It is almost 25 years since I stood in the French town of Pau on a July afternoon in 1995 and watched the six members of the Motorola team, including a young Lance Armstrong, ride into the Tour de France stage finish a few hundred metres in front of the peloton. It remains the single most impressive and affecting memory I can summon up in over 30 years of following cycling.
The men of the Tour had taken eight hours to ride that day’s mountain stage over some of the race’s greatest ascents at the pace of a funeral cortege, in honour of the Italian Olympic champion Fabio Casartelli, who had died the previous afternoon after falling off at high speed on the descent of the Col du Portet d’Aspet; on Tuesday the field of the Tour de Pologne paid an identical tribute to the young Belgian Bjorg Lambrecht.
The 22-year-old, one of the brightest young prospects in world cycling, had left the road and crashed 48 kilometres into Monday’s stage and died in the race ambulance on the way to hospital. His teammates rode across Tuesday’s finish line in Kocierz in formation, as Motorola had that day in Pau, with the same black armbands on their shoulders.
Lambrecht’s death prompted an outpouring of emotion among professional cyclists, amateur racers and those who follow the sport, as did Casartelli’s. Cycling remains a small world, ruled by a few degrees of separation. My son, who is the same age, dug out a photograph from a Belgian amateur race a few years back. That is Bjorg, he said, and there I am, riding next to him.
The death of Casartelli was definitely a landmark, because it took place in the most high-profile cycle race of them all. Another was the death of the Kazakh Andrei Kivilev in the 2003 Paris-Nice; that tragedy prompted the UCI to make it compulsory for professionals to wear protective hard-shell helmets. It seems incredible now but a dozen years earlier, professionals had gone on strike and forced the UCI to backtrack after an earlier attempt to make helmets mandatory.
In comparison Lambrecht’s death feels uncomfortably like the latest in a sequence of untimely deaths, more specifically among Belgian professional cyclists. This week the newspaper L’Équipe listed eight international riders who have died in competition in the last three years. Five were from Belgium: Lambrecht, Antoine Demoitié, Daan Myngheer, Michael Goolaerts and Stef Loos.
Three of the eight died of heart attacks while racing; five were related to crashes. It is a disconcertingly high rate of attrition but there have always been complaints that professional cycling is becoming more dangerous for its participants. Possible explanations include the increasing complexities of running cycle races of any kind on open roads: the constant construction of road furniture, the growth in traffic, stretched resources among organisers all make the task of running races tougher.
However, only an in-depth study based on many seasons can prove that conclusively. What can be said for certain is that this represents a high mortality rate set against mainstream sports. It is a truism that this is the price road cycling has always paid because – unlike Formula One in recent years, for example – it has retained its roots on the open road with all the dangers that entails. The risks can be mitigated to some extent but never removed.
Professional cyclists, I wrote after the Casartelli tragedy, were united, like coal miners and fishermen, by the fact that they had no option but to ignore danger on a daily basis. The risks run by the professionals have changed in degree perhaps but in essence they remain the same as in 1971 when the world champion Jean-Pierre Monséré died after colliding with a car in a race in Belgium, or in 1951 when Serse Coppi, brother of the great Fausto, suffered fatal injuries in the Milan-Turin race.
What I would add to that now is that the risks run by amateur racing cyclists are similar if not greater; on British roads in the bulk of races the tarmac is shared with traffic coming in the opposite direction that is under no legal obligation to slow down to let a peloton pass through. It is no surprise that risk assessments for courses used for races run under British Cycling rules span dozens of pages.
For any road race organiser, professional or amateur, – and I have been one of the latter for four years – the feeling that you are enabling athletes to participate in a potentially fatal activity is a daunting responsibility. It is the same feeling for a coach, a manager, a parent or a family member of any road cyclist. Somehow, you retain your belief that the game is worth the candle, that the things that road racing brings an athlete are worth the dangers, while praying that everyone stays safe. This week’s tragedy, as with that of 1995, shakes that faith and makes those prayers all the more fervent.