This morning, I was going to write about the excitement surrounding the Amgen Tour of California, which rolls into Sacramento in a week. The race comes here almost every year, but for some reason the excitement and apprehension seems greater this year than in the past. The field is wide open, and the competition is hungry for a new figurehead; a new spokesman. Indeed, the whole sport of cycling is furiously seeking a new king, and all the major races – including the Tour of California – will be watched more closely this year than ever before.
I was going to write about the Tour of California, but this morning – a few hours ago – a young Belgian rider named Wouter Weylandt crashed during a fast descent on the third stage of the Giro d’Italia. He was 26, and he died from his injuries.
Wouter wasn’t well known outside the sport of cycling. Not yet, anyway. He was one of those tall, impossibly handsome guys with bright blonde hair and a huge white smile. On the bike he cut a broad, intimidating figure, most recently in the sober black and white of the newly-formed Leopard Trek team for which he rode.
Wouter wasn’t well known, but there is something about the death of a young man - particularly an athlete – which captures and crystallizes the horror of mortality in the mind of the public. How can a strong, attractive, successful 26-year-old, so alive and brimming with life one minute, be limp and lifeless a few minutes later? Most people had never heard of Wouter Weylandt before today, but less than an hour after he died, his name was one of the top trending topics on Twitter. Thousands of individuals around the world felt the impact of Wouter’s crash, and they came forward to express their horror, then their disbelief, and finally their sorrow.
Cycling is not a safe sport. You can look at the riders in their flimsy gear and lightweight helmets and dismiss them as posers who take few risks: just sit on the saddle, spin your pedals and point in the right direction. But when riders go down, they go down hard – often at speeds exceeding fifty miles per hour – onto narrow ribbons of tarmac wrapped around the edges of mountains. The ones that get up again – and most do, thankfully – display the shredded ruins of their cycling outfits clinging to vast and bloody wounds. Wrists, collarbones and ribs are frequently broken. Arms, legs and faces are torn up and bruised.
With a tragic regularity, notable riders in major races go down hard and do not get back up again. Fabio Casartelli, Isaac Gálvez, Andrei Kivilev. Wouter’s fellow countryman, Jean-Pierre Monseré, was the world champion when he was killed in a collision during the Grote Jaarmarktprijs in 1971. I can’t think of another sport with so regular or so high a body count.
As a cyclist who regularly rides on the roads around Sacramento, and as a writer who regularly reports on cyclists who are killed while riding bikes, I am filled with familiar emotions. Sickness, horror and appalling sadness. No one should have to risk their life in order to perform well at their sport. And yet Wouter Weylandt obviously adored cycling. He was starting his career, and had his greatest victories ahead of him. As he came down that steep section of the Passo del Bocco this morning, I have no doubt that danger was the furthest thing from his mind. He was focused upon winning the stage for a second time and establishing his name in the Giro d’Italia. I believe there was determination and intense concentration on his face, not fear, doubt or reservation. He wasn’t holding anything back, nor should he have been.
And nor should we. Cycling is a dangerous sport. It was dangerous for Wouter Weylandt in the mountains of Liguria and it is dangerous for us on the streets in our home towns. But if we give up and say enough is enough, this isn’t worth the risk, then we let the fear of uncontrollable consequences rob us of one of life’s purest and most enduring joys: sitting on a saddle, spinning the pedals and seeing where we end up.
Wouter’s girlfriend, Sophie, is expecting their first child in September. As a father, I am almost unbearably sad for this wounded family. I hope Weylandt’s baby is born healthy and happy, and that he or she grows up surrounded with people who knew and loved Wouter. I also hope that the baby grows up understanding that Wouter chose professional cycling despite the risks, and that he would never blame the sport of cycling for his death. I hope the child embraces cycling as a connection to his or her father, and grows to love it as Wouter so obviously did.
Goodbye, Wouter Weylandt. May you rest in peace forever.