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David L. Stanley

People Shouldn't Die Racing Bikes

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David L StanleyDavid Stanley is an experienced cycling writer. His work has appeared in Velo, Velo-news.com, Road, Peloton, and the late, lamented Bicycle Guide (my favorite all-time cycling magazine). He blogs regularly for Dads Roundtable. Here's his Facebook page. He is also a highly regarded voice artist with many audiobooks to his credit, including McGann Publishing's The Olympics' 50 Craziest Stories and Cycling Heroes. And there is his masterful telling of his bout with skin cancer, "Melanoma: It Started With a Freckle".

 

Bicycle racing has always been a risky sport. Training on the open roads leaves you at the mercy of motorists; whether careless, drunk, or plain mean-spirited, nearly 5,000 cyclists die at the hands of motor vehicles each year in the US. Cycling in the U.S. means you accept the risks of training on public roads in a nation where cyclists are looked upon as second-class citizens, and drunken driving is too often treated with a laissez-faire attitude. But death during a race is a rarity.

Crashing is not a rarity. Balanced on perhaps one square inch of rubber, in the midst of 80 or more racing cyclists who all want to occupy the same space near the front of the peloton at speeds in excess of 25 mph, the risks of crashing from fatigue, carelessness, a crack in the road, or a discarded water bottle are high. It is not possible to race for long without hitting the deck.

Road rash hurts. As professional team manager Jonathon Vaughters famously said, “Drive down the road at 55 kph. Strip down to your underwear. Jump out.” Shattered clavicles are the cyclist’s rite of passage, the torn labrum or rotator cuff a constant threat, the fractured navicular as common among cyclists as the torn ACL amongst football players.

My racing career began in 1979. In my second race, I crashed. Over the intervening years, I suspect I have left enough skin on roads across the US to re-cover one of the infamous plasticized humans on display in museums. Collarbone. Torn labrum. Ruptured bursa. Dozens of stitches. Much like hockey players, cyclists wear their scars as badges of honor.

But death during the race is a rarity. Death has me gutted.

On March 26, 2016, Daan Myngheer, a Belgian on the French Roubaix Lille Metropole team lost contact with the main group of riders during the closing 25 km of the spring race, Criterium International. He stated he didn’t feel good, so he climbed into the ambulance. He had a heart attack. An apparently healthy 22-year-old man, in the peak of condition, he died on March 28 in hospital.

My son is 24.

On March 28, 2016, Antoine Demoitie died during the Gent-Wevelgem Belgian classic. In a small group of riders, four men crashed at 70 kph. A follow motorcycle, driven by an experienced hand, with a race official on board, crashed into Demoitie. He was a 25-year-old man.

My son is 24.

On March 30, 2016, in the US, Randall Fox, a 29-year-old doctoral student at Oregon State, was racing in a collegiate race near Black Diamond, Wash. He crashed on a descent, struck a guardrail and died from the impact.

My son is 24.

On April 23, 2017, a 21-year-old rider for Axeon Hagens Berman, Chad Young, crashed on a descent during the Tour de Gila. He suffered severe head wounds. Five days later, surrounded by family, Chad died.

On Friday, April 21, 2017, one of the most popular men in the professional ranks, Michele Scarponi finished strongly in the Tour of the Alps. On Saturday morning, the 37-year-old man, known for taking his parrot along on his shoulder on bike rides about town, went for a short training ride. He was struck by a van a few miles from his home in Filottrano, Italy. His twin sons will grow up without their father; his wife will raise them alone.

Michele Scarponi

Michele Scarponi winning the first stage of the Tour of the Alps, days before he was killed by a van.

In all my years racing, I never, not once, contemplated my own death before, during, or after a race. I accepted that I might crash. I knew that I would crash. I knew that when I did, I would get up, and like all other racers, I’d get back on the bike after smacking the tarmac. I saw barricades around light posts. I saw mattresses against the rears of parked automobiles that had not been towed from the race course.

As an old hand racer, I am certain that Young, Scarponi, Myngheer, Demoitie, and Fox did not consider death as a possible outcome. As an athlete, you must view yourself as ten feet tall and bulletproof to succeed. Death during the race is a rarity.

But I suspect their parents saw it as a possibility. My son is 24. I remember when I first let him ride his bike the 1 km through the subdivision to his grandparents’ house. He put on his helmet, and I walked down to the end of the driveway with him.

“Call me when you get there,” I instructed.
“Come on, dad. It’s like, right there.”

He pointed down the street and around the corner.
I must have looked exasperated.

“Okay, I’ll call,” he said.
“As soon as you get there.”
“Sheesh. Yes. As soon as I get there,” he said, complete with a roll of the eye and a shake of the head.

I watched until his little tousled head under his red helmet and his blue bike rolled out of sight. I raced into the house, and stood by the phone, heart pounding until three minutes later when the phone rang.

I heard his eight-year-old voice pipe, “It’s cool, Dad. I’m here.”

I’m gutted for the Scarponi family, the Youngs, the Demoities, the Foxes, and the Myngheers. They watched their sons, their husbands, their fathers, roll down the street. Their phones will never ring.

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