Today is the anniversary of Wouter Weylandt's tragic death at the Giro d'Italia in 2011. I took the Maglia Rosa the same day and it remains one of the most powerful memories of my career. I wanted to remember it, so I wrote about it afterwards, thank you to Yellow Jersey for allowing me to publish this excerpt from The Racer:
The Giro is a special race. I mean ‘Il est spécial’ in the French sense; i.e. the ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ sense. I’d done it for the first time in 2008, the Tour and Vuelta always having been my Grand Tours of choice. The Giro had never really held any great attraction for me, largely because I wasn’t a big fan of racing in Italy, more than likely due to my nemesis, Tirreno–Adriatico. I never enjoyed the Giro the way I did the Tour and the Vuelta. The course was almost always the hardest of the three, and it often seemed the stages were mapped out to make our lives as difficult as possible.
Then there was the bad weather – almost a certainty considering we’d be heading into mountain ranges in May, where the risk of snow and rain was still high. There was also a constant sense of chaos about the whole organisation – much like Italy as a whole – we often felt like circus performers at the whim of a cruel ringmaster. It was the Giro that set the trend for having mountain stages right up until the penultimate day of the race, something that we have grown used to in all Grand Tours these days, yet is a relatively new development.
I came close to winning a road stage in my first visit to the race. I didn’t because I snapped my chain one kilometre from the finish, when convinced it was wrapped up. I was so angry I threw my bike as far as I could, hurling it spinning over the barriers, ironically dwarfing any sense of achievement over the win I remain convinced was mine. It made me feel that Italy and I were truly not made for each other. I should have understood then, but I’m not known for my quick learning, unfortunately. And little did I know worse was to come.
Mainly due to the fact that I’d written a book over the winter, 2011 had been a classic slow start to the year for me. I was so bad I was sent home from Tirreno–Adriatico before the race started: a new low, even by my own low standards for that particular event. I returned home and trained with the sole ambition of being good for the Giro, something I’d never done in the past, as normally I arrived in Italy a broken man from the Classics.
We took a young team and unsurprisingly didn’t display our usual prowess in the first day’s team time trial, finishing what, at the time, was considered a lowly fifth, at twenty-four seconds from the winners. I’d been the strongest member of our team so knew I was ticking over well. There were only two stages I was aiming for – Stage 3 and the final day’s time trial. Stage 3 was the perfect finish for me, hilly and technical, and I was reasonably certain a break wouldn’t make it to the finish – on day three everybody is still fresh and motivated and the general classification is so close that the peloton will be under tight control. There was no point in going for a long breakaway. I decided to gamble everything on the finale.
I was so motivated I decided to wear the new speedsuit our clothing sponsor Castelli had developed. This went against everything I stood for, as it meant I was sacrificing style for speed. Back then these were the first-generation all-in-one road jersey and shorts combo. They’re almost the norm these days, but back in 2011 they were still a little risqué in the looks department. I rolled up to the start in the piazza of Reggio Emilia. I was one of the last riders to arrive there. I saw my Girona training partner, Michael Barry, so parked up next to him. ‘Hey, man.’ Michael looked at me and immediately noticed the speedsuit. ‘Whoa, you going for it today?’
‘Yeah, I think I am.’ I looked at the 200-plus riders parked up in front of us. ‘Fuck, I can’t believe I’m going to have to beat all these guys.’ It was a weird realisation to have, but it was true: it was one thing lying in bed the night before studying the maps and profile and finish, planning how I’d win it; it was a completely different kettle of fish lining up and seeing what stood in my way.
One hundred and thirty-three kilometres later we crested the major obstacle of the day, a climb much like the Turchino Pass in Milan–San Remo. I’d never left the top ten on the ascent, and was in complete control of what I was doing, waiting patiently to attack in the last ten kilometres, where the last hills served as ideal launch pads.
The descent was fifteen kilometres and technical. The bunch was already broken up from the climb. At the very front there was no particular sense of urgency or danger, which is why I’d made sure I was there. It was easy to imagine how fast it would be behind, with the peloton being whiplashed by the concertina effect and the groups furiously chasing back on. I had no doubt the peloton was stretched over a few kilometres by the time we arrived at the bottom on to the coast. This was good for me, as already half the peloton were eliminated before I’d even done anything.
There were only two climbs standing between us and the finish. Both were relatively small, the first being three kilometres, the second just one. At the bottom of the first climb a strong attack went. I felt so good that I immediately jumped across with it – as is often the way when you feel that good, you don’t panic. I sat on the back and spun a small gear, doing no more than the absolutely minimum required while my breakaway compatriots smashed themselves.
