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Guinness on Tour: Another death in the family

We had just cleared the 1069-meter summit of the Col de Portet d’Aspet when the memories of July 18, 1995 came flooding back. They were of Italian Olympic road champion Fabio Casartelli and his fatal crash on the Pyrénéan mountain’s descent in the Tour de France. Since then, the Tour has frequently returned to the forested mountainside where, incredibly, the concrete bollards that Casartelli hit his head on still menacingly line the sinewy descent. But today seemed different. Maybe it was because Samuel Abt of the New York Times was sitting beside me in the back seat. The last time he did

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The loss of Lauri Aus puts the peloton in mourning

By Rupert Guinness

Lauri Aus at Paris-Nice in 2000

Lauri Aus at Paris-Nice in 2000

Photo: AFP

We had just cleared the 1069-meter summit of the Col de Portet d’Aspet when the memories of July 18, 1995 came flooding back. They were of Italian Olympic road champion Fabio Casartelli and his fatal crash on the Pyrénéan mountain’s descent in the Tour de France.

Since then, the Tour has frequently returned to the forested mountainside where, incredibly, the concrete bollards that Casartelli hit his head on still menacingly line the sinewy descent. But today seemed different. Maybe it was because Samuel Abt of the New York Times was sitting beside me in the back seat. The last time he did that was on that fateful day eight years ago.

Maybe it was because there was so much on the line in the Tour overall, and that VeloNews European correspondent Andy Hood prompted the subconscious to think so by asking if Lance Armstrong would let the emotion of his lost former Motorola teammate inspire him again as it did to win a stage three days after Casartelli’s death? It is possible, as Alex Vinokourov has shown since his best mate and fellow Kazakh, Andreï Kivilev was killed in a crash during this year’s Paris-Nice race.

This stretch of the Pyrénées has more than its share of sad memories. While not fatal, a mark 4km down the descent of the Col de Menté — which today’s stage also passed — has left the mountain best remembered for being where in the 1971 Tour Spaniard Luis Ocaña, wearing the yellow jersey, crashed in pouring rain while chasing Belgian challenger Eddy Merckx down the mountainside. While Ocaña was rushed to the hospital, Merckx rode on to assume the overall leadership by default and inevitably went on to win the Tour.

So to say my senses were feeling a little sharp today as we climbed and twisted and then descended for up to five hours in the car was an understatement. Making it worse is that talk of tragedy only brought back the frightening fact that cycle racing is dangerous. Sadly, my senses were not wrong either. How I wish they were. For at 7 p.m., 90 minutes after the stage finished and we journalists were feverishly writing our copy of another exciting day, the bombshell of rider Lauri Aus’s death landed smack bang on our desks.

From Estonia, Aus, 32 and on the French AG2R team, had been living near Chambéry, here in France. He was not in the Tour this year. Instead, he was back near his native home in Tartu, the same Estonian village of teammate and friend Jaan Kirsipuu and training for the second half of the season. That is, until he was killed today when struck by a truck driven by someone who, according to reports, was under the influence of alcohol.

Suddenly, as always happens when tragedy strikes in a sport, the excitement of what has been a great Tour was stifled. Once again, as the sport has discovered all too many times this year, every heart and soul will struggle as they turn out the lights and try to sleep tonight. For those who are close to Lauri — his family, friends, teammates and peers — will somehow have to wake in the morning, get up and get on with life. We wish them all the strength.

Somehow though, the Tour will muster its strength and continue. As it did after Casartelli died in 1995. As the events and competitors tried to when up to three other riders were lost in tragic circumstances this year.

Before Aus’s death Sunday, cycling was still mourning the sorry losses this year of Kivilev (Cofidis) from a crash in Paris-Nice, Frenchman Fabrice Salanson (Brioches-La Boulangère) from sudden death asleep in his bed the night before the start of the Tour of Germany, and Italian Denis Zanette (Fassa Bortolo) who collapsed and died while leaving a dentist’s surgery for a check up.

Before tomorrow’s stage 15 begins in the town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre, the Tour will hold a minute’s silence for Aus. He may not have been on the Tour, but rest assured from now until the finish in Paris on Sunday, his spirit surely will. Rest assured, too, that as the peloton stands in silence Monday morning, the yellow jersey will be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

It is hard to be imagine the tragedy not having an effect on the race, at least for tomorrow, even if the overall lead is on the line. It did in 1995, the day after Casartelli died. Not only did the peloton donate all the day’s prize money to a trust fund set up for his family, it rode as a cortege for the entire day — the longest and hottest of that year’s Tour.

As they stand in silence the flood of emotions will be huge; especially with riders who are still dealing with death in the peloton this year. As if Aus’s passing is not enough, consider that from the top 10 overall, three riders will no doubt face the painful reopening of past wounds brought by the death of teammates: Armstrong over Casartelli, Vinokourov over Kivilev, Basso over Zanette. Add the pain that French riders and teams will still feel over Salanson’s passing, and it is easy to see why a peloton is in shock. But somehow, the wheels will get turning. And somehow fallen mates will make it to Paris.