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By Neal Rogers
A violent high-speed crash at Fitchburg may have cost Aussie Henk Vogelshis season, but he was miraculously spared something for more preciousto him and to his family — his life.Early on in stage 3, Vogels and Navigators teammate Jeff Louder brokeclear of the field to help drive a small breakaway group. As the groupneared the bottom of the long, fast descent down Wachusett Mountain, theywere nearly caught by the peloton when Vogels apparently glanced behindhim to assess their lead and clipped his wheel with another rider, sendinghim flying head first into the guardrail, shattering his helmet and fracturinghis C-7 vertebrae.Following in a team car, Navigators’ general manager Ray Cipollini wasquick to arrive on the scene. “When I first stopped he wasn’t even moving,”Cipollini said. “It wasn’t until a few seconds later that he said thathe was in fact in pain, and was cognizant of that fact. Even with all theblood loss, he was still complaining about the pain, which was a good sign.I’ve been in the sport for a long time, and it was one of the worst crashesI’ve ever seen.”Navigators’ directeur sportif Ed Beamon was also racing, and pulledoff as he passed emergency workers attending to a bloody and unconsciousVogels, who was immediately rushed to the University of Massachusetts hospitalwhere it was determined that he had also shattered his ankle in three places.“This is a good story about the importance of helmets,” Beamon said.“I spoke with a police officer that had a radar gun on the riders on thatdescent, and he said they were coming in close to 65 mph. Henk’s doctorsaid that, without question, the helmet saved his life. From what the [breakawayriders] were telling me, it was probably the most violent crash any ofthem had ever seen.”The crushing impact of Vogels’ Limar helmet was so severe that it actuallyimpacted into his head, causing severe lacerations that required stitchesand staples to close.After the peloton had passed the wreckage, word initially trickled throughthe pack that Vogels was not responding, and for a brief period, the worstwas feared, causing racing to temporarily come to a halt. “The pelotonpretty much stopped at the bottom of the hill and waited for word beforethey got back to racing,” Beamon said. “Something like that really takesthe wind out your sails, and it unnerved the guys a bit.”One of the most respected members of the domestic peloton, Vogels hasamassed an impressive race resume that includes two top-ten finishes atParis-Roubaix (1997-98), a fourth-place stage finish at the 1999 Tour deFrance and a second-place at this year’s Ghent-Wevelgem — as well as theoverall victory at Fitchburg in 2000.“If there was ever any doubt as to whether or not a helmet works, thereis no doubt,” Cipollini said. “All our guys wear a helmet everywhere theyrace. I saw the French riders were protesting wearing helmets at theirnational championship, and I’d like to show them a photograph of Henk’sbloody, shattered helmet. You can actually see the imprints of the guardrail on his helmet.”Beamon explained that while the initial prognosis is that Vogels isexpected to make a full recovery, he might be wearing a neck brace foras long as 12 weeks. “But knowing Henk,” Beamon added, “It wouldn’t surpriseme if we saw him doing some early season Aussie races.”