I could see the peloton was chasing hard and would probably catch us just before the summit – that would be my moment to go. The domestiques chasing us down would go deep in the red to bring us back, to the point of doing kamikaze peel-offs in the final closing metres of their chase. This would also put most of the peloton in the red. I could see this happening so stopped riding in the break, and sat in last position and began to take deep breaths in an attempt to recover, preparing myself to launch the decisive move and begin what would be a very intense nine-kilometre race for the line.
I pushed my left brake lever to change from the small ring into the big ring, readying myself for the attack. Only nothing happened. I tried again. And again. Nothing happened. I started flicking my other brake lever to move my chain down the cassette block on the rear wheel in an attempt to change the chain line and enable the front mech to have more tension on the chain. Still nothing. I couldn’t believe it. What the fuck was happening? I’d had this problem occasionally before, the SRAM shifters and my oval chainrings were not a match made in heaven, but, seriously, not now, please, not now! Sure enough I was stuck in the small ring. I couldn’t do anything about it. The moment had gone. Guys from behind started attacking and coming by us and I was helpless to do anything. The front of the peloton swamped us over the top and the counter-attack of four riders was gone. The perfect moment taken.
Once we were on the descent I was able to get into the big ring. I was so incredibly angry, I couldn’t believe my second Giro stage win had been taken away from me because of another mechanical issue. There were no domestiques left to chase; only the general classification leaders were left at the front, and they were perfectly happy to see the group of four ride away for the win, as it would make for a safer run-in if the win wasn’t being fought out.
There was the one little climb left, less than a kilometre long, and I could see the break was going away; they already had twenty seconds. I was back at the front of the peloton. As we hit the bottom I looked around and saw that as far as everybody else was concerned it was over. It was probably obvious I was itching to go,as I was now in a big gear,out of the saddle in my drops
looking around checking everybody out. Right next to me was Alberto Contador. I looked at him, and he looked at me and gave me the slightest of nods, as if to say, ‘GO. NOW.’
I jumped as hard as I could. I knew everybody would watch me go and think twice, as it seemed a bit of a lost cause – and if Alberto was going to sweep behind me and not show the slightest inkling of movement it would cause a further hesitation. That was all I needed.
To this day I’m not sure how I did what I did next, but I’m quite certain much of it had something to do with how angry I was. I sprinted the whole way up the climb, bridging a twenty- second gap in a few hundred metres. I caught the back of the group over the top of the climb. I hovered off the back, knowing they weren’t even aware I had made it across. I was confident I could win the sprint as the group was made mainly of climbers, and also because I’d studied the last kilometre and knew there was a corner inside the final 200 metres, which meant leading into it was the best option. I’d made sure this had been checked out by the staff at the finish, who’d then informed the directeur sportif in the car, who’d confirmed it to me on the radio.
Two things went wrong. The corner was barely a corner, more of a curve, and it had already straightened out before we got to the 200-metres-to-go sign. This meant I’d put myself in the worst possible position, giving whoever was on my wheel the perfect lead out. Then there was the second, and graver, mistake: I hadn’t realised one of the four riders was Ángel Vicioso. He’s a rider I knew was fast, but hadn’t raced with in a long time: I didn’t even realise he rode for a small Italian team these days so hadn’t recognised him. I could have probably got away with my long lead out if I hadn’t had a good little sprinter like Vicioso on my wheel. He fairly and squarely beat me into second place. I was even angrier now than I’d been about my chain only minutes before.
As soon as we crossed the line I was shouting down the radio, ‘Who the fuck checked the finish? It’s nothing like in the book. I just gave that away. FUUUUCK!’ I didn’t even stop. I just hissy-fitted it all the way to the bus, so incredibly angry at myself and anybody else who happened to cross my path at that particular moment.
Then a journalist literally stood in my way as I approached the team bus. ‘David! Please, have you heard?’ He seemed very wired, as if he had something really important to tell me that I needed to know. I didn’t even care. I told him so, ‘Jesus Christ. I’ll speak to you later. Let me by.’
It didn’t stop him. ‘It doesn’t look good for Wouter Weylandt.’ Everything just stopped for me. ‘What? What are you talking about?’ It made no sense.
‘He crashed on the descent. Really bad.’ He’d calmed down a bit now. Even he realised that maybe he’d been a bit too eager to tell me.
‘I’m going to my bus.’ Anger had turned to confusion. What the fuck was going on? I was able to extricate myself from my own, oh-so-important drama and see that everybody was acting oddly. I stepped off my bike and leaned it against the bus. There was definitely an unfamiliar atmosphere. I got on the bus and collapsed in my seat. As usual the first thing I did was check my phone. There was already a missed call from Nicole. I called back immediately. She was crying when she answered, ‘Why are they showing it on TV? They can’t do that.’
