The story behind the story: Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia and a sister’s shared memories

May 9, 2011. Soon after arriving at the finish of the third stage of the Giro d’Italia, it became apparent that something was wrong. The journalists and officials close to the finish line in Rapallo had grim expressions, as if something bad had happened. As it turned out, that was…

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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May 9, 2011. Soon after arriving at the finish of the third stage of the Giro d’Italia, it became apparent that something was wrong. The journalists and officials close to the finish line in Rapallo had grim expressions, as if something bad had happened. As it turned out, that was indeed the case.

“Did you hear about Wouter Weylandt?” asked one writer. “No,” I replied. “What happened?

“He crashed on the descent. They think he might be dead.”

The news was like a hammer blow. Pro cycling is a dangerous sport, but fortunately fatalities are rare. There were of course examples over the years of riders succumbing to injuries, including Fausto Coppi’s brother Serse, the then-world champion Jean-Pierre Monseré, Joaquim Agostinho, Connie Meijer, Fabio Castartelli, Andrey Kivilev and Isaac Gálvez but, statistically, broken bones and lacerations were far more likely outcomes from a crash.

Unfortunately for Weylandt, he didn’t make it. The 26-year-old was speeding down the descent of the Passo del Bocco close to the finish line when his left leg clipped a low wall. He crashed at high speed and died instantly.

A year after he won stage three of the 2010 Giro d’Italia, he passed away at the same early point in the 2011 race. It was the fourth fatality in the history of the event.

Those treating Weylandt quickly saw that there was nothing they could do but, elsewhere, there was confusion about his condition. The race organisation waited two hours before confirming the news, almost certainly out of respect for his family. Those closest to Weylandt needed to be told first, hence the information gap.

However the reaction of riders after the finish spoke volumes. David Millar had finished second behind Angel Vicioso on the stage and became the new race leader. He’d normally have plenty of reason to celebrate but he was stony-faced in Rapallo.

The Garmin-Cervélo rider spoke angrily into his race radio, saying that ‘they’ should have said how bad the bends were on the descent.

Other riders were quieter, their mood subdued. They spoke in low tones amongst themselves. The feeling that something was badly wrong was heightened when the podium celebrations were cancelled.

Weylandt had been racing with the Leopard Trek squad. His teammate Brice Feillu was interviewed by French TV, giving his reaction to the crash. Another from the same team was in shock, telling a Leopard Trek soigneur three times in quick succession, ‘I saw the crash.’ He appeared completely devastated.

Perhaps 15 minutes later and a couple of hundred metres away, small crowds of journalists gathered at the team bus. They were seeking quotes that they’d much rather not have to get. The riders were nowhere to be seen, but two or three team workers moved about outside the vehicle. They had bleak expressions on their faces and were saying little.

One of them put up a small crowd control barrier, although it ultimately wasn’t needed; many of the journalists moved off, realising that the team wouldn’t be speaking before any official news was released.

One year earlier, Wouter Weylandt won stage three of the Giro d’Italia.

A sad announcement

Confirmation of Weylandt’s passing finally came in a sombre press conference held by race director Angelo Zomegnan and the Giro d’Italia race doctor Giovanni Tredici at 7.30 that evening.

The latter said that everything that could have been done was done.

“The resuscitation operation lasted 45 minutes, as the protocol required, but we waited for the helicopter and as they intervened, it turned out that the operations we carried out were not going to change the situation,” he said then.

“The situation was already desperate, I was the first to intervene as my car was right behind the peloton. We started the operation within 30 seconds, but the situation was very severe, without any possibility of resuscitating the rider, even when the mobile resuscitation centre came one minute 30 seconds afterwards.”

He was shaken, and so too Zomegnan. The race director said that it was a conference that he never wanted to have to give, and was clearly moved.

“I feel obliged to share a text message I received,” he said during a statement he delivered. “’This is a sport where everybody must applaud all the riders, in which all the riders risk their lives in every single metre of the course, and in which when something like this occurs, everybody is on the side of those who go through such a terrible grief.’”

Zomegnan confirmed that the race would continue, and said that it would be up to the riders to decide how the fourth stage would be run.

He also appealed to the media not to use any sensitive photos from the crash, saying that the family and others deserved not to see them.

However that request was ignored by La Gazetta dello Sport, the Italian newspaper which is closely linked with the race and which is owned by the same parent company, RCS Sport.

The following morning its front page showed a graphic photo of Weylandt lying motionless on the road; given what Zomegnan had said, it appeared to be hypocritical and distasteful of the company.

The riders, meanwhile, were far more respectful. Prior to the start of stage four they observed a minute’s silence at the start line, with the Leopard Trek team wearing black armbands and standing in front of the peloton. Some cried; all fought their emotions.

