Wouter Weylandt's violent death in a 60mph descent on stage three of the Giro D'Italia on Tuesday was not just shocking because it was so unexpected. As the current race leader David Millar said, "It's hard to believe that Wouter is dead because he was so alive."
Although – and it is no insult – Weylandt was a no more than average-to-good Belgian rider from a country with more than its fair share of pro cyclists, he was impossible to miss in the peloton, not least because of his tall, gangly figure and hairstyle – a blond, gelled quiff that towered above his head. There was his laconic sense of humour, and constant jokes, too, which earned him the nickname "WW special". And there was his well-known love of things Italian, which led him to learn the language, and tweet before he left for the Giro, "am expecting my first child in September and going to my favourite race: these are good times!" Beneath, an ultrasound image of the baby was attached.
After trying his hand at athletics, Weylandt took up bike racing aged15, and he had turned pro young, in 2004, with one of Belgium's leading two teams, Quick Step. His strongest point was his sprinting, with a string of respectable results in minor stage races and one-day events such as the Three Days of West Flanders, the Tour of the Green Heart and the Eneco Tour. They are not famous abroad, but in cycling-mad Belgium these sorts of successes – as well as his physical similarity to Quick Step's leading rider Tom Boonen – meant that Weylandt (and this is a mixed blessing) was tipped as the Next Big Thing for the country's cyclists.
He came close to breaking through on numerous occasions, with a Giro D'Italia stage win last year the greatest of his 12 wins, which also included a stage win in the 2008 Tour of Spain. But if anybody lost patience with his lack of major progress, Weylandt, with his slow, lazy smile and easy-going ways, quickly won them back over.
After six years the Belgian and his lifelong team, Quick Step, went their separate ways, with Weylandt joining a new squad, Leopard Trek. And when their usual sprinter, Daniele Bennati, fell and fractured several ribs shortly before the Giro, it fell to Weylandt to become their designated fastman in the bunch sprints for the Italian race.
The descent on which Weylandt died was dangerous, but no more than dozens of others that riders have to tackle each year. As Millar rightly pointed out, his death is a terrible reminder of the dangers that face professional cyclists with every turn of the pedals. Weyland is survived by his expectant girlfriend, Sophie.
Wouter Weylandt, cyclist: born Gent, Belgium 9 September 1984; died Passo del Bocco, Italy 10 May 2011.
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