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WILCOCKSON: REMEMBERING MENTORS, COLLEAGUES & RACERS

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Nov 11, 2015 – “Lest we forget” is the eternal refrain of November 11—Veterans’ Day in the U.S., Remembrance Day in Britain—which marks the end of World War I when the 1918 armistice between Germany and the Allied Forces was signed near Compiègne, France, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It could also be the refrain of the Day of the Dead, celebrated November 2, when Mexicans gather to remember and pray for friends and family members who have died.

Words/Photos by John Wilcockson

This is also the time of the year in our sport when we remember those who have passed “down the road” before us, especially those who died early. First thoughts go to my late father, Arthur Wilcockson, who died at 49 from heart failure shortly after his Saturday morning bike commute. Dad (pictured above on a fixed gear bike) raced in time trials at all distance from 25 miles to 24 hours, and was a founding member of the Redhill Cycling Club—which celebrated its 70th anniversary this year, and this past week was the subject of a four-page story in Britain’s Cycling Weekly magazine.

Dad’s memory inspired me to take up cycling. I joined his old club and spent some of the happiest years of my life racing in the red-gold-and-green Redhill jersey. There were also some tragic times. At a Hampshire road race on roads open to traffic, my teammate Dave Cosson was killed after being hit by a vehicle pulling a caravan/trailer. We subsequently organized an annual memorial race for Dave that attracted many of the country’s top pros. Around the same time another friend and club-mate, Lloyd Coward, whom I’d raced with in France a few years earlier, died of cancer.

As the editor of the club magazine, I spent many an evening at the home of local cycling official Basil Chilcott, typing stencils to run off copies of the magazine on his mimeograph printer. A frequent visitor to the house was Robin Buchan, the fiancé of Basil’s elder daughter and one of British cycling’s top amateur racers. Robin won the national 24-hour TT championship with a distance of 483.84 miles and in April 1976 he was preparing for an attempt on the iconic Land’s End to John O’Groats record, which follows an 874-mile course from the southwest tip of England to the northernmost part of Scotland. Getting in the miles for the attempt on one of his after-work training sessions, even though he was fighting a pneumonia virus, Robin, 42, collapsed and died.

Then, after I became a full-time cycling journalist, I was shaken by the deaths of three other colleagues. One was David Saunders, a sportswriter, race speaker and television commentator, who was one of the close-knit group of British journalists I traveled with on the domestic race circuit, including the two-week Tour of Britain Milk Race and the weeklong Scottish Milk Race. One morning in 1978 when he was driving alongside the River Thames in London, David was killed when his car overturned. Around the same time, another journalist in our group, Ken Evans, the editor of Cycling Weekly, died of cancer. And then my editorial mentor, J. B. “Jock” Wadley, succumbed to cancer in 1981 at age 67—I’d worked for him at two cycling magazines and when he took up riding long-distance time trials I volunteered to be his support driver, soigneur and feeder in a couple of his 24-hour races. As with my dad, I think about Jock (standing with his Lejeune bike above) practically every day of my life.

Two decades later, two other colleagues I worked closely with met early deaths within three months of each other. Rich Carlson, to whom I’d handed over the reins of editing Winning magazine in 1987, was only 49 when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I visited with Rich at Allentown’s Lehigh Valley Hospital in May 1998. We chatted about the Giro d’Italia he’d been watching on TV and the upcoming Tour de France; he died before that Tour started. At the time, I’d been working for a decade with another veteran journalist, Matthew Mantel, who was writing freelance feature stories and incisive interviews for the two magazines I’d been editing, Inside Cycling and VeloNews. It was a shock to get a phone call in mid-September 1998 informing me that Matthew had been killed in a car crash near his home in Rhinebeck, New York. He was 56.

Another journalist I worked with extensively in the 1980s and ’90s, Bill Katovsky, died unexpectedly late last month, at age 58, a few weeks after surgery for spinal stenosis. Bill, who lived in Marin County, California, was an idiosyncratic writer and entrepreneur. In 1982, he founded Triathlete, a magazine I later helped him edit when it was acquired by Belgian publisher Offpress—where I worked for Winning before moving to the U.S. to help start Inside Communications. After acquiring Triathlon Today in 1993, we turned it into a magazine titled Inside Triathlon and hired Bill as its first editor. Besides being an editor, columnist and author, he was an enthusiastic runner and long-distance cyclist and twice finished the Hawaii Ironman.

OTHERS WE REMEMBER

It’s rare that someone dies when they are racing. Sadly, when tragedy comes to races, the victim is usually young, often in their 20s. That was the case with my teammate Dave Cosson I mentioned above, and also the young rider on the Czechoslovakia national team who collided with a vehicle and died on a Sussex stage of the Milk Race I was reporting in the early-1970s. And how can any of us forget the death of Motorola team rider and reigning Olympic road champion Fabio Casartelli, 25, after he crashed in a high-speed pileup when descending the Col de Portet d’Aspet at the 1995 Tour de France?