Being there as a journalist was uncomfortable, given the context. Myself and my then-girlfriend lowered our cameras during the minute’s silence, feeling that it would be disrespectful not to also observe the period of reflection.

However the TV crew filming the Giro images for live TV had no restraint, and positioned their camera literally inches from the faces of the team.

One by one, the camera was moved from person to person, the extreme close up insensitively intruding into each rider’s personal space and emotions.

It was distasteful, disrespectful and, understandably, one rider pushed the lens away.

An ongoing team connection

Sixteen years earlier, Olympic champion Fabio Castartelli died in a similar high-speed descent during the Tour de France. He was one of several who fell and struck a low concrete wall by the side of the road. I was in college at the time, studying Applied Physiology, but that incident and the fragility of riders made a big impression on me.

At the time helmets were not obligatory in the peloton. I wrote a story on this, debating whether such a rule should be introduced. [It would take another death, that of Andrey Kivilev in 2003, before this would happen].

I wasn’t a journalist at the time but submitted the story to one of the Irish national papers. It ultimately wasn’t used, but freelance submissions such as this opened doors and soon led to published articles.

Although I went on to get a Masters qualification in Exercise Physiology, I never used it: instead, writing became more and more a focus and I went into full-time journalism.

Years later, Wouter Weylandt’s tragic passing brought the subject of rider vulnerabilities up again. Tributes were made, many of his colleagues paid their respects, and time then moved on.

He was never forgotten by those who knew him, but normal life intervened.

Then, last August, I emailed Trek-Segafredo’s Communications Manager Tim Vanderjeugd with a request for information. I wanted to know what Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara’s racing programme looked like for the remainder of the season.

Vanderjeugd, an affable Belgian and one of the best press officers in the WorldTour, replied and said that his second in command would handle the request.

Her name? Elke Weylandt.

Vanderjeugd confirmed that he would be moving into a new role. The following month the team, which is Leopard Trek’s successor, issued a press release and confirmed that Weylandt would be taking over as communications manager.

She had worked with the team for two years but her promotion seemed worthy of a story for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the men’s professional scene is still very lob-sided in terms of the proportion of male to female staff working within it.

Secondly, it seemed noteworthy that, five years after Wouter Weylandt’s passing, another family member was so closely involved with the team.

I sent a message to Vanderjeugd. Might Elke Weylandt be up for a chat about her new role and, more specifically, about her brother?

I made clear that any such interview would be respectful. The last thing I wanted to do was to bring up any painful memories. If she was willing to talk, Elke could herself determine how much we would speak about her brother.

Vanderjeugd soon replied with a green light. However the anticipated phone chat wouldn’t be happening.

“I discussed it with her and she doesn’t mind talking about her brother to you, except that she would rather do this in person, not over the phone,” he said.

Months later, that meeting finally took place.

Strength and dignity

In December I drove six hours south of Girona to Albir, where the Trek-Segafredo team was having a training camp. In person, Elke Weylandt came across as friendly and open. Trusting, too. She understood that we weren’t trying to be intrusive and that her feelings were the most important factor in the interview.

If she felt that the questions were bringing up too many difficult memories, she simply had to say so. She would be the ultimate determinant of how much we would talk about Wouter.

In the end, she was incredibly open. She spoke for a long time about her brother, discussing their early life together, their teenage years and, also, the day of his passing. She described the effect his accident had on her and her family, and also how she recovered from the trauma.

She elaborated on her own emotions and how, over time, her grieving had changed and her perspective had shifted.

Most of all, she spoke with honesty and in a very moving way.

Having been at the Giro d’Italia the day her brother died, it was possible to appreciate how difficult dealing with this subject must be. To understand her courage and her resilience.

I went away from that interview with two things on my mind. Firstly, that I was determined to try to do her brother justice in the resulting article. And secondly, that I was deeply impressed by her strength of character and her generosity of comment. Opening up about such a subject can’t have been easy, and yet she did so. That was moving to witness.

Finishing the piece, I had one concern. It was a emotional story, and I felt it would resonate with the readers, but I worried such personal details might appear jarring to Elke Weylandt once she saw it.

Normally a team’s reaction to a story is not high in the list of priorities: it can’t be, otherwise that is not journalism. But in this case, given how personal the story was, I worried that the title and, perhaps, the amount of emotion in the article might strike the wrong chord with the family.

I sent her a copy, and then heard nothing. Days passed, I fretted at the silence, and then she replied. She’d been unable to open the file and asked if I could send it in another format.

I did so, waited another couple of days, and then got a reply.

She said that she enjoyed the article and felt the photos and the selection of quotes made it all work well.

“I will cherish this article, for sure,” she said.

Given the subject matter, given the sensitivities of the situation, that reaction meant a lot to see.

Sometimes what we write about is bigger than sport.

The interview with Elke Weylandt can be viewed here

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