Cycling: Death in the mountains has peloton questioning dangerous descents

Riders pay moving tribute to their fallen comrade, Wouter Weylandt, fearing that perilous stages still lie ahead in this year's Giro d'Italia

Livorno

The sight of the peloton riding at a funeral pace on stage four of the Giro D'Italia, as riders paid tribute to crash victim Wouter Weylandt yesterday, was both one of sport's most moving tributes to a fallen comrade – and an opportunity to raise questions about its safety.

Weylandt was killed on a high-speed descent late on Monday afternoon when his bike span out of control. Doctors said later that his death, believed to be principally from massive head injuries, had been, thankfully, instantaneous.

The ritual that followed is, sadly, all too familiar. There was the usual muted applause from the crowds in the seaport of Genoa as the riders signed on for the day's racing – a formality that is essentially cycling's way of ensuring the fans get to see their heroes at walking speed – a minute's silence at the start, black armbands, bowed heads and more than a few tears in the bright Italian sunshine.

Then the stage itself was "neutralised", becoming a day-long homage to Weylandt. Team by team came to the front to race for 10 kilometres, before the Belgian's squad, Leopard Trek, took their place of honour at the end of the stage, crossing the line.

While even one death in sport is a death too many, cycling does not in fact have too many on its professional side. (In amateur racing, let alone those commuters who ride through busy traffic every day, it is another story altogether).

But at the highest level, it is not so frequent. In the Tour de France, there have been just three in its more than 100 years of history, the last in 1995. In the Giro D'Italia, the last death before Weylandt's during actual racing was 25 years ago.

However, the dramatic visual nature of the crashes – in Weylandt's case, on a wooded, twisting descent tackled at 80km (50 miles) per hour – are what make cycling's fatalities so affecting.

The fleeting TV pictures of his bloodied, battered figure lying on the tarmac will remain engraved on the memories of viewers. And for the professionals who face such dangers every day they race – and many of whom rode past Weylandt's inert body – their last image of the rider they knew and chatted with every day will take even longer to fade.

For some, it was just too much to take. Weylandt's best friend, American racer Tyler Farrar, rode stage four but then was due to take the first plane home. Others may follow.

And such a death means the safety issue, rightly, raises its head, with some riders questioning – quietly, but insistently – the wisdom of, for instance, the Giro racing down climbs in the Dolomites, such as the previously untackled Monte Crostis on stage 14.

Described by the five-times Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador as one of the most difficult climbs he had ever seen, the descent from the 1,982m peak is partly on unmade roads, and has no guard rails, just some ski nets. Even more importantly, it will come immediately after two weeks of full-on racing and when riders have already tackled four classified climbs, with their capacity for reaction at high speed already approaching exhaustion point.

"There are various stages that brush the limit," Contador said before the Giro started, "and you have to start asking yourself what the maximum is: how many climbs, how many metres of ascent and how many kilometres.

"I've heard that they've started to tarmac the last part of the descent and I hope that's the case. It is very dangerous and of course I'm worried, because you have to remember we're riding on racing bikes, with tyres barely more than a centimetre wide."

There are safety measures in place such as race radios (although they could soon be banned) to warn of upcoming dangers, and since 2003 helmets have been obligatory.

Certainly, in terms of medical support it is difficult to see what more could be done in a major Tour. There are eight doctors for a peloton of 200 riders, five ambulances and two support cars. In the case of Weylandt, the race's top medic, Giovanni Tredici, was by his side in less than a minute.

But while there is shock, and concern, at Weylandt's death, there is also a sense in the peloton that such accidents in such a risky sport are waiting to happen – and scarcely hidden relief they do not happen more often.

The Crostis is an example of extreme danger, but it has been pointed out that Weylandt actually fell on a straightaway, not a corner. As the race leader David Millar says, crashes potentially can take place in every single metre of the race. And that means that within the peloton, there is also a certain fatalism, almost an expectation that deaths are part of the game.

"Without sounding too dismissive, it's just every once in a while it's going to touch someone relatively near to you, it's just the law of averages," says Sky team director Sean Yates, himself a professional for nearly 20 years and an expert descender. "When your number's up, it's up. It's your turn."

In Yates' case it happened as recently as a month ago, when his best friend died of a heart attack during an amateur team time trial, and 16 years ago, when he was part of Fabio Casartelli's team, Motorola, on the 1995 Tour.

"I had abandoned the Tour shortly before but I went to the funeral in Italy and was one of the guys that carried Fabio's coffin," Yates recalled, "it was bad, he was as young as Wouter.

"There were two or three other crashes on that descent where Wouter died, mostly it was just a bit of skin.

"Going down mountains on skinny tyres, hurtling round corners, 99.999 per cent of the time it doesn't end in a fatality. But sometimes, it can."

Fallen riders: Deaths in cycling's big races

Tour de France 1935: Francisco Cepeda

The first rider to die while racing in a Grand Tour. The Spaniard crashed on the descent of the infamous Col du Galibier in the Alps.

Giro D'Italia 1976: Juan Manuel Santiesteban

The Spaniard dies during the first stage after striking his head against a crash barrier.

Tour de France 1995: Fabio Casartelli

The 1992 Olympic champion crashes on the descent of the Portet D'Aspet col in the Pyrenees. The following stage is neutralised.

Paris-Nice 2003: Andrei Kivilev

Kivilev dies after falling on a straight section of road. His fellow countryman Alexandre Vinokourov wins the race virtually unopposed as a way of paying homage to him afterwards.

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