Rest in peace, Wouter Weylandt

I grew up a boxing fan.

In those days, before pay-per-view, it was almost hard not to be one.

It was the glory days of Mohamed Ali, Joe Frazier and George Forman, when he was still an angry young man who could strike fear in Frazier and make Mike Tyson seem like a Zen master. I followed closely as they mixed and matched in the greatest series of bouts since American Joe Louis fought German Max Schmeling in the build-up to World War II, with all the political and master-race baggage those times threw into the ring with them.

It was also a great way of bonding with my father, as we’d gather in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn and a beer — for my dad, anyway — and watch the drama unfold in living color. The seemingly indestructible Quarry Brothers could take a beating on Friday night, then get back up to win the next round, or the next fight; Colorado’s own Ron Lyle would emerge from the state prison to go toe-to-toe with Ali and Foreman, nearly beating them both.

That all changed in 1982, when we watched Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini take on South Korean fighter Duk Koo Kim for the lightweight championship; this time separated by a few thousand miles, but knowing we’d talk later to discuss every knockdown.

That call never took place.

Mancini stopped Kim in the 14th round, winning by TKO as Kim hit the canvas hard, then struggled back to his feet; he died four days later after slipping into a coma moments afterwards.

To the best of my knowledge, my dad never watched another fight.

I’ve tried a few times, but find myself screaming at the TV for the referee to stop the bout as soon as I see a boxer trapped against the ropes, fending off a barrage of blows. I’d rather watch the replay on HBO long after the fight is over, knowing that everyone has walked away.

And Ultimate Fighting?

Forget it.

I was reminded of that today, after sleeping in late to recover from an overly taxing weekend, awaking to the news that Leopard Trek rider Wouter Weylandt died after falling in today’s third stage of the Giro d’Italia.

For all the danger of the peloton and twisting, heart-pounding descents, fatalities are rare in bike racing, just as they are in boxing and other seemingly dangerous sports.

Pro racer Fabio Casartelli died in the ’95 Tour de France; Andrei Kivilev during the Paris-Nice classic in ’03.

Both tragic, both devastating. Yet both demonstrating just how rare events like this are, despite the dangerous courses and riding conditions pro cyclists are forced to contend with. And even though injuries, sometimes serious, are common.

Training can also be deadly, as riders are forced to contend with the same road and traffic conditions the rest of us face on a daily basis, while putting in more miles at higher speeds.

Yet the riders on the pro tour are the best of the best, taking on challenges and employing skills most of us will never approach. And pulling them off beautifully — and often, spectacularly.

Even amateur racers and recreational riders can face similar risks, as we push ourselves to the edge of our capabilities, whether to improve our skills or experience the thrills of carving the perfect turn on a high-speed descent.

Including me on more than one occasion.

Back when I lived in Colorado, I was young and fearless — and yes, very reckless. While I prided myself on my bike safety skills, I had no aversion to pushing the edge, bombing down steep descents and carving high-speed turns with my knee nearly scraping the pavement. And more than once ending up with a bloody kneecap to prove I’d pushed it just a little too far.

One time stands out, though, in terms of crossing the line from pushing the edge to sheer adrenaline and testosterone addled stupidity.

I’d somehow managed to talk my girlfriend at the time to give a handful of fellow thrill-seekers a ride up a steep mountain pass. The plan was that she would wait for us at the bottom while we rode down with one simple rule: the first one to touch his brakes lost.

Those were the days when bike helmets were a relatively new concept, worn only by overly safety-conscious people who wouldn’t set foot in a car unless it was a Volvo. So we set off bare-headed as cars and heavy trucks wizzed by on our left.

It wasn’t long, though, before those cars were no longer speeding past. As my companions dropped off one by one, I found myself passing startled riders on their right, riding the shoulder in a racing crouch at speeds I estimated as somewhere around 70 to 75 mph.

In those days, when bike computers were just beginning to hit the pro tour, speed was usually judged by comparing yours to that of the cars passing by. That particular highway had a 55 mph speed limit; I knew from experience that most drivers regularly exceeded that limit by a good five to ten mph — and the fact that I was passing every car with ease told me I was doing well over that.

And yes, I knew at the time that what I was doing was incredibly dangerous; at that speed, a single patch of gravel or broken glass could have been fatal.

Somehow I made it, riding far beyond my ability to arrive at the bottom of the mountain half an hour before my companions. And several minutes faster than my girlfriend could drive the same route at highway speeds.

While I knew what I was doing was dangerous, I’m not sure I fully understood the risk I was taking.

Just this past January, two riders died under similar circumstances; both probably far more skilled than I was at the time and riding at much lower speeds.

Now older and hopefully wiser, I can still put myself in that moment and feel the same incredible rush I did that day, yet think I was an idiot to even try it.

Let alone lacking the common sense and instinct for self-preservation to back off when my more prudent friends did.

Weylandt’s death in the Giro serves as a tragic reminder that our sport can carry a significant risk, even when performed at the highest levels by the most skilled riders. And it’s made even more tragic by the news that his wife is pregnant with a child who will never know his or her father.

Reportedly, his left pedal touched a wall during a high-speed descent, sending him into a 65 foot tumble down the hillside; despite rescue efforts that lasted 40 minutes, the race’s medical team was unable to resuscitate him, and his body taken to a nearby hospital, not for emergency treatment, but for an autopsy.

Yes, I’ll watch the Giro again tomorrow.

But it won’t be the same.

.………

There have been a number of moving statements during the course of this day.

But a couple stand out in my mind, and I’ll let them sum up this sad day; you’ll find additional links to stories about this tragedy below.

Say it ain’t so… Wouter, you were kind and gracious to me every day at Tour of Oman. You will be very dearly missed.

Taylor Phiney, @taylorphinney

The very act of cycling is in itself a celebration – so it’s especially hard when a life is lost in that act. RIP Wouter Weylandt.

Steve Montalto, @Highmountain4

.………

The Leopard Trek team responds to Weylandt’s death. Photos of Weylandt winning the same stage in last year’s Giro, and at the start of today’s race just hours before his death. ESPN says his best years were still coming. Johan Bruyneel says the sick feeling in his stomach just won’t go away. Memories of one of the world’s greatest races before today’s bad news. Bicycling offers more details on Weylandt’s death. The Trickster forwards in-depth coverage of the story from New Zealand. Thoughts on the risks and tragic ironies of competition.

Finally, Bike Snob offers his very moving thoughts on today’s tragedy.

One comment

  1. Frank Peters says:

    Well said, as always.

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