On a beautiful day, the riders of the Giro d’Italia were in the middle of the descent down from the Passo del Bocco. After over three hours in the saddle and a climb of the almost 1,000m high pass, the technical descent should have provided some light relief. At least until the helicopter camera panned in on a horrific sight.
The Belgian cyclist Wouter Weylandt was lying seemingly motionless on the tarmac, having come off his bike on the descent. As the camera unknowing zoomed in closer, you could see a pool of blood spreading around his still-helmeted head. Understandably, coverage immediately switched to another camera following the breakaway group.
Meanwhile, as the race continued, the race doctor and paramedics were desperately tending to the fallen Leopard Trek rider. Ominously, no further coverage of the scene was broadcast.
As the main group was crossing the line further along the course, the mood was clearly changing. A rescue helicopter had taken Weylandt away and rumours were circling concerning the condition of the Belgian.
The news came through that the podium ceremony had been canceled simply adding to the worrying rumours. Just over an hour after the incident, the rumours were confirmed. Wouter Weylandt had passed away on the descent from the Passo del Bocco. He had died at the scene before paramedics had a chance to get him to hospital due to severe head injuries.
In a sport that generally only garners headlines in the UK press for the drugs problem in the sport, it is a chilling reminder that there are more important things at stake. There are certain inherent risks in the sport that mean riders are putting more than just their bodies on the line every day that they compete.
If a cyclist comes through a season unscathed, they can count themselves lucky. In the chaos of the sprint finish, the leading riders can find themselves elbow-to-elbow in a chaotic maelstrom of bodies racing along at speeds topping 60kph, sometimes on wet roads with no padding other than the virtually non-existent protection that their Lycra provides.
The descents can be even more treacherous. Cyclists can top speeds of 100kph on roads often wet and with questionable surfaces and with steep drops on one side. A chilling example of what can happen was seen in the 2009 Giro d’Italia. During Stage 8, the riders descended from San Pietro. The Rabobank rider Pedro Horrillo crashed and fell over a guard rail and plunged 60m down a ravine.
When paramedics were able to reach him, he was recovered with fractures to his thigh bone, kneecap and neck, as well as a punctured lung and a severe concussion. He was placed into a medically-induced coma for several days and spent over five weeks in the hospital. On his release, he never raced again.
The Giro d’Italia in particular is known for its challenging descents and this latest tragedy raises further questions concerning the balance between finding exciting and difficult courses and ensuring the safety of the riders.
Indeed, before the race started, Alberto Contador voiced concerns about several of the descents in the three-week race. Speaking about one descent in particular on Stage 14, he said to VeloNews, “I don’t know how we’re going to get down that. I don’t know if they’re going to repave it, or if they will put nets on the corners like on ski runs, because the drops there are tremendous. I only hope nothing unfortunate happens on that day.”
Whilst it was not the descent that he was talking about, after today’s tragedy, his words take on a chilling resonance. Whilst injuries are common, it is the first death in a major tour since the 1995 Tour de France when Italian Fabio Casartelli crashed on a descent and hit his head on the concrete blocks along the side of the road. His death, and the death of Andrei Kivilev in 2003, led to the wearing of helmets becoming compulsory.
However, today’s unfortunate incident shows that even with these state of the art safety helmets, tragedy can still strike. At least part of tomorrow’s stage is likely to be neutralised in respect to Weylandts and whoever wins the race, the abiding memory of the 2011 Giro d’Italia will be the death of the Belgian.
In a sport where negative headlines can often pollute our view of the competitors, it is important to remember the risks that they put themselves through every day that they are racing. Unfortunately, the tragic death of the young Belgian Wouter Weylandt has put these risks right back in centre stage. And it will raise further questions for the organisers of these races as to the difficulty of the courses that they select.
The comments of Mark Cavendish via Twitter sum up the overriding feeling following this tragedy:
“Things like this shouldn't happen. Absolutely sick to the stomach. My thoughts are with his family. RIP Wouter Weylandt."