A POWERFUL STORY – BICYCLE RACING?

THE GIRO D’ ITALIA

Motocross racers are highly emotional, although it doesn’t always show. You know what I mean; that steely eyed stare scanning the terrain looking for the best line, the block pass that turns into a take-out move when the other guy refuses to let off. Racers in general don’t like to lose. They will stretch the throttle cable as far as it will go, keep up the revs with the clutch, and barely slow down for the turns to get past the other guy. They will take great risks to take the checkered flag first even though most of them know from experience that the odds are against them. Theirs is not a casual sport. They have a lot invested in their equipment and in their racing (both in time and money).

Who has ever heard of the laid back, winning doesn’t matter racer. Even among amateurs they are passionate about their sport. MX racers are emotional in other ways too. I have seen pros weeping on the stand because of the hardships they had to overcome and relief when they win. I have seen others rush to the back of their rig after the race to weep uncontrollable tears of frustration and rage. It isn’t as unlikely as it would seem to see these “hard men” break down.

Why do I mention this? I am passionate about anything with two wheels and have a bunch of bicycles in the garage among my motorcycles. Enough said… I follow the pro road bike races that take place mostly in Europe. I know that a lot of you are probably turned off by their shaved legs and their “girly” tights. And the word peloton sounds upper crust and pretentious. How can anybody pronounce a word like that without cracking up? Get over it. The sport has a lot to offer and is really good for overall fitness. It’s a sport of team work, strategy and sacrifice.

These guys are just as passionate about racing as Motocross racers. Their training, their diet and dedication is second to none. They have a high level of emotional intensity. That quality was brought into sharp focus last Monday at the Giro d’ Italia, when one of their own (a sprinter) lost his life after one short moment of inattention on a downhill section of the course.

The Giro is one of three “grand tours” along with the Veulta de Espana (Spanish tour) and the Tour de France. The tragic event happened on the third day of this three week tour. The early stages are fairly flat compared to the high mountain stages that take place later. Even though the third stage was considered a sprinters stage there was some climbing on the course where the sprinters have a habit of getting dropped. They are forced to catch up on the down hills. Besides the crazed action in the sprint at the end of a sprinters stage (a less mountainous day) this is where they take the most chances.

Wouter Weylandt, a Belgian, from the Leopard-Trek team to the shock of other racers, team officials, spectators and organizers lost his life in a crash near the end of the stage. I was watching the race on channel 11. After the crash they decided to cancel coverage of the race and show a stage in the 2010 Giro where the twenty-six year old Wouter won in a sprint finish the year before. Even the commenters who normally seem so blaze and full of facts about the history of the race were visibly subdued and obviously taken back by his death.

We slowly learned the facts. Another racer, Manuel  Cordoso from Radio Shack, was following Wouter and saw the whole thing. The sprinters had gotten dropped and were fighting their way back to the lead group on the downhill. He said that Wouter looked back to see if maybe he should wait for some of the other dropped riders (they can use each other’s draft and a group of strong riders can have an advantage over a single rider).

That moment of inattention proved to be fatal. He clipped his pedal or his handlebar on a low stone wall beside the pavement and was catapulted across the road. He was knocked unconscious and had an ugly cut in his head. Although help came to his side within seconds, he never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead by 5:00 p.m. that evening

Wouter was a very popular rider and a great favorite of the peloton. The next day, Tuesday, was supposed to be a race along the coast of Italy. In the aftermath of the previous day’s tragic death of Wouten, it was decided that to neutralize the 216km stage from Genova Quarto dei Mille to Livorno and the peloton honored their fallen comrade by riding together as a group. This was done even in the face of big buck sponsors and the promoters who had labored so long to put on this historic race.

“The bustling port town of Livorno had prepared for a party, and instead it welcomed a funeral cortege, as the Giro d’Italia family mourned the late Wouter Weylandt on stage four.” Great crowds stood by the roads and many held up Wooter’s racing number, and reacted with muted applause as the peloton glided slowly by.

Perhaps the spectators were aware that they were observing something that transcended sport. It was obvious that feelings of human compassion and grief were shared by the spectators and racers alike. The teams took turns spending about 10 kilometers pacing at the head of the bunch and the peloton stayed together in the solidarity of shared grief for a stricken friend and rider.

Just before the finish Wouter Weylandt’s Leopard Trek teammates came to the front and rode ten meters ahead of the rest of the peloton. Tyler Farrar, an American racer on the Garmin Cervelo team who trained and spent time with Wouter in Belgium was especially tormented by his best friend’s death. In a touching moment he was invited to ride with Leopard Trek riders in the front. They were all wearing dark glasses and a few of them reached up to dab their cheeks as they rode arm in arm over the finish line. Both Tyler and the Leopard Trek team decided to give up the race and go home afterwards. The void was just too deep and they needed time to pull themselves together.

After the race the organizers invited the Leopard Trek squad as well as the four jersey holders to come to the podium. Led on to the podium in a subdued manner the riders were introduced and stood before a picture of Weylandt winning the third stage of the 2010 Giro. A lone bugle played the Last Call, while the spectators looked on in perfect silence. Afterwards the clearly distraught Leopard Trek riders descended from the podium and made their way silently for the privacy of the team bus.

To me this says a lot about the racing community and how they care for their own. The emotions were palatable that day. It was a cathartic event where spectators and racers shared an outpouring of grief and honored this young twenty-six year old man whose death was so untimely and poignant.

His death was a result of a moment of distraction, a moment of inattention. That is all it takes and everybody in the peloton realizes that it could happen to any one of them at any time. More than anything else, this young man died doing what he loved to do better than anything else in the world; something that not many of us will be able to say when we pass on. The peloton will grief and then pull themselves together for the remaining stages. They are in the end all racers and they like nothing better than being in the thick of the action.

Epoloque

This tragedy is described in Mark Cavendish’s second book, At Speed My Life in the Fast Lane. Cavendish is also a sprinter and his reaction to Wouter Weylandt’s tragic accident is moving. He tells the story of his own intense emotional response and the emotional response of his team and the pheloton. Wouter was very popular among his teammates and even his competitors. Cavendish describes what it felt like the next day being part of the pheloton mourning for Wouter, a friend, comrade and fellow sprinter.

Cavendish is a brash sometimes rude and very emotional racer. This is the same Cavendish known by the press as the bad boy of bike racing who sometimes would burst into tears standing on the podium.

In 2010 he had a lot of critics when he struggled with his health at the start of the season. The press said that he was done. When he finally won stage two of the Tour of Romandie he mocked his critics with a two fingered salute as he crossed the finish line. It was a V for vicotory but it looked more like something else. You have to see it to believe it (there is a photograph in the book). Cavendish wears his emotions on his sleeve and he is sometimes  lambasted by the press for his  antics.

Cavendish relates his struggles to win the World Championships and the crushing blow when he looses the Olympics. For all his faults, Cavendish is cycling’s “brightest and most likeable star”. I can vouch for that. Ever since I read Boy Racer about his struggles with his weight and the coaches who mocked him and called him a fat boy who would never amount to anything; I have been an avid fan of this “Manx Missile”. Only he can describe how it feels to be in the chaos which is the sprint for the win at the finish of a race.

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