Sempre con noi: Remembering the day Wouter Weylandt died
Picture of Leopard Trek rider taken at start of fateful Giro stage a reminder of how precious and fragile life is
No-one who follows cycling will forget where they were when they heard of Wouter Weylandt’s death after that crash on the descent of the Passo del Becco, some 17 kilometres from the finish of Stage 3 of the Giro d’Italia.
In my case, the worst fears were confirmed when I phoned the office as I sat on a plane about to taxi away from the departure gate at Milan’s Malpensa airport, on my way home after spending a few days at the race.
On the train to the airport, I’d read on Twitter that a rider had crashed and it looked bad. The name followed soon after.
Then, turning out my pockets as I went through security, an Italian policeman, spotting my press pass on its unmistakeable pink, Gazzetta dello Sport-branded lanyard, asked if I had any news of the rider whom he’d heard had suffered such a terrible crash on the Giro.
Who was he? Would he pull through?
I told him as much as I knew, but as I rushed to catch my flight, I couldn’t shake off the thought that if an event that had happened barely an hour earlier in Liguria was being talked about in an airport 200 kilometres away, it must be bad. That phone call as I waited for the flight home to start confirmed the worst.
Going through the photos I’d taken that morning before that fateful stage got under way in Reggio Emilia, my stomach lurched. There was Wouter Weylandt, in his Leopard Trek kit, riding to the start of what, as a professional cyclist, was just another day at work. It was one he’d never finish.
It’s a photograph that makes me pause and reflect each time I look at it. I’d been at the Giro to soak up some of the atmosphere of the race before following the rest of it back home on TV, to take some pictures, to write some articles about facets of the Giro beyond the racing.
To take a picture of someone whose life would be snatched away a few hours later? That’s what war photographers do, or photojournalists working amid civil unrest in some far-flung corner of the globe. But in sport? No.
And therein lies the impact of the photo, for me. A successful athlete entering his prime years, looking in great physical condition, in the colours of one of the biggest teams in his sport, on a sunny morning in one of the world’s most beautiful countries.
It’s a picture that tells me how precious life is.
It's not the last image taken of Wouter Weylandt that fateful day; the following morning, several newspapers showed stills from TV coverage that showed him lying on the ground, his life already ended by the impact of the crash, as the coroner would later establish. But this is the one I'd rather remember him by.
Disruption on the trains meant it was several hours before I got home from Heathrow to my loved ones. All the time, I couldn’t help but think that those who cared most about Wouter Weylandt would never see him again.
News that his girlfriend was pregnant – she would give birth to their daughter, Alizée, in September – added to the numbness that I, and countless others who care about cycling, felt.
Sport is an emotional business. We follow it in part because of the vicarious joy it gives us when things go well for the teams or athletes we follow, the despair we feel when it goes badly for them.
Cycling, though, differs from football, say, or rugby union. It’s a team sport, but one in which individuals take the prize. An international sport, but one in which the great theatres are not Wembley or Twickenham, but the roads of Flanders, the great passes of the Alps or the Pyrenees. It’s a sport that tends not to polarise opinions along purely partisan lines, but instead brings people together.
The tribute paid by the peloton to Weylandt on the following day’s neutralised Stage 4 from Genoa to Livorno epitomised that spirit of oneness, whole teams taking turns on the front as the 206 remaining riders rode in silent tribute to their fallen colleague.
Along the roadside, fans had prepared their own memorials, many bearing his race number, 108, along with the words, 'Sempre con noi' - 'Always with us.'
As his close friend Tyler Farrar, grief etched across his face, joined the eight remaining Leopard Trek riders to complete the tribute by crossing the line arm in arm, the raw emotion of it all was almost too unbearable to watch, let alone write about.
Like Fabio Casartelli or Tom Simpson, Wouter Weylandt’s untimely death means he will be remembered more widely and for longer than might otherwise have been the case; moreover, the absence of his race number from future editions of the Giro d’Italia means that many of those scanning future start lists will, perhaps sub-consciously, insert his name between 107 and 109.
And as is the case whenever we hear of someone who is called away years ahead of their time, it’s a stark reminder that life is fragile and fleeting, and something to be relished and enjoyed while we still can.