LANNEMEZAN, France (VN) — Early in Thursday’s “queen stage” across the Pyrénées, the peloton paid its respects to one of its fallen.
Twenty years ago, Fabio Casartelli crashed into a concrete barrier while descending the Cat. 1 Col de Portet-d’Aspet during stage 15 of the 1995 Tour de France on July 18. In one of the most harrowing incidents in Tour history, the Italian died from a massive head injury. He was 24.
Among those in the middle of the unfolding drama was BMC Racing’s general manager Jim Ochowicz, who was then manager of the Motorola team. Speaking to VeloNews before the start of Thursday’s stage, Ochowicz said it’s a day he will never forget.
“The years have passed, but the sport has not forgotten him. The fact that we built the monument on the spot, and how the peloton pays its respect, that’s important,” Ochowicz said. “I had a lot of respect for Fabio. He was Olympic champion, he was just starting his pro career, and he was excited about racing, being at his first Tour de France.”
On that fateful day, Casartelli fell on the technically challenging descent, slamming the back of his head and neck into a concrete barrier with sharp edges that proved lethal. Since then, the row of individual cement pylons have been replaced with continuous barriers without edges that can prove so disastrous for cyclists and motorcyclists.
Despite efforts to revive him, Casartelli died en route to a hospital. The next day’s stage was neutralized, and the Motorola team led the peloton across the finish in a slow procession. Three days later, the now-banned Lance Armstrong won a stage that he dedicated in Casartelli’s honor.
“I think the whole peloton froze that day. This is a dangerous, tough sport, things like that can happen,” Ochowicz said. “It’s a memory I’ll never forget, and I don’t forget him. I’ve stayed in close contact with the family, and we’ll see them today at the monument.”
On Thursday, Ochowicz and others planned to drive ahead of the peloton to meet with Casartelli’s widow and son Marco, who was two months old when his father died. Tour officials also planned to attend the monument.
Casartelli’s death is a reminder at just how dangerous the sport of professional road racing can be. A helmet rule, introduced in 2003 following the death of Andrey Kivilev during Paris-Nice, has helped make the peloton safer. But the death of Wouter Weylandt at the 2011 Giro d’Italia is a reminder that the threat is constant.
“It’s gotten better. There was no helmet rule then,” he said. “Bikes are better, braking systems, wheels, tires, everything is safer. We just had someone pass at the Giro a few years ago, so it does happen, but thankfully, not very often.”
Racing on open roads, the peloton faces a variety of conditions and challenges each day, ranging from weather, rough road conditions, traffic furniture, fans and vehicles on the roadway, and the occasional unexpected surprise. In Wednesday’s stage, Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) had to steer around cows that had strayed onto the roadway as he dropped down the Col du Tourmalet.
Ochowicz has become outspoken about reducing the size of the peloton, one way he believes could lead to safer racing conditions.
“That’s what we are. Every street is our stadium. It’s a free sport, it doesn’t cost anything to see it, that’s what makes it unique,” Ochowicz said. “These guys go out there and risk their lives every day.”