Monday, May 9, 2011

Tragedy In The Giro

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Belgian pro Wouter Weylandt died today while competing in the Giro d’Italia.  You probably already heard the news from some other source, but I didn’t want to let Weylandt’s tragic death go without mention here.  Officials at the Giro waited until the stage ended before making an official announcement, though Weylandt was dead at the scene after crashing on a descent.  I was watching Gazzetta TV’s streaming webcast, which missed the accident itself but showed a few seconds of the aftermath before pulling its camera away.  The images were horrific, and when medical staff began administering CPR the coverage mercifully jumped back to the race leaders.  I didn’t expect Weylandt to pull through, but I looked for any sign of hope.  One report said he had been given adrenaline.  Another said he was being rushed to a hospital by helicopter.  The effort to save his life was nothing short of heroic.

But the effort failed.  The stage ended without a podium celebration for today’s winner or for the new GC leader.  Tomorrow’s stage will begin with a moment of silence and almost certainly will be neutralized by the riders themselves, with the blessing of the Giro’s organizers.  Without any real racing on which to comment, the cycling press will spend the day wringing its hands over rider safety.  We all want something good to come out of this loss.  We can’t accept that a competent professional, a popular 26-year-old in peak physical condition, could be taken away in an instant.

As cyclists and fans, is this our Dale Earnhardt moment?  Certainly, Weylandt didn’t attain the same stature within cycling that Earnhardt reached in auto racing, but his family and friends loved him just as much.  Earnhardt’s death led almost immediately to safety improvements in NASCAR.  Is there something we can learn from Weylandt’s crash?  Some people within cycling are saying already that this is just one of those things that happens every 15 years and there’s nothing to be done.  I’m not sure.  Earnhardt’s death led NASCAR to mandate head-and-neck restraints for its drivers.  Weylandt might have lived through his crash if he had worn a full-face helmet, but that seems a very doubtful future in a sport that values lightweight equipment and only recently required helmets of any kind.  Earnhardt’s death also led NASCAR to rebuild track walls to make them more shock absorbent.  Obviously, cycling can’t erect padded walls along its road courses but perhaps it can do something to make its routes safer.  Was there a less technical option for today’s descent, a different way down?  We want to see challenging and scenic routes but there must be a limit.  The racers themselves feel that way and protest loudly when forced to ride under conditions that are clearly unsafe.  Weylandt’s crash may have been caused by his own moment of inattention.  But still, something good needs to come out of this tragedy.

NASCAR uses restrictor plates to limit speed on its biggest tracks.  We can’t limit the ability of a bicycle to descend quickly, but maybe we can force riders to limit their own speed.  Many amateur races—including those in the Wisconsin Cup and Wisport series—run on open roads where racers are exposed to vehicle traffic.  To prevent head-on collisions, such races impose a center line rule: if a rider strays across the line into the oncoming traffic lane, he is disqualified.  UCI road races run on closed roads where oncoming traffic is not a threat, but overcooking a corner is.  Could the UCI create a center line rule on technical descents, forcing the riders to limit their speed to whatever “fits” the traffic lane rather than allowing them to swing wildly from one side of the road to another?  It would still be fast, still an exercise in bike handling.

We lost Weylandt today.  We might have lost Oscar Pereiro and John-Lee Augustyn in similar fashion during the 2008 Tour de France.  Is it time for a change?

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