Oh God, this didn’t sound good. ‘What’s going on, babes? I just got on the bus. I don’t know what’s happened.’
‘A rider crashed. There was blood everywhere and he wasn’t moving.’ I’d rarely heard Nicole so upset: ‘They wouldn’t stop filming it. Why would they do that? I don’t understand why they’d do that. What about his girlfriend? They say she’s five months’ pregnant, just like me.’
I asked her who it was. I wanted to make sure this was actually happening.
‘I don’t know. Wouter Weylandt? Do you know him? It’s so horrible. They’re saying he’s dead. Is that true? I’ve just looked on Wikipedia, it already says he’s dead.’
There was nobody else on the bus. I got up to go and find out what was going on when my phone rang again. It was Whitey. ‘Dave. You’re in pink, mate!’ Whitey didn’t even work for the team any more, yet no doubt he was following my results and performances as much as he ever did, because that’s just the way he is.
‘What are you talking about,Whitey? How’s that possible?’
Now I was truly bamboozled.
‘You had twenty-one seconds on the line, then, with time
bonuses, you’ve taken the jersey. You did it, mate!’ I could hear how happy he was for me.
‘Fucking hell. This is mad. What’s going on with Wouter? Have you heard anything?’
Whitey’s voice changed. ‘Doesn’t look good, Dave. He wasn’t moving. Last I heard they were helicoptering him outta
I turned around and collapsed back down in my seat. I didn’t want to go outside the bus any more.
Ten minutes later, when the last riders had crossed the finish line, it was announced that Wouter Weylandt was dead. He had crashed heavily on the long descent down to the coast, no doubt while chasing back on. They had attempted resuscitation for twenty minutes at the roadside before airlifting him out. He was pronounced dead soon after.
This official news spread like wildfire. Riders came on to the bus one by one, nobody said much. We all knew that Tyler would be arriving soon. Wouter and he were close friends, living near each other in Ghent, training and socialising together. They even had the same haircuts. None of us knew what to do, or what to say. We just sat quietly and waited.
Eventually Ty arrived crying as he got on the bus. He threw his helmet on the floor and went to sit at the back burying his head in his hands, sobbing. Everybody looked at each other; this wasn’t something we knew how to handle. All other bad situations we simply bantered our way out of, that was the only way we knew how to remedy shit situations. This was way outside our bandwidth.
I was closest to Ty on the team, so it made sense that I should go to him. I got up and went to the back of the bus and put my arm around him. He leant into me like a child would. I didn’t say anything as there was nothing to say. I just sat there until an official came and told me it was time to go to doping control. I told Tyler I had to go, that I was in the leader’s jersey. He barely registered it.
The trip from the bus to the podium is normally one of those joyous back-slapping occasions, smiles everywhere, clapping, photos and autographs, a hug or two. It is a moment to be cherished because for most of us it is so rare.
This was different. There were a few gentle pats on my back, the occasional respectful handshake. It was exactly how you would expect it to be when somebody has died. It was a quiet and sombre walk with my French directeur sportif, Lionel Marie.
The podium area was already being dismantled, the barriers taken down; there were very few people around. We went straight to the doping control area where I signed in and sat down outside to wait my turn. We didn’t speak much, probably nothings to fill the silence. What we did say was in French, which seemed appropriate as that had been the language I spoke when things had been bad in my younger life.
One of the Giro organisation came up with a bag, shook my hand and said how horrible it all was. He opened the bag and brought out the famous maglia rosa. Could I try it on, please? Just to make sure the size was right. So there I stood, outside a doping-control caravan, putting on the one jersey I had coveted for so long and had thought forever out of my reach. Having the pink jersey meant I had worn the leader’s jerseys of all three Grand Tours, something very few people have had the honour of doing. I looked at Lionel and asked how it looked. He smiled sadly, ‘Magnifique, David.’ I took it off and gave it back. The last thing I wanted was to feel like I’d gained something from the day.
Tyler didn’t leave his room that night. Dinner was a subdued affair, as was to be expected. When I’d finished I made up a tray from the restaurant buffet and grabbed a bottle of wine and headed up to see him. Oddly, nobody knew what to do around him. It was almost as if they were afraid to be near him because it would make it more real. I stayed with him till he fell asleep, then returned to my room, fully aware of the responsibility I now carried the next day.
