MILAN -- Hurtling down an Italian mountain pass at a speed
that only a car would normally reach, Belgian cyclist Wouter
Weylandt lost control of his bike for just a split second. In a
sport where the smallest mistake can have catastrophic
consequences, it proved lethal.
Weylandt tumbled to his death Monday in a downhill crash during
the third stage of the Giro d'Italia, with the riders going 40 mph
to 50 mph at the time. It was the first fatality at the Italian
race in 25 years and the first at one of the sport's showcase tours
in 16 years.
It was one of the most high-profile deaths at an international
sports event since Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili's fatal
crash in training on the eve of last year's Vancouver Olympics. It
also renewed questions about safety in cycling, where riders zip
down winding mountain roads with steep drops and hairpin curves.
"Our sport is very tragic at times. It has been throughout its
history," said British rider David Millar, who took the pink
jersey as race leader after Monday's stage but said it now meant
"The bottom line is that the guys here are the best cyclists in
the world, and the best guys in the world can have a mechanical
fault or find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,"
The crash on the Passo del Bocco was not broadcast live on
television, but images showed paramedics frantically trying to
revive Weylandt, who was sprawled on his back on the road, bleeding
heavily from the face and head.
Portuguese rider Manuel Cardoso, who saw the accident, said
Weylandt lost control after slamming into a wall on the side of the
road during the descent about 12 miles from the finish in Rapallo
in northern Italy.
"Wouter was dropped and tried to come back to the group,"
Cardoso said. "[Weylandt] then looked behind to see if it would be
better to wait for other dropped riders. While looking behind, he
hit his left pedal or the left side of his handlebars on a small
wall and was catapulted to the other side of the road when he again
hit something. It must have been terrible."
Weylandt's Leopard-Trek teammate Tom Stamsnijder also witnessed
"It was a very hard fall," he said.
Medics who were following the cyclists in cars rushed to the
scene, but it was already too late.
"We arrived immediately as we were behind his group," Giro
doctor Giovanni Tredici said. "He was unconscious with a fracture
of the skull base and facial damage. After 40 minutes of cardiac
massage we had to suspend the resuscitation because there was
nothing more we could do."
Weylandt's body was covered by a sheet and taken away by
ambulance about an hour after the accident. Local investigators
immediately opened an inquiry. Weylandt's body was taken to a
nearby hospital for an autopsy.
Weylandt's father and the cyclist's pregnant girlfriend were en
route to Italy and were to be met at Malpensa airport in Milan.
"I feel obliged to share with you a text message I received
today, reminding me that this is a sport where everybody applauds
the riders, but that they all risk their lives in every single
meter of the course," race director Angelo Zomegnan said.
The crash came almost exactly a year after one of the biggest
victories of Weylandt's career - the third stage of the 2010 Giro
on May 10 as it passed through the Netherlands. His other main tour
stage victory came in the 2008 Spanish Vuelta when he won the 17th
The rider's team put a picture of a smiling Weylandt on its
"The team is left in a state of shock and sadness and we send
all our thoughts and deepest condolences to the family and friends
of Wouter," the statement said. "This is a difficult day for
cycling and for our team, and we should all seek support and
strength in the people close to us."
Race organizers canceled the prize ceremony after the stage, a
107-mile ride from Reggio Emilia to Rapallo won by Spain's Angel
The Leopard-Trek team did not immediately announce whether it
would stay in the race, and Zomegnan said all riders were free to
decide whether to enter Tuesday's fourth stage.
Either way, the rest of the race is likely to assume a more
somber tone than is usual for a sport where riders are routinely
greeted by thousands of cheering spectators along the routes.
"We will leave the riders free to chose how they want to
approach the stage," Zomegnan said. "Whatever they decide, we
will respect. We won't have any music or festivities in the
afternoon, like we did for the last 10 kilometers of this wretched
Wouter Weylandt was the first
rider killed in a crash in one of cycling's three main tours since
Italian rider Fabio Casartelli died during the 1995 Tour de France.
At the Giro, Weylandt is the fourth cyclist to die during the race
after Orfeo Ponsin in 1952, Juan Manuel Santisteban in 1976 and
Emilio Ravasio in 1986.
In 2009, Pedro Horrillo was induced into a coma after falling
200 feet over a guard rail into a ravine during the eighth stage of
the Giro. The following day, the main pack rode slowly to protest
In March 2003, Kazakh rider Andrei Kivilev died after he fell
from his bike and fractured his skull while not wearing a helmet
during the Paris-Nice stage race. The International Cycling Union
subsequently made the wearing of hard helmets compulsory.
Condolences for Weylandt quickly poured in from cyclists around
"I'm shocked and saddened. May he rest in peace," Lance
Armstrong, the now-retired seven-time Tour de France champion, said
"Things like this shouldn't happen. Absolutely sick to the
stomach," British cyclist Mark Cavendish tweeted.
Race favorite and three-time Tour de France winner Alberto
Contador called it "a terrible story and a dark day for the
"Regardless of the fact each of us is in our own team, we are
all in the same place and this is a very difficult day for the
world of cycling."
Before this year's Giro even began, Contador said he hoped
organizers would line some of the more dangerous descents with
netting like that used in Alpine skiing races. However, Contador
was likely referring to the longer descents in the high mountain
stages to come.
Weylandt joined the newly formed Leopard-Trek team at the start
of the 2011 season, viewing it as his big break in racing alongside
Frank and Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara. The move followed six
years spent with Quick Step, during which time he rode as a support
cyclist for Tom Boonen.
UCI President Pat McQuaid issued a statement offering sympathy
to Weylandt's family, friends and teammates and "all his
colleagues on the Giro, who will have to overcome their grief to
continue in the race."