I was all set to write a post complaining that, as usual, the Anglophone press never pays enough attention* to the Giro d’Italia but for the saddest of all possible reasons, that won’t be the case tomorrow. Wouter Weylandt, pictured above winning the third stage of last year’s Giro, died this afternoon after crashing on a descent some 20km from the finish of today’s stage in Rapallo. CPR and atrophine injections and the arrival of an air ambulance weren’t enough to save the young Belgian. A race designed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italy’s road to unification will now be remembered for something else.
Weylandt is the fourth rider to die during the Giro and the first cyclist to be killed during one of the Grand Tours since Fabio Casartelli crashed in the Pyrenees in 1995. The surprise, alas, is that it doesn’t happen more often. Accidents happen and the races are (probably) as safe as can reasonably be expected but that doesn’t mean these things become any easier to stomach.
Though cyclists race because they love the sport, it’s still true that since so much of cycling’s appeal rests upon the monstrous demdands made upon its participants there’s a sense that the tifosi are in some sense partially morally culpable for these horrors. That’s true even when a cyclist dies following a crash or when, as has been too often the case, in their sleep after, perhaps, misjudging their EPO dosage. In the former, clearly, luck or its absence is the principle protagonist; in the latter cases the rider himself bears the primary responsibility for their actions.
Culpable perhaps puts it too strongly, but the wider cycling fraternity is at least implicated in these tragedies. At the highest level, cycling is a monstrous business. It cannot be separated from suffering since without suffering and sacrifice there can be little glory. No wonder cycling, perhaps more than any other sport, carries so many religious undertones. It’s a quest for something epic and something transcendental too. (And without sin there can be no redemption either. As Henru Pelissier, winner of the Tour de France in 1923, said, the Tour "is a Calvary". There are few innocents on the road but the blameless must suffer too.)
That’s the bargain – call it Faustian if you will – the protagonists make. By doing so they accept that, by some accounts at least, their life expectancy could be shortened by anything up to 15 years. It is an excessive business and a sport defined by excess. It always has been.
The excess, the absurdity of the suffering demanded, is the point of it all. The riders, if you like, are Prometheus-on-wheels, attacked each day by the route and the expectations of the masses. The organisers are the famous "assassins" of bicycling lore but it’s the supporters who connive with and crave this torment. Only the end of the race can offer some respite – which is one more reason why, almost uniquely in sport, even the man who comes last receives the approbation of the mob.
Now there’s one more fallen rider to be remembered at the mass for the Convicts of the Road held each December at the Madonna di Ghisallo, high in the hills above Lake Como and the crucial climb in the Giro di Lombardia, the last major bike race of the season. And yet the Giro will go on because it must and because it always has.
*At long last a major publishing house has produced a history of the Giro and Italian cycling. Congratulations to Bloomsbury and John Foot for bringing out (and writing) Pedalare! Pedalare! It is excellent too and should be in every cycling fans’ library.
UPDATE: David Miller confirms he will wear the Maglia Rosa tomorrow to honour Weylandt. The rest of his remarks are very fine too.