Tragedy hit cycling yesterday, with the death of Wouter Weylandt at the Giro d’Italia. The sport, to its credit, dealt with the terrible events with maturity and respect, symbolised by the race leader David Millar.
Words by Lionel Birnie
David Millar became the first British rider to lead all three Grand Tours yesterday.
In the scheme of things, that was completely irrelevant. The podium presentations in Rapalla were cancelled even before it was confirmed that Wouter Weylandt had died. The news reached the riders as they arrived at their respective team buses and a dark, contemplative and distressed hush shrouded the Giro d’Italia.
It was hardly surprising that Millar had little appetite to pull on the pink jersey. He slipped it onto his shoulders briefly, then took it off and handed it to one of the Garmin staff, his thoughts already turning to Tyler Farrar, his team-mate and a close friend of Weylandt’s, who would be hit particularly hard by the news.
What an awful day. One where decisions had to be taken on a minute-by-minute basis using sketchy and conflicting information.
Any team managers who passed the scene of Weylandt’s crash and saw the emergency team crouched over him would have feared the worst. And if they’d seen the awful pictures on the television in their team cars their anxiety would have been heightened.
The riders in the lead group, Millar included, could not have known the severity of the situation. The team managers would not have passed on the news. The race could not be neutralised. Angelo Zomegnan, the race director, and his team simply had to wait until after the finish and deal with the situation as best they could.
The speed at which news is now disseminated, particularly via Twitter, meant that there was a flurry of speculation but no definitive answer for some time.
No one except those down on the ground on the Passo del Bocco was in a position to say anything with any certainty. Yet according to Twitter, Weylandt was being airlifted to hospital or he was still being treated at the scene. He was breathing or he had failed to respond to CPR treatment. It was terrible and a reminder to all of us, professional and citizen journalists alike, that being first with the news is not the point. Being accurate is all that counts.
Speculation on the internet was nowhere near as distressing as the television pictures.
Millar made a good point when he said: “My wife was in tears when I spoke to her after the race because she couldn’t understand why the live television was showing him receiving medical attention when in such a horrific state.”
In the UK, Eurosport was criticised for showing a particularly upsetting shot of Weylandt when the strap on his helmet was cut by a medic. Hopefully you were spared the sight. Eurosport was not to blame for broadcasting the images – the station takes its feed directly from RAI, the host broadcaster, and has no influence over what gets shown.
In fact, I have a lot of sympathy for the cameramen and television directors who had to make split-second decisions without knowing what was going on. Crashes happen almost every day and it is routine for the cameramen to get as close as they can to see who has happened. The previous day, Edouard Vorganov’s freak crash, when he flew out of the line of breakaway riders and hit the road hard, was shown several times and from a couple of angles. He, of course, was not too seriously hurt and was able to get back on his bike and continue the race. Crashes are part of bike racing and not a Tour round-up goes by without a montage of the thrills, spills and near-misses being shown. But there is a line.
The cameraman is there to tell the story and does not know what he is encountering until he gets there. The director cut away quickly – but not soon enough to prevent several news outlets from getting a screengrab.
To see those screengrabs used by Gazzetta dello Sport’s website, and others, was concerning. Unlike the television director, they had time to think about what they were doing.
No one needed to see those images to gain a better understanding of the accident that had happened and the editors should have exercised restraint. I have worked in newsrooms when disasters have happened and the pictures that come in from the news agencies can be horribly distressing. The photographers have done their job recording the event but it is up to the editor to decide which images to use to tell the story. Just because a photograph has been taken does not make it appropriate to publish.
Millar spoke to some journalists at the finish and did so with great dignity, assuredness and respect despite the jumble of terrible information his brain was trying to sift through.
As the new race leader, and one of the more mature riders in the peloton, whether he liked it or not, Millar found himself in the position of spokesman for his colleagues. And he did them proud.
Later, he issued a statement through his Garmin-Cervélo team which summed up eloquently the risk and reward nature of a beautiful, demanding and, yes, occasionally tragic sport.
Millar often divides opinion. Not today. He has behaved in a statesmanlike manner and helped the peloton and the Leopard Trek team come up with an appropriate way to proceed with the Giro d’Italia.
This isn’t the place to explore the ins and outs of the fall-out or his rebirth as an athlete who believes in clean sport and understands the corrosive effect doping has on cycling and the individual.
It is sufficient to say that all Millar’s experiences, good and bad, have made him the person he is today. And yesterday, when the Giro d’Italia needed a strong, calm and intelligent voice, Millar was able to provide it. That’s not to say that other riders could not have expressed the feelings of the peloton just as well.
But Millar’s journey has been tumultuous. The death of a fellow rider reminded not just him but every cyclist and every spectator of the risks they take every day.
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