More recently, six members of the Australian women’s national team were hit head-on by a car driven by an 18-year-old female driver when they were scouting the opening stage of the 2005 Thüringen Rundfahrt in Germany—team leader Amy Gillett, 29, lost her life. And at the 2011 Giro d’Italia, Belgian racer Wouter Weylandt, 26, was killed when he crashed into a retaining wall descending the Passo del Bocco.

Thankfully, fatal accidents in the world’s major races are infrequent. But bike racing is a dangerous sport, especially at the amateur level, when road races and time trials are not always held on closed roads and mountain-bike races often present high-risk challenges. With increasing participation in competitive events—including gran fondos and enduros—it seems that serious crashes are also on the increase. As a sort of litmus test, I did a quick (unscientific) Web search for cyclists who have died at races in 2015. Here are details of some of the accidents I uncovered:

March 2015: Amateur cyclist Junior Heffernan, 23, died after colliding with a car in the early-season Severn Bridge Road Race in Gloucestershire, England. The coroner gave a verdict of accidental death because Heffernan had crossed the centerline on a fast descent, overtaking the peloton, and in attempting to avoid the slow-moving car coming up the hill he crashed into its windshield. It was the first death in the event’s 41-year history.

June 2015: Mark Hinkel, 57, a lawyer, died 3 miles from the finish of the Horsey Hundred century ride in Kentucky after a head-on collision with a pickup truck, The driver, 29 who admitted he’d drunk six beers and been smoking marihuana, was charged with murder. It was the first fatality in the event’s 38-year history.

June 2015: A Cat. 3 racer, Jason Catley, 44, died after colliding with another racer and crashing into a metal road sign in the sprint finish at an East Midlands Road Race League event near Grantham, England. A civil engineer and father of four, Catley also took part in fundraising events such as L’Étape du Tour.

July 2015: Carlos “Geno” Silva, 48, a Brazilian police officer from Brasilia was killed in a pileup after another rider’s tire blew out on a high-speed descent in Fairfax County, Virginia. He was competing in a road race at the 2015 World Police & Fire Games, an event that hosts some 60 sports every two years.

August 2015: On the third stage of the eight-stage Big Mountain Enduro World Series in Crested Butte, Colorado, expert mountain biker and snowboarder Will Olson, 40, died from massive chest trauma after crashing close to the finish. He was racing down a steep single-track trail known as the Star Pass. It was Olson’s last race before he and his girlfriend were due to move from Vail Valley to Vermont, where another job in the hotel industry awaited him.

August 2015: Highway engineer, Ironman triathlete and mountain biker Scott Ellis, 55, died of an apparent heart attack while riding up the Power Line climb in his 19th Leadville Trail 100 race. It was the first fatality in the popular event’s 21-year history.

September 2015: Ross Hansen, 54, from Patchogue, New York, died after crashing into a tree on a downhill section of the Shenandoah Mountain 100, part of the national ultra endurance mountain bike race series, in the heavily wooded George Washington National Forest near Stokesville, Virginia. It was the first death in the series’ 11-year history. Hansen was a technology expert with military electronic software manufacturer Peerless Instrument and, according to his obituary, “his garage was full of bikes and his house full of guitars.”

September 2015: Californian Allen Brumm, 57, died in the 18-mile Esparto Time Trial near Sacramento, California, after a head-on collision with a car that was overtaking another competitor riding in the opposite direction on the out-and-back course. A software developer with Oracle for 21 years, Brumm was a longtime member of the Alto Velo club south of San Francisco.

October 2015: Edward Lund, 54, died of head injuries in Levi’s GranFondo, near Santa Cruz, California after he missed a turn on a fast downhill and hit a metal road sign. It was the first fatality in the event’s seven-year history. An art curator, art installation aficionado and teacher in Fresno, California, Lund was a lifelong cyclist after working in a bike shop at age 14.

Perhaps a thorough inquiry into the causes of fatal and near-fatal accidents should be conducted by the cycling authorities to see how safety can be improved at all types of competitions—road races, time trials, mountain bike races and mass participation rides. With more cyclists taking part in events every year, and novices sometimes riding among seasoned veterans, it may be time to limit the sizes of road race pelotons, implement stricter qualifications for those entering gran fondos and sportives, and work toward closed roads or better traffic controls in amateur road races and time trials.

Nobody wants fellow riders, mentors, colleagues or friends to reach a premature end to their lives, but let’s never forget them during these November days of remembrance.

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You can follow John at @johnwilcockson.