain injury at 28 after crashing in the last kilometer of the Tour of Piedmont classic.

But, thankfully, accidental death is rare in our sport. In chronicling those who have died in European pro races, Tuesday’s edition of L’Équipe listed only 19 such deaths over the past 75 years. Three world road champions were included in that list: Belgian Stan Ockers, 36, who fractured his skull in a crash at the Antwerp Six Day in 1951; Tom Simpson, 29, Britain’s most storied cyclist, whose collapse on Mont Ventoux at the 1967 Tour de France was attributed in part to drugs and part heatstroke; and Jean-Pierre Monseré, 22, also Belgian, who died wearing the rainbow jersey after a collision with a vehicle driving the wrong way in a 1970 kermesse race.

One of my club-mates in England would die alongside me when he was hit by a trailer (called a caravan in the UK) in an amateur road race. I’d lose another teammate and friend to cancer. But Simpson’s death was the first cycling fatality that really impacted me. I was racing in France that year and took time out to follow the Tour by bike; a friend, Colin Lewis, was racing on the Great Britain national team at the ’67 Tour, so when I visited with him at team hotels in the days before Simpson’s death I also saw Mister Tom. And I shouted out some encouragement when Simpson passed my viewing spot at the foot of the Ventoux, shortly before he collapsed.

Casartelli and Weylandt

But the death that the majority of us remember the most was that of 1992 Olympic road champion Fabio Casartelli during the 1995 Tour. As with Weylandt’s tragic fall on Monday, Casartelli was descending a steep mountain pass, the Portet d’Aspet in the Pyrénées, which drops for 4km at a grade of almost 10 percent; the Passo del Bocco, where Weylandt died, descends for 15km an average of 5.7 percent.

The Tour de France passed the memorial to Fabio Casartelli in 2001. AFP PHOTO JOEL SAGET

Both men were almost at the end of the downhill. Casartelli was just one bend away from completing the Portet d’Aspet descent in 1995. There were various theories of how the 24-year-old Italian crashed. French rider François Simon, who was riding behind the Italian, said, “Fabio’s front wheel suddenly stopped and he went headfirst over the bike.” Few people knew that Casartelli was riding a new titanium bike for the first time that day, and the Portet d’Aspet was the day’s first descent.

He’d been racing all season on a heavier steel bike, so one theory is that when a number of riders crashed in front of him — a couple went over the parapet into the trees — Casartelli, with a lighter bike and brand-new brake pads, pulled too hard on the levers and his brakes locked the front wheel, causing his headfirst fall onto the rough pavement.

Others believe that his head (pros didn’t wear helmets back then) collided with one of the short concrete posts that lined the downhill before he fell into the fetal position … and died. One of the few similarities of Weylandt’s crash with Casartelli’s is that the Belgian appears to have clipped with his left pedal a similar low concrete wall on the Passo del Bocco Monday afternoon (see Andrew Hood’s on-the-spot report at the crash site).

That impact at an estimated 70 kph catapulted Weylandt high into the air; it appears that his bike crashed into the high stone retaining wall on the opposite side of the road about 100 feet down, while the Belgian cyclist fell close to the bike, falling face first onto the asphalt, thus negating the impact protection of his helmet.

Within minutes of Weylandt’s death being confirmed on Monday, there were hundreds of postings on the 26-year-old Belgian’s Facebook page, honoring his passing. In tributes, his colleagues in the peloton remembered a high-spirited young man who was always there to help them. Even those who didn’t know him well expressed their shock and their sympathy for his pregnant partner, Anne-Sophie, his family and close friends, including Garmin’s Tyler Farrar.

When young men like Casartelli and Weylandt die so publicly the whole cycling family mourns. That is the case this week, and that was the case in July 1965. When Casartelli died, the Tour was into its final week, and that’s the main reason why his Motorola teammates continued, with Armstrong vowing to win a stage (he did) as their tribute to Fabio. So it’s no surprise that with this Giro only four days old that Weylandt’s Leopard-Trek teammates have decided to join Farrar in leaving the race. It would have been psychologically tough, if not impossible, to continue racing down twisting descents in what is going to be the most mountainous Giro in history.

In a poignant tweet Monday night, our Dutch press colleague Ray Kerckhoffs remembered talking with a weeping Wouter Weylandt at last year’s Tour of Qatar right after the young Belgian cyclist Frederiek Nolff was found to have passed away in his sleep. “RIP Wouter,” Kerckhoffs wrote. “The morning after Frederiek Nolff died in Qatar you told me that life is unfair. You were right. We will miss you.”

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This is the 13th installment.

FILED UNDER: Giro d'Italia / News / Road TAGS: / / /

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