Sunday 17 December 2017

Nicolas Roche: ‘What happened to Wouter could have happened to anyone'

Although I'm currently at a 10-day team training camp in the French Alps and not riding in the Giro d'Italia this year, Ag2r have a nine-man team in the three-week Italian tour. Every afternoon, as soon as we get back to our hotel room after training, our first reaction is to switch on the TV and watch the Giro to see how our team-mates are getting on.

On Tuesday, we had a longer spin than usual, taking in the climbs of the Col d'Agnelo and the Col d'Izoard and so arrived back a bit later than usual and missed the end of the stage. Eager to find out the results, somebody switched on the internet while the rest of us grabbed a shower. A few seconds later, results seemed so very unimportant.

The tragic news of the death of Belgian rider Wouter Weylandt on the descent of the Passo del Bocca, 25km from the end of the day's stage, hit us like a ton of bricks.

In disbelief, we all watched rerun after rerun of the news. Stunned, we sat in silence watching aerial shots of the medical crew trying to revive Wouter, but, thankfully, we had missed the actual crash footage, which is probably just as well, because I heard it was pretty gruesome.

We were in total shock. It was really traumatising for us and we weren't even at the Giro, so you can imagine how his team-mates, friends and family felt. Wouter's girlfriend is five months pregnant and my heart goes out to her.

Line

As professional cyclists, we see crashes every day of the week. Sometimes there is a very fine line between a crash that can leave you with a few scrapes and bruises and one that ends your season, your career, or in Wouter's case, your life. A pedal here, a handlebar there, a pothole, a stray dog is all it takes. Sometimes crashes happen as if they are in slow motion. Even though you are travelling at 70kph, you can see the bike sliding across the road in front of you, the riders falling to your left.

Somehow you avoid it, weaving matrix-like around an outstretched leg or spinning wheel. Other times though, you are on the deck before you know what hit you.

From the first day that you learn to cycle, falling off is inevitable whether you race or just use your bike to go to the shops. In the professional peloton, some riders tend to crash more often than others. People will often say that sprinters have the best bike handling ability in the peloton. Yet sprinters crash more times than anybody else. There is no safety net.

Sprinters take risks, diving through gaps, rubbing shoulders and elbows with others sprinters at 60kph. You don't win sprints by being shy or hesitant. How many times have the top sprinters crashed because they tried to get through a gap when there was none? In saying that, I've often gone through gaps in sprints and afterwards asked myself how the hell did I get through there? A bit like driving a car, most of the accidents in cycling occur because guys overestimate their own ability and push themselves to the limit to get to the front, but you also have innocuous little falls that can do as much damage.

My first crash this year came on a training spin in the winter. I was going around a corner on a climb and my back wheel slipped on an icy patch of road. Sitting on my a*** in the middle of the road, I could only watch as my bike slid back down the climb behind me.

I then crashed at the Amstel Gold Race in April when two guys in front of me locked handlebars. I was right behind them and couldn't avoid them. Again there were no major injuries, just a couple of cuts and bruises. Three days later, at Fleche-Wallone, I fell again. This time I was out of the saddle when my chain slipped on the rear sprocket. As all of my weight was on the front of the bike, I flew over the handlebars and hurt myself pretty badly. I ended up sharing an ambulance with my cousin Dan Martin, who was a few wheels back and fell in the resulting melee. That was pretty sore and I only took the last plasters off yesterday, a month later. The scars on my hips, knees and elbows are constant reminders of previous altercations with the road.

There are mental scars too. Last month, I was negotiating a really tricky descent in the lashings of rain at the Tour of Romandie in Switzerland. I was really nervous after my recent falls and eventually just cracked. Fear got the better of me and I had to sit up and let the wheels in front of me drift away into the distance. I was really panicking on the corners. It was probably the only time in my career that I was glad my Ag2r team shorts are brown.

Today, we were training around Alpe d'Huez and the Col du Lauteret. At one point there was a 300-metre drop at the side of the road. Christophe Riblon, winner of a mountain stage at the Tour de France, is afraid of heights and was s******g himself. The roads were pretty narrow and he just didn't feel safe all day. I'm always Paddy Last on the descents nowadays. Some of the guys take more risks. They enjoy riding hard on the descents and even though they take reasonable precaution, the roads are not closed and it's still pretty dangerous.

You can go through most of a season never thinking about crashing but as soon as you do, that becomes all you think about for a few races and it can take a while to get your confidence back.

What struck me about Wouter Weylandt's crash though, was that it could have happened to anyone, at any time. It's not like he hit a car or fell over the edge of a cliff. An excellent bike handler, he'd already gotten through the switchbacks and tight turns and his fall came on a fairly straight part of the descent.

One of the Radioshack guys, who was riding behind him, later said that it happened when he turned to look at a group coming up behind him and his pedal hit a small wall, hurtling the 26-year-old Belgian across the road and head first into another wall. He was doing around 80kph with nothing but lycra and a Styrofoam helmet for protection. A post mortem later revealed that he died instantly.

I only knew Wouter Weylandt to say hello to. I never had a full-blown conversation with him, but he was the type of rider who always said hello and had a smile. From others, I know that he was a nice guy, an honest and friendly rider and a gentleman.

When I'm training, safety is something I always have in mind. I wear a helmet on every spin. But you never think about it in a race. You have to put it out of your mind. Once you're in a race, it's the type of thing you try and forget. It's too late for me now, at 27, to say I want to stop, that I don't want to crash anymore. Cycling is what I do. It's my job. It's my life. It's what I love. Wouter Weylandt loved it too. May he rest in peace.

Irish Independent

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