On 9 May 2011, Belgian cyclist Wouter Weylandt fell to his death while descending the Bocco mountain pass during the third stage of the Giro d’Italia. Travelling at a speed of up to 80 km/h, Weylandt reportedly lost control of his bike after colliding with a small wall to the side of the road.
According to a witness, Portuguese competitor Manual Cordoso, Weylandt had fallen behind the group. While looking behind him for other dropped riders, his left pedal made heavy contact with the wall, propelling him off the edge of a 20 metre cliff on the other side of the road.
Doctor Giovanni Tredici reported that by the time he was attended to by emergency medical staff, Weylandt was unconscious with fractures to his skull and face. Forty minutes of cardiac massage treatment failed to resuscitate him.
In response to the tragedy, British cyclist Mark Cavendish tweeted, ‘things like this shouldn't happen’.
Yet the nature of road bicycle racing, where large groups of riders speed down narrow, winding roads on mountain side locations, clearly carries a high level of risk.
Weylandt’s death was not the first to occur during the Giro – it was the fourth death in this race since its inception. In addition, in 2009, Pedro Horrillo fell 60 metres over a guard rail into a ravine during the eighth stage of the Giro leaving him unconscious and suffering serious injuries.
The circumstances of Weylandt’s death raise questions about safety measures for any sporting activity which requires the demarcation of a ‘track’ or ‘field of play’ from inherently unsafe physical settings. Similarly there are also other issues that must be addressed regarding access by members of the public to the field of play.
Defining and demarcating the track for a cycling event inevitably involves confining riders to a narrow space. Accidental deviation from the track as a result of colliding with an obstacle or another rider is a risk which is difficult to mitigate in a mountainous setting.
The incident at the Giro demonstrates that where the edge of a cliff is used as one of the track’s boundaries, the consequences of riders digressing from the track can be catastrophic. It highlights the critical importance of considering the specifications of the particular event site and the type of racing that is suitable for such locations.
As indicated by Alberto Contador, former Tour de France winner, the lining of precarious descents with physical barriers, such as netting used to barricade alpine ski runs, is one such control which could be considered.
Additionally, the size and shape of the track space must be appropriate to safely accommodate participant numbers – in some circumstances, consideration may be given to limiting competitor numbers.