Tour rider killed in mountain crash
with the Tour de France
Fabio Casartelli, Italy's Olympic road race champion, died in hospital yesterday after a crash during the 15th stage of the Tour de France.
Casartelli, the first competitor to die during the Tour since Britain's Tommy Simpson in 1967, was in a small group of riders who fell on the descent from the Col de Portet d'Aspet in the Pyrenees, the first climb of the day.
The 24-year-old sustained critical head injuries when he hit the road and lay unconscious with blood pouring from head wounds before being taken to Tarbes hospital by helicopter.
"His heart stopped three times in the helicopter but it was brain trauma that caused the death," a hospital spokesman said. "He died 30 minutes after reaching hospital." Casartelli, from Como, was married last year and recently became a father.
The tragedy highlighted a long-standing controversy about crash helmets. The former world champion Hennie Kuiper, the Dutch manager of Casartelli's team, insisted that a helmet would not have saved his rider.
"There would have been no sense in it because he fell with the right side of his head hitting a concrete post. His helmet was in the back of my car. Most riders would not wear them because it was too hot. I don't think cycling is dangerous if you compare it with Formula One racing. There are a lot of risks but these men are professionals."
Depending on the nerve of riders and the weather conditions, they can touch 80kph (50mph) as they sweep through the bends on a 15-kilometre swoop from mountains such as the Tourmalet, 2114m above sea level. Riders protested successfully two years ago about having the right to choose whether they wear crash helmets while racing. In France and Italy they have the option but not in the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain.
Yesterday's accident saw Casartelli hit a post, causing several others to crash. The Frenchman Dante Rezze fell into a ravine, seriously injuring his leg. Germany's Dirk Baldinger broke his hip, and he and Rezze went by ambulance to hospital.
Tony Rominger, ranked No 1 in the world, expressed concern over rider safety in the Tour of Italy, complaining about unlit road tunnels and spectators.
"I had been worried about safety then because riders are racing so much faster these days. Safety becomes an even greater factor, but on the Tour they are conscious of this. However there should have been more warning if the descent was dangerous."
Rominger was in tears after discovering the tragedy when he saw television coverage in his team bus at the Cauterets finish. "It's very bad that we were not told during the race. After this Tour I want a break from racing."
Bernard Thevenet, twice a Tour winner in the Seventies, said there were greater risks taken in finishing sprints at 60kph. "It is not a matter of speed or mountain descents, but the risks that are taken."
Miguel Indurain, the race leader, said: "It is a tragedy for his family and the sport. We take so many risks we are lucky it doesn't happen more often. It is unbelievable how high the mountains are, but when you are descending you don't think about it."
The stage winner, Richard Virenque, said: "I was taking all sorts of risks. I was unaware of what had happened, otherwise I might have eased off. When I heard what had happened, it finished my celebrations. I dedicate my victory to his family, who must be in terrible pain."
Eddy Merckx, the Belgian who won five Tours, was angry because the victory ceremony continued in spite of Casartelli's death. "A fatality is the worst thing that can happen in the Tour and the sport, but I would wish that people would respect the dead. The ceremonials after Virenque's victory were unnecessary."
Gianni Savio, Casartelli's team manager last year, said: "Although he won an Olympic title he remained the same likeable guy with the same humility. Last year he had an operation for tendinitis in his knee, so not too much was seen of him."
Casartelli is only the third Tour rider to die in the race's 92 years. The first was Spain's Francesco Cepeda, who fell while descending the Alpine pass of the Galibier in 1935.
In 1967 Simpson collapsed in extreme heat on the Provencal mountain of Ventoux, known as the Bald Mountain because of its exposed, rocky and tree-less summit, although there were traces of amphetamines and alcohol found at the autopsy.
Motorola said they would continue in the Tour. "They felt they wanted to carry on in his memory," team spokesman Paul Sherwen said. There will be a minute's silence for Casartelli at the start of today's stage.
Virenque peaks, page 23
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