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by Shane Stokes
May 4, 2017
Photography by Cor Vos, Shane Stokes
Almost exactly six years after losing her brother Wouter in a crash in the Giro d’Italia, Elke Weylandt has welcomed the news that the organisers have abandoned plans for a best descender competition in the race.
The 26 year old was killed in a tragic accident on May 9 2011, crashing on the descent of the Passo del Bocco close to the finish of stage three of the Giro d’Italia. He was the fourth rider in the history of the race to lose his life.
Weylandt was dismayed at plans unveiled this week to introduce the new contest, which would have seen riders timed on downhill sectors during ten different stages and given cash prizes on each day and also for an overall descender classification.
However, after voiced opposition from the cycling world plus resistance from the UCI, race director Mauro Vegni said on Wednesday that the competition would not now take place.
Speaking to CyclingTips afterwards, Weylandt said that the move was the correct one.
“I think it is the only right decision,” she said. “Almost the whole peloton was against it. Not only the riders, but also the staff around them. A lot of DS’s reacted that they were against it, that they thought it was a silly idea and that it was crazy to put more risks on the dangerous parts of cycling. Saying that it doesn’t need this extra push.
“Personally I am very happy. I think they reacted really well. It is good, because also the UCI intervened as well as Tom Van Damme pushed for this. Also Brian Cookson apparently pushed for this.
“I think the whole peloton and the whole cycling world gave the right signal. RCS made a good decision listening to that signal. I’m personally very happy. It is a really good decision.”
Prior to the RCS Sport reversal, Weylandt spoke of her frustration at the news that the race wanted to encourage riders to compete on downhill sections.
“I was very surprised, actually,” she told CyclingTips on Tuesday. “It seems like a weird thing to give a prize for what in any case is the most dangerous part of cycling, the downhill. There are so many guys crashing really, really hard on the downhill.
“Obviously I lost my brother on a downhill. Only last week Chad Young died because he crashed on a downhill. It seems to weird to add something even more dangerous to that. Even though I hope a lot of riders will say, ‘I will just go on the descent like I normally do,’ probably there will be some guys thinking, ‘hey, I am a really good descender. So why not try to go for this prize?’
“And then maybe they risk their own lives, or maybe they risk someone else’s lives.”
Weylandt is involved in the sport, acting as the marketing and communications manager with Trek-Segafredo. She made clear that her comments were her own.
“Obviously that is my personal opinion. It is not the team’s perspective. I think, for myself and because of my own experience, for me this makes absolutely no sense.
“I just don’t understand why you would do that.”
Michele Acquarone took over as race director in the months after Wouter Weylandt’s death and said on Tuesday that he too was puzzled by the competition.
“Pro riders are gods on bikes,” he told CyclingTips. “They can manage speed better than anyone else. I love speed in a velodrome. It’s a kind of magic when they ride so fast against gravity’s laws.
“On the street everything’s different. Riders risk a lot because streets are full of stupid, unpredictable dangers. Cars, motorbikes, tifosi, sidewalks, traffic dividers, low walls, etc. We know that riders are scared of nothing. They ride under the rain, the snow, on dirty roads. They are full of courage and they just ride. They just ride fast and faster because that’s their mission.
“Organizers must always take care of their stars limiting every useless and stupid risk. The competition for the fastest descender goes exactly in the opposite way.”
Reacting on Wednesday to the news of the competition’s shelving, he was concise.
“It’s a good and wise decision.”
Trek-Segafredo press officer Elke Weylandt.
Some of those who sought to understand the Giro’s competition pointed to the Pirelli sponsorship. Running pro races isn’t easy, particularly when you have other events during the year to also fund. Maximising the income from races like the Giro keeps that event afloat and also provides money for RCS Sports’ other events.
Although Weylandt is understandably emotionally invested in rider safety, both because of her brother’s tragic passing and also her concern for the Trek-Segefredo riders and others, she showed an understanding of RCS Sport’s position.
That comes perhaps from her own marketing role.
“From my personal perspective, I wouldn’t have done it in the first place. But I get that they got a sponsor for this prize,” she said on Tuesday, prior to the competition’s cancellation. “I understand that from a business perspective now it has become really difficult to withdraw that prize. But it would be a statement, I think, if they listened to the reactions.
“I have been following it a bit on twitter and I have not seen any rider reacting in a positive way to this prize. I think that means that they will be careful. Well, I guess – I hope – they are always careful. But I think that means if no rider reacts in a positive way to this prize, I think that means that they will not change their behaviour on the downhill and they keep racing like they used to. I hope so.”
At the time of her brother’s passing the Giro d’Italia underlined that it would never forget him, nor what happened to him. As a symbol of that, it removed his race number from the dossards handed out to riders, keeping that slot vacant.
Did she feel that the best descender competition had reflected a backtracking by the Giro on its pledge never to forget the fallen rider?
“Ah, she said, pausing. “That is really a difficult question. In a way they have not forgotten my brother. The number 108 is never a number again in the Giro. So they have not forgotten my brother. But this seems maybe a bit like, ‘okay, moving on, we lost a rider in the downhill but now we have found a sponsor to help promote something.’ It feels strange. For me it feels strange.
“When I read about it, I thought, ‘no, they must be kidding.’ But obviously it is true. For me, personally, it is a crazy idea. It is really crazy. Because if one guy really wants to go for the prize and takes risks, too much risks, it is just not worth it.
“I saw one tweet already saying, ‘isn’t cycling already dangerous enough?’ And I agree. Because only yesterday in Belgium there was a documentary about Ayrton Senna. Obviously that touches me. You should not die for your sport, first of all.
“But then I was thinking, ‘wow, in Formula One there are less casualties than in cycling.’ Okay, obviously there are more cyclists than Formula One drivers, but still it is such a dangerous sport. So why then add some more risks and some more pressure on the most dangerous parts of a rather dangerous sport?
“The sport is dangerous. We have to acknowledge that. But then add something that raises the pressure and the risks on the most dangerous part of it? That for me doesn’t make sense.”
Weylandt is pleased that common sense has been arrived at and that RCS Sport was able to recognise the concern and take corrective steps. She will hope that no other race organisers will be tempted to have such a contest.
Her message is that cycling already has enough attractive elements without needing to amp up the possibility of serious falls.
“Taking extra risk is not only dangerous for the rider himself, but also for the people standing next to the road. Also for other riders. Because if you crash and you are with someone in the peloton, it can be dangerous as well. Perhaps you crash and somebody goes over you.
“I don’t think we need to add pressure in any part of cycling. The sport is more that beautiful enough and more than spectacular enough. So there is no need to add that extra pressure.”