It wasn’t the crash that moved me. The cameras weren’t there when it happened. It was the riders’ faces next day. We’re talking here about the Giro, of course, and an everyday fall that killed one of the riders.
To tell you the truth, I’d barely heard of Wout Weylandt. You can’t know them all. He was a jobbing professional, a man with some talent and a decent record but in the end just another face in the peloton. Except that now he was no longer there.
Next day the stage was neutralised. The race still had to get from one end to the other and the peloton rolled briskly but without animation. Towards the end, Weylandt’s team-mates were allowed to move to the front and the rest dropped three bike lengths behind. There wasn’t a face in that front row that wasn’t on the edge of tears. And next day they all went home.
Well, it wasn’t the first death in cycling and it won’t be the last. I still remember with a chill the day I came across friends pushing an empty bicycle to the finish of a brevet event. Its owner had fallen and died, of a heart attack. An ambulance had driven him away but there was still the matter of his bike. In earlier times an old soldier’s horse followed the funeral with the departed’s boots hanging from the stirrups. It was the image that came to mind that day.
I remember, too, the Ghent six-day race. I love six-day racing and I never tire of the tiny track in the heart of cycling Flanders. It was the last but one evening in November, 2006. I had been down under the track to talk to the Derny pacers. They were having a break before their next race started and they sat in plastic chairs along the walls of a corridor. They looked like elderly gents waiting to see a doctor.
We talked and I made notes and then, when I came back up to the track by the connecting staircase, the music was still blaring but nobody was on the boards. There’d been a crash. There was something about the atmosphere that suggested it wasn’t a crash like all the others.
As Roger De Martelaere put it in Het Laatste Nieuws: “Too many times to count, I’ve seen riders crash in six-days, but I never bothered going over to where it happened. But this time I did. Why, I don’t know. A premonition? No, because I didn’t think for a moment that it was so serious. Some cuts, at the worst a broken collar bone. Crashes on bike tracks always turn out all right. Except this time.”
I crossed the bridge back into the stands and I could see that there at the start of the home straight lay a man on his side, immobile except for legs that twitched through who knows what reflex. His soigneur was pumping his heart through the bands of his rainbow jersey. Because Isaac Galvez was a world track champion and a favourite to win at Ghent.
We in the home straight could see it all: the worried looks, the neck brace, the stretcher, the phone calls. But cabins and the other clutter of a track race hid the scene from those in the centre and the party went on as before, the drinkers, the socialites hoping to rub with cycling’s élite, and a drunken group dressed as schoolgirls. What made the crowd angry was the music. And almost as one we rose and waved our hands downwards as a plea for the party to stop.
I’d seen Galvez win the world madison champion championship on my nearest track, at Bordeaux. Here in Ghent, he had accelerated, come round the string of riders and was a third of the way up the banking.
There he and a Belgian, Dimitri De Fauw, tangled their handlebars. Galvez bounced up the track at 30 degrees and hit the wall at 40kmh. The impact lifted him over the bars and the single metal rod along the wall hit him on the chest. He fell to the boards and slid to the flat at the bottom.
Everyone thought he was merely stunned. It was De Fauw who seemed worse. He stayed a long time on all fours, his head spinning, and his face spoke of pain. And then he tottered to his cabin on the arm of a helper.
Galvez, though, now had blood on his lips. Blankets were brought and a rudimentary screen held around him. The banking of the track opened like an oyster, pushed by hydraulic arms. Flashing blue lights reflected in the tunnel in the track. Men in disaster outfits brought an oxygen bottle and a mask. A drip bottle drained a colourless fluid. After a long time they put Galvez on a trolley. Hoping for the best, we applauded. Many were crying. Some passed out, including the race press officer.
The speaker took the microphone. “Dear cycling fans,” he began. “The consequences of the accident you have seen are clearly serious and, so out of respect and by the wish of the riders…” We heard no more. We didn’t need to. We climbed the steps and left the stadium. Quietly. On the way out, I stepped round a man who had fainted with emotion.
Galvez died in the ambulance.
The police took his bike, lifting it over the barrier metres from where he had crashed. It was all but undamaged. His sister, Deborah, travelled from Barcelona next day to collect her brother’s body. I walked back to the track next morning and people had started laying flowers at the door. The racing was over.
There is, as if it were needed, a sad footnote. Dimitri De Fauw could never believe he wasn’t responsible for the crash. Two years later he committed suicide.