Tragedy and Dignity at the Giro
Cycling is a sport of vibrant colours whether it be the crowds that line a mountain-top finish, the garish team kits or the verdant splendour of an Alpine pass. Yet it also has darker shades. The cloud of doping always threatens to cast a shadow, but nothing drains the colour from this noble sport as when a rider tragically loses their life. Sadly, although rare, it does happen and always has.
Wouter Weylandt was a solid pro with a Grand Tour stage win in his palmares who had moved this year to the new Leopard Trek team from Quickstep. Well liked within the peloton and noted for his humour, his passing is a huge blow to professional cycling.
Cycling as with so many sports has gradually shifted over the decades to make itself safer. Most notable was the enforced use of helmets that followed the death of a rider at Paris-Nice a few years ago. Race radio also serves its purpose to warn all protagonists of dangers on the road. I wouldn’t be surprised if the UCI now scraps its plans to ban the use of race radio in all races. The teams and riders will simply not go for this. The death of a rider reminds us all that banning radios to prompt more exciting, spontaneous racing is actually not as important as protecting riders on the road.
Such measures do not dilute the sport of cycling, it remains a dangerous sport only for the lionhearted. Accidents like the one that felled poor Weylandt will always be a risk. Jens Voight had a horrific accident at last years TDF but survived. More than half a century ago the great Campionissimo Fausto Coppi lost his beloved brother and chief lieutenant Serse to a crash. You cannot eradicate the danger because it’s a dangerous sport. That is not meant to be glib or provocative more simply a statement of fact.
Cycling does many things poorly, mostly due to doping related issues that undermine its authenticity in the eyes of so many. However in extremis no other sport displays such raw humanity and dignity. We saw this today at the Giro d’Italia. A carefully orchestrated procession with all riders and staff complicit rolled gently to the stage finish. Leopard Trek strung out across the road as they covered the final kilometres. Movingly, they insisted that the American sprinter Tyler Farrah of Team Garmin-Cervelo join them. The clearly heartbroken Farrah was Weylandt’s closest friend and training partner. The big American will now leave the race. David Millar wearing the Maglia Rosa led home a visibly distressed peloton.
Despite all this, these riders (perhaps without the Leopard Trek team) will race in earnest tomorrow, pushing their bodies to their physiological limits and taking the risks that are part of their trade. This is why I love cycling, this is why I call it a noble sport. This is why I forgive the doping indiscretions – the cheating in fact. There is still so much about cycling that is genuine, true and inspirational that I always return to it. The dignified reaction of a sport in unison after such an awful tragedy is perhaps the clearest illustration of this.