Death in the peloton: On any given race day, tragedy can happen

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Midway through Paris-Roubaix, I started to hear chatter about a bad crash, and that a rider was being airlifted out in emergency. Somehow, I immediately knew he was no longer with us. After years of being at the races, one can feel when the tone is different.

We had a number of guests at Roubaix this year, mainly folks who work in marketing, communications, and branding at EF. Most of them had never seen a bike race before, and those who had knew just the basics of the sport.

I’ve grown close to them over the past few months, and so we were trading messages during the race, as we had been placed in different support cars to cover different sectors of pavé. I’d been writing, noting how sad I was that Sebastian Langeveld had crashed out of the race. But as any old-salt team manager would write or think, it wasn’t that bad: a concussion, a broken nose gushing blood all over the cobbles, and a shoulder sprain. “Really wasn’t that bad,” I texted to my new employers.

And then the news of Michael Goolaerts’ condition started coming through. I felt a chill when hearing it pass through professional cycling’s ever-working grapevine. “Looks like a kid has been killed in the race. Very sad. Such a cruel sport,” I wrote the folks in the other car. At the time, it was premature and almost half a day before the team confirmed the heartbreaking news.

What struck me was how numb I was to the news. My compatriot was absolutely shocked and couldn’t believe I was uttering such a thing before official news had come out.

Arriving at one pavé sector, I saw an old friend holding a pair of wheels and some bottles at the side of the road. He’s worked in cycling for years, and we began to talk about the rumors circulating about Goolaerts. Was it the heart failure that caused the crash, or the crash that caused the heart failure? No one knew, but immediately the response was, “Yes, but that’s cycling.” That’s exactly what I was thinking, too. Unfortunately.

Over the years, I’ve been to hospitals countless times, read medical reports of horrible injuries many more times than that. I’ve seen countless roadside scenes that I would never be able to describe. But that’s cycling.

We, the old guard, are so vaccinated against feeling in cycling. A crash with a concussion, a broken nose and collarbone is seen as lucky. Healthy, really. “He’s fine” will be the response to anyone who asks, and then the follow up is really how many weeks before he can begin training again.

These thoughts, words, and responses seem truly insane to someone not tenured in the world of bicycle racing. And I guess that’s because they are. The callouses built up over the years of tragedies in the sport lessen the pain of losing a young rider, and we all try to protect ourselves from the reality that on any given race day something like this can happen. We all struggle with this; we all wrestle it differently.

The risk is part of it. The part no one likes to look at or acknowledge. But it’s there.

In Dan Coyle’s 2005 book, “Lance Armstrong’s War,” he figures out that cycling is statistically the most dangerous sport in the world when it comes to death and serious injury. But we don’t like to talk about that. It takes away from the images of a colorful and cheery peloton rolling through fields of sunflowers. So we push it out of our minds. We add another layer of skin. “That’s cycling.”

Waking up the next morning, away from the helicopters, cameras, media, and excitement of the race; it is silent. Hours later, it still is. Knowing that one of your family has passed makes it all stop. You imagine if it had been one of your own riders. You think about how his mother must feel. You imagine the pain of having to call the family and tell them the news.

You think about all the ways this could have been prevented, about how his family will cope. You think “that’s cycling” just doesn’t wash.

And then you feel – truly feel.

About the author

Jonathan Vaughters is CEO of EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale. He is a founding member of and sits on the board of directors for Velon, a business venture formed by WorldTour teams to foster longer-term stability for its members and the sport. He formerly served as the president of the Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels (AIGCP), an association of the world’s top professional cycling teams. In 2014, he completed a master’s in business administration at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business and earned his pilot’s license. A Colorado native, Vaughters resides in Denver with his son.

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