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

by Simon_MacMichael   May 9, 2013  

Wouter Weylandt at Stage 3 start of 2011 Giro c Simon MacMichael.jpg

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 kilometres 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.

13 user comments

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World Class sport is often cut-throat and uncaring, only interested in its own self-importance, money and victory at all costs. Cycling is not immune to this.
It, sadly, takes an incident and tragedy of this nature to bring into perspective the realities of life.

A fitting tribute.

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posted by RoadChimp [20 posts]
28th December 2011 - 14:14

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This photo will be the one I will cherish. To see a young man looking so vital and alive as he rides to the start of the stage is beautiful to see. Who knew the day would end so tragically, not I for one. I raged at the riders for continuing, not realiseing they didn't know of the tragedy until crossing the finish line. Wouter will be remembered not as the rider who died, but more for the image displayed in this photograph. RIP Wouter, with us always.

Meg

posted by charliegirl2008 [6 posts]
28th December 2011 - 15:56

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It was awful. I was following that stage via text updates at work, and quickly found a streaming video source once I'd heard there had been a crash.

In the minutes afterward I was trawling the web for more information and heard about the graphic images that had been broadcast on Eurosport, and the even-more-graphic ones that apparently appeared on some other European channels. For a split second I considered hitting YouTube but quickly dismissed that, having no stomach for it.

Google news results were coming thick and fast, and about the time the medical helicopter appeared I remember a Belgian report with the words 'Wouter Weylandt dood'. I don't know a lot of Dutch, but that one needed no translation and chilled me horribly. It was a long while before any of the confirmed reports, and can only have been speculation at the time, but it left me feeling empty and a little sick. That feeling only worsened when the formal announcement came.

Over the days that followed I thought a lot about his girlfriend and unborn baby, about the potential consequences of rider error or mechanical failure, and about what the impact would be to my own family if something happened to me whilst riding. I mentioned it to a few of the old boys at my cycling club the following week, ex-racers some of them, and although they were fully aware none of them wanted to talk about it especially - too much of a reminder of the ever-present dangers of our sport maybe.

It's amazing how much of an impact the death of someone distant can have. I didn't know much about him before he died, and to be honest I don't know a whole lot more now, but he still often comes to mind - especially when taking caution on fast descents or checking my bike and kit before a ride. I'm sure he deserves to be remembered for more than that, but I guess I can't go back and create memories that weren't there in the first place. This photo helps though.

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posted by andyspaceman [210 posts]
28th December 2011 - 16:04

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I remember how numb I felt when I heard of his death. It wasn't even sadness, it was just numbness - this was so unbelievable and unthinkable I couldn't even accept this fact. And when I saw the goodbye from Leopard-Trek and Farrar... Gosh, it was an unspeakably sad moment to me.

I'm not a kind of a cycling fan who would remember every prize in a cyclist's palmares. I do, however, remember very well how much work Wouter has always been doing for his teammates and how tough he would become when they would need him.

To me, he's one of those unnamed heroes who would jump into fire for his teammates and not even expect too much in return - just a pat on his shoulder and a "thank you" from the bottom of one's heart. This is how I will remember Wouter.

RIP

blog rowerowy - my blog about bicycles (written in Polish, but feel free to visit me! Smile )

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posted by mikroos [172 posts]
28th December 2011 - 16:53

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Simon this is a great piece, its clear that this has made a big impression on you.

It is so sad to hear of anyone dying so young, I suppose in particular someone like a pro cyclist who is going to be in absolutely top shape health-wise and by the sounds of things had everything to live for.

If there is any consolation to take from this, it's this: we're living in an age now where in many cases medical science has progressed so far that it can keep us alive, but not far enough to preserve quality of life. My own father lives is essentially a vegetable in a nursing home and it is so, so upsetting to see him not to recognise either me or my mum, and to struggle even for the most basic vocabulary.

How would you rather go? Alzheimers? Or at 100km/h going downhill doing what you love? I know which I'd want (albeit living to a ripe old age first).

Pete

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posted by PeteH [159 posts]
28th December 2011 - 16:55

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I remember the graphic scenes on Eurosport, it was obvious that the camera crew hadn't been told to stop filming as it was just another crash. The images were from RAI and so Eurosport has no control over what was shown. That one shot of the prostrate Weylandt was enough for me. It was obvious he'd suffered catastrophic trauma to the head.

The crash shaped the race for a while then as is the way of things a kind of normality returned that tried to remember and honour a fallen sportsmen without overwhelming what was still an ongoing race.

RIP Wouter Weylandt.

Sean

posted by seanieh66 [193 posts]
29th December 2011 - 7:23

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This is a very moving article, Simon. You've brought it all back to me, though the way I found out was a little different.

I was there in Reggio Emilia and took photos of Wouter at the sign-in. It was an especially happy day for me because it was the first time I've been able to attend the start of a stage in a Grand Tour. Luckily, I had a great camera to get photos with.

Since I thought of Leopard Trek as "my boys", I made a point of getting as many photos of them as I could. I'm so glad I did. I managed to get three lovely shots of Wouter and a few more of his teammates.

I returned home and settled in that afternoon to watch the race, only to see the terrible footage on live television. I remember sitting on the sofa, tears streaming down my face while I hoped - desperately, uselessly - that I was misunderstanding the announcers and Wouter would be okay. I knew better, though, after hearing the tone of their voices and seeing the grief in their eyes.

It still feels surreal, as though it can't have happened - every time I look at my photos that feeling of shock and disbelief comes rushing back. I felt that today with your photo, as well.

The neutralized stage the next day simply increased my love and my passion for a frequently (and, yes, unfairly) maligned sport. The sportsmanship demonstrated by the riders that day, as well as the respect and devotion displayed by the fans, showed the world how deeply participants in this sport care for one another, rivals and teammates alike.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your photo with us.

posted by KMenozzi [1 posts]
29th December 2011 - 11:27

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I've sat here for nearly 10 minutes thinking of what to say but all i can come up with is Simon, thank you, a beautifully written piece.

If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it. Gaius Julius Caesar.

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posted by stumps [2618 posts]
9th May 2013 - 10:50

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Very moving piece, takes me back to that afternoon and the live images - I remember it vividly as if it was yesterday. Seeing riders hurling themselves down treacherous descents sends tingles down my spine every time now.

posted by Metjas [268 posts]
9th May 2013 - 13:45

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nice of cav to dedicate his win to wouter weylandt

posted by richteebis [23 posts]
9th May 2013 - 16:29

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The finish of the neutralised stage the following day was just glorius, absolutely beautiful.
#108

"I can't believe I ate the whole thing..."

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posted by Cooks [476 posts]
9th May 2013 - 21:16

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This is a really great piece, would be good to have something published every year of a similar nature. I remember the day as well, I was working on an important experiment and periodically checking the live feed in gaps. After seeing the first reports I remember just abandoning work and repeatedly hitting F5 for hours hoping it wasn't to be the outcome everyone feared.

posted by MattT53 [126 posts]
10th May 2013 - 10:22

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wear my #108 T regularly and think of him and the day ...

still on the 3rd switch-back of Bwlch !

posted by therevokid [661 posts]
24th May 2013 - 8:43

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