Bicycle racing has always been a risky sport. Training on the open roads leaves you at the mercy of motorists; whether careless, drunk, or plain mean-spirited, nearly 5,000 cyclists die at the hands of motor vehicles each year in the US. Cycling in the US means you accept the risks of training on public roads in a nation where cyclists are looked upon as second-class citizens, and drunken driving is too often treated with a laissez-faire attitude. But death during a race is a rarity.
Crashing is not a rarity. Balanced on perhaps one square inch of rubber, in the midst of 80 or more racing cyclists who all want to occupy the same space near the front of the peloton (the pack of racers) at speeds in excess of 25 mph, the risks of crashing from fatigue, carelessness, a crack in the road, or a discarded water bottle are high. It is not possible to race for long without hitting the deck.
Road rash hurts. As professional team manager Jonathon Vaughters famously said, “Drive down the road at 55 kph. Strip down to your underwear. Jump out.” Shattered clavicles are the cyclist’s rite of passage, the torn labrum or rotator cuff a constant threat, the fractured navicular in the wrist as common among cyclists as the torn ACL amongst football players.
My racing career began in 1979. In my second race, I crashed. Over the intervening years, I suspect I have left enough skin on roads across the US to re-cover one of the infamous skinless and plasticized humans on display in museums. Collarbone. Torn labrum. Ruptured bursa. Dozens of stitches. Much like hockey players, cyclists wear their scars as badges of honor.
But death during the race is a rarity. Death has me gutted.
On March 26, Daan Myngheer, a Belgian on the French Roubaix Lille Metropole team lost contact with the main group of riders during the closing 25 km of the spring race, Criterium International. He stated he didn’t feel good, so he climbed into the ambulance. He had a heart attack. An apparently healthy 22-year-old man, in the peak of condition, he died on March 28 in hospital.
My son is 23.
On Sunday, Antoine Demoitie died during the Gent-Wevelgem Belgian classic. In a small group of riders, four men crashed at 70 kph. A follow motorcycle, driven by an experienced hand, with a race official on board, crashed into Demoitie. He was a 25-year-old man.
My son is 23.
On Sunday in the US, Randall Fox, a 29-year-old doctoral student at Oregon State, was racing in a collegiate race near Black Diamond, WA. He crashed on a descent, struck a guardrail and died from the impact.
My son is 23.
In all my years racing, I never, not once, contemplated my own death before, during, or after a race. I accepted that I might crash. I knew that I would crash. It was known that I would, we all would, get up and get back on the bike after smacking the tarmac. I saw barricades around light posts. I saw mattresses against the rears of parked automobiles that had not been towed from the race course.
As an old hand racer, I am certain that Myngheer, Demoitie, and Fox did not consider death as a possible outcome this weekend. As a twenty-something athlete, you must view yourself as ten feet tall and bulletproof to succeed. Death during the race is a rarity.
But I suspect their parents saw it as a possibility. My son is 23. I remember when I first let him ride his bike the 1 km through the subdivision to his grandparents’ house. He put on his helmet, and I walked down to the end of the driveway with him.
“Call me when you get there,” I instructed.
“Come on, dad. It’s like, right there.”
He pointed down the street and around the corner.
I must have looked exasperated.
“Okay, I’ll call,” he said.
“As soon as you get there.”
“Sheesh. Yes. As soon as I get there,” he said, complete with a roll of the eye and a shake of the head.
I watched until his little tousled head under his red helmet and his blue bike rolled out of sight. I raced into the house, and stood by the phone, heart pounding until three minutes later when the phone rang.
I heard his eight-year-old voice pipe, “It’s cool, Dad. I’m here.”
I’m gutted for the Demoities, the Foxes, and the Myngheers. They watched their sons roll down the street. Their phones will never ring.
Slider image via Roadbikereview.com