No routine ride
We’ve been accustomed to watching professional cyclists descend mountains as if they weren’t traveling at 50 mph or more and as if they weren’t protected by anything more than a helmet on their heads and a thin layer of Lycra on their bodies.
On Monday, a 26-year-old Belgian, Wouter Weylandt, was making a descent during the Giro d’Italia when he crashed and died.
He was not hugely famous, even in Europe where cycling earns front-page coverage, but his death has shaken the sport, especially riders from his team, Leopard Trek, a first-year outfit created to showcase the talents of brothers Andy and Frank Schleck.
Andy Schleck has twice finished second at the Tour de France, including last year when he was only 39 seconds behind winner Alberto Contador. Schleck wasn’t riding in the Giro. He had arrived here last Sunday to prepare for the Amgen Tour of California, which begins Sunday -- and on May 21 at Mt. Baldy will include the biggest mountain stage in the six-year history of the race.
Leopard Trek pulled out of the Giro, but the team selected for the California race is here.
Deadly crashes in major bike races have become comfortingly unfamiliar. Only four racers have died in the Giro, three in the Tour de France. The last fatality in the world’s most famous race came in 1995 when Fabio Casartelli, a teammate with Lance Armstrong on the Motorola team, was killed in a crash.
Paul Sherwen, a commentator for the Versus television coverage, was director of that Motorola team and he said Casartelli’s death hasn’t left him yet.
“It is so vivid,” Sherwen said. “Such a moment can’t leave your mind.”
Schleck bit his lip and rubbed his hands together as he spoke of Weylandt’s death Friday.
“There are no words to describe my feelings,” he said. “He is my brother and my teammate. It has been hard for me to stay focused on training these last days. But I think Wouter would have liked for us to race now. He would say, ‘Just stay and do your best.’ ”
Jens Voigt, 39, is also a member of the Leopard Trek team here and has vivid memories of his own violent crash two years ago during a descent at the Tour de France. Voigt slid face first for several feet and sparks flew off his bike as it skidded down the road.
Voigt survived and was racing eight weeks later. “My parents called after Wouter’s death,” he said Friday, “and told me how lucky they feel.
“I never was the bravest. I like to think I know my limits, know the consequences and try to stay away from trouble, but when you’re young, you think you’re invulnerable, that you’re never going to die. Just like James Dean.”
Levi Leipheimer, a three-time winner of this race, said he has been scared during descents. “On TV it looks fairly docile,” he said. “At times descents look boring and I’ll watch and want riders to attack. ‘Why don’t you go, go, go on the limit,’ I’ll think. But it takes just a moment’s lapse, a little loss of concentration and you have serious injury or even more.”
Brian Nygaard, the manager of Leopard Trek, flew from Italy to California on Friday and will fly back to Belgium on Monday so he can attend Weylandt’s funeral Wednesday.
“I felt like I needed to talk to my guys here personally,” he said. “To tell them in person what happened.”
Voigt said it was a tribute to the talents of the men in the peloton that there have not been more fatal moments for the sport, as well as to the riders’ helmets, which did not become mandatory until 2003.
“This also makes you realize that life is so random and so unfair,” he said. “Why did life choose him and not me? I get away with small damage to myself and my body, and he had to pay the highest price.”
There will be a moment of silence Sunday before the first stage to honor a fallen bike rider. But then the racing will go on.
“It has to,” Nygaard said. “It’s the best thing we could do.”