Friday, June 24, 2011



Today, the Belgian federation strongly expressed its opinion that race number 108, which Wouter Weylandt wore at the time of his death in the 2011 Giro d’ Italia, should not be taken out of circulation in tribute as some have suggested. Thank goodness someone spoke up, and thank goodness it’s the KBWB that’s putting a foot down. Since Weylandt was one of its own, its voice should carry some weight in stopping a well-meaning but misguided movement.

Giro d'Italia organizer RCS has already elected to retire the number from its race. That’s their choice, and a fitting gesture, I suppose. And for a single race, it works. But as far as the effort to have the number removed any more broadly from bike racing? I’m with the Belgians. It just doesn’t make sense – from a sporting perspective or from a tribute perspective – and it’s best to quash this would-be custom before it spreads.

Theoretically, and probably in practice, the retirement of 108 works just fine. In professional cycling races, teams are typically given numbers in blocks of 10, but actual team size is usually no more than nine riders. So with the elimination of number 108, the 11th team on the roster, which would use the block of numbers beginning with 101, could just use the previously unused 109 for most races, or the seldom-seen 110 for grand tours, in which teams field a ninth man. (The world championship, where some countries have more than 10 riders obviously screws up the norms, but it always has, 108 or no 108.)

But where number retirement in cycling really falls down is in the sustainability of the custom. We all hope, of course, that no more riders will ever lose their lives in cycling competition. Unfortunately, it will happen. When it does, what happens if that rider is wearing number 102? Take 102 and 108 out of the mix and, all of a sudden, you don't have enough usable numbers in that block to field a full team in a grand tour. I suppose you could eliminate the whole block and add another on the end (i.e., remove 101-110 and add 221-230), but a cluttered graveyard of gaps and adjustments just creates more problems. And what happens when a rider wearing the traditional ending-in-1 number of a team leader perishes? Do you retire those prized designations, or only those of the rank-and-file? Not to mention that the idea of every start sheet forever more being pock-marked by missing numbers is just plain morbid. There are reasons that, in most cultures, we don’t bury our dead outside our front doorsteps.

The question of what to do when that next loss comes also raises the ugly issue of deciding who is deemed worthy of such remembrance. Weylandt was young, talented, popular, and riding at the top level of the sport. The urge to find a way to remember him comes quickly, easily, and organically. But what happens when a less-loved rider perishes in competition? What happens if the next is Ricardo Ricco, or any of the riders currently regarded as the black hats of professional cycling? Ricco’s not the likable figure that Weylandt was, from all accounts of both, really, but he’s still a man and a father, and still a cyclist, no? If the sport chooses to honor the dead simply by virtue of their being fellow cyclists, it has to give equal remembrance to its perceived villains and heroes. A professional license is the standard for entry, not a righteous or well-received life. And if cycling tries, through efforts such as number retirement, to remember its fallen according to the quality of the life they've led, then I think that’s terribly misguided, and a judgment the sport has no place making.

The issue of who warrants formal remembrance in the sport has myriad thorny offshoots. What happens when it’s a continental pro racing in a low-ranked event in Asia that dies in competition? Will his number be retired from the Tour de France, or from a kermesse in Belgium? Probably not, but again, he’s still a pro cyclist, no? Should we really choose to remember the dead based on watts-at-threshold, palmares, or the UCI ranking of the races death visits? Of course, the world at large does remember the dead differently based on all manner of similar metrics – there are reasons that, 100 years from now, long-dead George Clooney will be far better remembered than long-dead me. But within cycling, and particularly in dealing with death, the sport – by which I mean organizers, events, governing bodies, and the like – shouldn’t choose favorites among its children.

All of the above arguments shouldn’t even be relevant, though, because they assume that a race number could be a good way to remember a cyclist. And that isn’t so. In the context of the ongoing Giro d’ Italia back in May, referencing 108 was a fitting and useful way to speak of Weylandt, to paint on banners and signs and roadways, to mark tweets and to raise money for his growing family. But beyond the context of a given race, race numbers are a transient, disposable identification. If they weren’t, cycling would have no use for safety pins. Weylandt wasn’t number 108 like Dale Earnhardt was number 3 or Pat Tillman was number 40. Weylandt was number 108 at the Giro simply because his last name started with a W, not a C. In the race before the Giro he was a different number, and in the race after it he more than likely would have been another number still, and he probably wouldn't have given any of it a second thought, unless perhaps the number was 13. To tie his memory to something as fleeting as his race number on the day of his death not only creates an administrative and precedential mess, it shortchanges the memory itself.

I say all of this not because I don’t think Weylandt should be remembered. He should, just like Fabio Casartelli and Andrei Kivilev and Thomas Casarotto and all the others before him deserve to be remembered, both as cyclists and as people. But altering a rote, administrative aspect of the sport just isn’t the way to remember any rider. I have every confidence that Weylandt's memory will be honored in far better ways by fans, and certainly by those who knew him best, whether those ways are public or not. And if we stamp out the number retirement concept now, we’ll avoid that terribly uncomfortable moment when the decision is made, in months or years and for a variety of reasons, to put it back on the start list again.


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