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Crash Kills Cyclist in Pyrenees : Tour de France: Casartelli fails to make a turn at 55 m.p.h. and becomes third to die in 92-year history of race.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the worst accidents in the 92-year history of the Tour de France sent shock waves through the international cycling community Tuesday as Italian rider Fabio Casartelli died after crashing into a concrete pylon at high speed.

Casartelli’s death was the third in the race’s history, and the accident is expected to rally support for a controversial helmet rule. Headgear probably wouldn’t have saved Casartelli, 24, who rode for the American Motorola team. He was traveling about 55 m.p.h. when he missed a turn along the steep, narrow road down the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the Pyrenees Mountains of southern France.

Several other riders also failed to negotiate the steep curve and two were injured.

“It was a fairly fast descent,” French rider Francois Simon, who was behind Casartelli, told the Associated Press. “At a certain point, there was a longer curve than the others. Casartelli couldn’t make the turn. I think it was his back wheel that hit the side, and he flew in the air.”

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Unconscious, Casartelli was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Tarbes, where he was pronounced dead 30 minutes later. Physicians said Casartelli had three cardiac arrests during the trip.

“Some riders went off the edge,” said George Noyes, Motorola’s chief mechanic, in Tarbes for today’s 16th stage to Pau. “Some riders went through the pylons [marking the edge of the road]. Fabio hit one directly.”

Casartelli’s was the first Tour death for a competitor since 1967, when British world champion Tom Simpson collapsed during a mountain climb on a hot day. In 1935, Spanish rider Francesco Cepeda was killed when he fell into a ravine.

Casartelli was the father of a 4-month-old boy. The 1992 Olympic road race champion from Cuomo was competing in his first Tour after having missed most of last season because of knee surgery.

Motorola’s riders and support crew decided during a team meeting after Tuesday’s stage to continue today.

“That’s what Fabio would want us to do,” Noyes said.

Richard Virenque of France won the 128-mile stage, and overall leader Miguel Indurain of Spain finished eighth, with second place Alex Zulle of Switzerland ninth.

Also injured during the crash were Dirk Baldinger of Germany, who broke a hip; and Dante Rezze of Italy, who suffered a bruised thigh.

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“Sometimes, we don’t realize the risks we take on the descents,” France’s Laurent Maduoas told VeloNews after finishing Tuesday’s stage.

Like most of the cyclists on the hot, clear day in the mountains, Casartelli did not wear a helmet.

“It’s an issue that will come to the forefront again,” said Alfredo Martini, head of the Italian national cycling team. “It’s time to deal with this issue seriously.”

Helmets are mandatory in U.S. races, and the International Cycling Union tried to institute a helmet rule in 1991, but riders protested by boycotting a race in Belgium.

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The world’s best riders turned the safety rule into an issue of choice, said Davis Phinney, a former Tour de France rider who lives in Boulder, Colo. It was more a statement of the young riders’ sense of invincibility, he added.

Now that Phinney is on the sidelines, he has a clearer picture of the chances riders take.

“Having been knocked out of my bike [with a] helmet on, [you] realize your head is like an eggshell,” he said. “All you have to do is slap it down on the pavement ever so slightly the wrong way and you snuff yourself out.”


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