Tuesday, May 10, 2011

tragedy at the Giro

Yesterday as I rode the train into work I turned on my phone to watch the official video feed of the Giro d'Italia television coverage. 12 km to go, and the pack was split on the final, steep but short climb. A group got off the front, including two Garmin-Cervelo riders. They did a nice leadout, but the protected Garmin rider, who turned out to be David Millar, was able to take only second place to an Italian I didn't recognize. The screen froze on the top five stage finishers as I was approaching my stop, so I turned off the phone.

stage profile (from PezCyclingNews)

At work, I later checked CyclingNews for the results. Only then did I learn that, on the descent prior to where I started watching, Wouter Weylandt had fallen to his death, thrown off the edge of a steep descent to fall "twenty meters" to the roadway below. I was stunned. I'd been blissfully ignorant of the tragedy as I'd watched the stage finish on the train. Most of the riders had also been unaware of what had happened, as the lead pack was ahead of the crash, and the directors had kept radio silent about it until the race was over.

According to a report on VeloNews, Wouter had been dropped on a climb and, trying to recatch the lead group on the descent, was taking the corners considerably faster than the leaders. He turned to look back to see if a group was close enough for him to join up with, but in so doing misjudged his trajectory and clipped a left wall. He then lost control, veered to the right side of the road, and went over the barrier.

The Huffington post had a link to a video of the television coverage which was shown at the time. The camera zoomed in on Wouter's body, his face horribly damaged. Emergency personnel tried in vain to resuscitate him with CPR. They clipped the strap on his helmet, having already removed his jersey, but one look at his face told the story that there wasn't any hope.

Random associations...

From Italy 2007 week 2

Cingale Bicycle tour 2007 to Elba. After I'd been dropped by the lead three riders on the narrow, winding, and on this day damp Via Monte Perone I asked our guide, Andy Hampsten, if the Giro went on such roads. Haven ridden roads from the Tour de France, my feeling was the Grand Tours tended to stick to wider roads more compatible with the race caravan and team vehicles. I was surprised when he said yes, they had ridden such roads many times. So then the obvious question was how they'd descend: carefully, out of mutual consent and respect, I thought he'd respond.

"We'd absolutely bomb it".

Berkeley Hills Road Race 2009. It was my first race of the year and I'd not been feeling ready. The year before I'd solo'ed off the front for a lap and a half but then was caught and faded. This year I was more conservative, and it was working. After a lap I was feeling good on the climbs and was able to hang relatively easily. After two laps I was still there... until at the top of Papa Bear, the most challenging climb on the circuit, a rider ahead of be turned to look for a teammate behind, overlapped wheels with a rider in front of him, and went down. I had no time to react other than to recognize my fate: I hit him and went over my bars. I ended up bruising a rib but was otherwise okay.

September 2010... I'm descending Madonna di Ghisallo, which I've climbed for the second time in the day: once from the front and, after a long circuit, once from the back. I wrote about the ride here. It's getting late and I want to catch a ferry back across Lake Como before it gets to dark, so I decide to turn up the heat on the descent. I approach the first corner: no warning sign I can see, so I can let it hang a bit here. But suddenly as I enter the turn I realize it's sharper than I'd thought. I hit my brakes, but no way I can stop, and slide into the oncoming traffic lane, stopping just before the guardrail. Had there been a car in the wrong place at the wrong time.... well, maybe things would have worked out. Maybe.

A few days later: I descend the Poggio towards San Remo. I can't believe how tight the switchbacks are. It isn't as if I've not ridden similar roads before, it's just I've seen again and again how incredibly fast the pro racers descend this one in Milan San Remo, the most famous of Italian classics. I'm virtually crawling around the same corners they take at the traction limit of their tires. True, I need to worry about oncoming car traffic, while they face closed roads, but I know that explains only a fraction of the speed difference.

May 4... Pez Cycling publishes its Giro route preview for stages 1-9. Here's what they wrote about stage 3:

This will be a fun stage to watch, as the closing kms snake along the coast, and we may even see a crash or two on the tight bends, just like we did in 2007’s stage 10 to Santuario Nostra Signora Della Guardia.

Crashes. Fun.

I think back to the image in the video of Wouter Weylandt laying shirtless on the road, his motionless face horribly distorted from the trauma while emergency personnel tried to heart beating again. We all make mistakes, lose focus, assume where we shouldn't assume. We all roll the dice. The key is to keep the needless rolls to a minimum. Wauter made a mistake in the Giro, and didn't get another chance. Let's all think about him next time we're tempted to put our attention behind us when what's up the road deserves our attention more.

In auto racing, death is part of the attraction. Fans act horrified when a racer is killed, but the death is just an affirmation of the danger which is a primary attraction to the sport, and therefore the horror may be secretly without disappointment. The temptation offered by this attraction is part of the reason I've rejected auto racing, a sport I liked as a young child. But cycling is different. Cycling is about overcoming suffering, not death. It's about the risk of losing skin, not your life. There's no joy taken in Wouter's tragic death, secret or otherwise, just repulsion in the terrible waste of it all, a doubt about whether the epic spectacle is worth the horrible price. I wonder yet again why I find it so persistently addictive.

Then finally there's the H-word: "helmet". Pez Cycling News published a photo which suggested he kept his strap loose during the race. But this aside, cycling helmets simply are not designed to handle facial impacts. You need to wonder when an effort will be made to change that, to provide some sort of face shield which could potentially substantially increase the protection. There's something of a religion about bike helmets, one which says if you don't wear one you're a wacko and if you wear something with more protection (like a downhill helmet) you're a wacko. The reality is far greyer. Memories of Nicole Reinhart who died after crashing into a tree, also wearing a helmet, in 2000.


Ygduf said...

I wish people wouldn't talk about the helmet in this case.

You wouldn't put on a bike helmet, jump from a 4th floor window and then be surprised that the helmet didn't save you...

Helmets perform in the same way that a seatbelt in a car helps during a 10mph fender-bender: keeping a minor crash minor. You can't reasonably expect a seatbelt to help if you drive into a bridge abutment at 80mph.

I'm glad they neutralized the race today.

djconnel said...

Your 4th floor analogy is a good one: and that's only 10 meters. Thanks for providing the extra perspective: it just adds to the horror of this incident.

The issue here is not only the danger of the road but its position within the stage. The Giro organization seems especially reckless in this regard.