I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t know how to behave the next day. Should I assume the role of leader of the peloton? Or should I just let the organisation and Wouter’s team decide how the day should be? Did being the maglia rosa mean I had to be the peloton’s spokesman? Should I even wear the maglia rosa? What was expected of me? I didn’t know, and the darkness of night didn’t help me come to any conclusions.
As usual I was first at breakfast. I sat there and watched, one by one, other riders from other teams come in. Then a strange thing happened. Riders started coming across and shaking my hand, not to congratulate me, but out of respect. The ones who didn’t looked at me and nodded with a smile, as if to say, ‘Good luck.’
It was clear that what they expected of me was exactly what I would expect of the race leader at such a time – to lead. At that moment I decided there was no question of me not wearing the leader’s jersey – and I would decide how we raced. One of my plans during my restless reverie of the night just gone was to have each team ride ten kilometres on the front, in reverse order of the team classification, with Wouter’s team crossing the line first. That way there would be some method to the day. We could ride it in an organised manner, giving it reason and order rather than let it be a miserable march, or, worse, no start at all.
I called up the boss of Wouter’s team, Brian Nygaard, and ran the plan by him. He agreed that it was the best solution. With that I called up the boss of the Giro and told him that that was how we would ride the day’s stage.
When we arrived at the start I got kitted up sooner than I ever normally would, and left the bus to do the rounds and speak to the teams. The first team I went to was Wouter’s team, Leopard Trek. I met Nygaard outside their bus. He asked me to try to persuade his riders that they were better off trying to finish the Giro, continuing the race than retiring and returning home as many expected them to. I told him I couldn’t do that, and that I’d already told Tyler to go home. To this day I find it strange he would have asked me that. I entered the bus and paid my respects to each rider, wishing them luck and explaining how we would ride the day.
I went round a few more teams that had leaders who had influence in the peloton, and explained the plan for the day, so they knew it was coming from me, and therefore the riders. This, sadly, is the only way we get shit done, due to the absence of a strong union.
I then went to the sign-on podium. Behind that was a room where all the directeur sportifs had congregated for an emergency meeting with the race organisation. I could see and hear before I entered that it was heated, borderline chaos. Before entering I hesitated, the young neo-pro in me rearing his fearful head. Before I could turn around and leave I’d already opened the door. Then the strangest thing happened. I heard the words ‘La maglia rosa’ ripple around the room. Within ten seconds there was silence and everybody was looking at me. I remember thinking,‘Fucking hell, didn’t expect that.’ I put my shoulders back, stood tall, ignored the fact I was wearing cycling shorts, cleated shoes and a pink t-shirt and told them the plan. Then I turned and left the room.
The day went as planned. The final climb, not far from the finish, saw me have recurring problems with my gears, which meant I was out the back of the peloton when my team was about to start doing the final pull on the front, before Leopard led us to the finish. This felt like a totally normal event by this point.
My team handed over to Leopard a handful of kilometres before the finish, and the whole peloton let them drift off the front in order to allow them to finish alone, together, across the line. Tyler went with them, because it was his best friend who had died.
For the first time that day I relaxed, relieved we’d actually done something that showed unity as well as dignity.
Then the third unexpected thing of the day happened. After the behaviour of fellow riders at breakfast, then the show of respect from the directeurs at the meeting, it was the peloton that made the loveliest gesture of the day. As we were being swallowed up by the peloton I allowed myself to stop feeling responsible. I began to feel hands on my back, stopping me slipping back. I lifted my head and looked around to find those nearby looking at me. Somebody who knew me well said, ‘David, you have to go.’
So I finished alone, in between Leopard, Tyler and the peloton. I was so self-conscious I panicked and went as quickly as I could to the podium protocol next to the finish line, where nobody could get to me. To this day I regret that. I should have gone to Tyler, because he was a mess, but I thought that would look too contrived. I didn’t want him breaking down in my arms.
Neither of us wanted that. Yet, in hindsight, I wish I had, because I know he needed me there. I got lost in what I was supposed to do rather than who I was – Ty’s friend.
The day didn’t end there. It was the eightieth anniversary of the creation of the maglia rosa. For some reason a special celebration of this had been organised at the Italian Naval Academy, not far away, so the day ended with me glad-handing Italian naval officers before being presented with a replica of the original maglia rosa on a podium in front of a dry-docked, tall ship. A weird ending to a sad day. I crashed the next day and lost the pink jersey. Ultimately I won the time trial on the last stage and promised myself I’d never return. Which turned out to be a lie, because I did, for the 2013 edition, leaving home only a few hours after my second son, Harvey, was born. I crashed the next day on the first stage and smashed my leg up, then suffered in the rain for two weeks before calling it quits on Stage 14.