The tight-knit cycling community suffered a tear in its fabric on Thursday when cross-country rider Burry Stander was killed while training in his native South Africa.
According to reports, Stander, who rode to a fifth-place finish in the London Olympic Games, was struck by a taxi near Shelly Beach, south of Durban, and died from his injuries. He was 25 years old.
The news reached teammate Todd Wells, who met Stander when the South African came to the United States as a junior, early Thursday. Wells recalled a young Stander winning a junior race in Snowmass, Colo., by 15 minutes. Stander soon joined Wells at GT, "and we've been great friends ever since," Wells told VeloNews. "We traveled the world together. We shared a lot of great success and failure. He was kind of this young punk kid from South Africa. But right from the beginning we just got along great."
Wells and Stander would later join Specialized together.
Stander was the 2009 U23 cross-country world champion and won the fifth round of the 2012 World Cup in Windham, N.Y. Wells said Stander could have stayed in South Africa and raced, but that the young rider was driven to be the best in the world. Stander certainly had the tools.
"He was fearless," Wells said. "He was a great descender. He had a lot of great skills and he would push the limits. He would probably crash one time per race. He wasn't afraid to take risks. And in addition to that, he was just a phenomenally talented athlete."
Wells couldn't recall a particular moment he cherished with his friend; there were just too many.
"We have so many moments," Wells said. "We spent the last six years ... we won't see each other for seven months, eight months ... right when we see each other, it's like no time had passed. We'd just pick up right where we left off."
Like many, countryman and road professional Daryl Impey took to Twitter to offer his condolences:
Rest in Peace Burry Stander – a true legend on and off the bike. Thoughts and prayers for his Cherise and his family. He’ll always be a hero
Canadian cross-country racer Geoff Kabush (Scott-3Rox) offered similar thoughts:
Shocked, saddened, speechless…Burry was a true personality that we’ll all miss dearly in many ways. Condolences to his family & friends.
The death is a blow to the South African cycling community, which was shocked in January 2011 by the death of top young professional road racer Carla Swart. Swart died from injuries suffered in a car/bike collision after she reportedly turned into traffic to retrieve her computer while riding in the Free State Province.
Swart's 2010 Commonwealth Games teammate Jay Thomson (MTN-Qhubeka) called Stander a true champion:
Sick to my stomach to hear of @africanmtbkid being killed out training today..True Champion..Another Great lost before there time..#RIPchamp
Stander won the overall at the Absa Cape Epic in 2011 and 2012 with partner Christoph Sauser. Sauser wrote on Twitter on Thursday that he was empty upon learning the news of Stander's death:
never felt so empty since my dad passed away when i was a kid. @africanmtbkid i will never ever forget you!
Wells tended a pained perspective.
"It happens to everyone. It happens to racers, recreational people. Some guy just crossing the street ... it's just kind of random," he said. "It’s part of life ... it happens to everyone, and it's part of life but it just sucks."
It's too early for Wells to think of riding and racing without Stander, but the impact the South African had on the American in their time as teammates was profound.
"For me personally, I feel like he kind of breathed life into my career as a racer. And he taught me to believe in myself and helped give me a lot of confidence," Wells said, his voice wavering. "I feel like without him I wouldn't have achieved what I've achieved. I probably wouldn't be racing. I'm really going to miss him."
Specialized's director of sports marketing, David Hyam, wrote in a letter that Stander's "legend will live on forever":
It is with great sadness that we bid farewell to our friend and cycling legend Burry, who was tragically snatched away in the prime of his life while training in his home town of Kwazulu-Natal this afternoon.
We have lost not only a friend, colleague and team-mate, but a true sportsman. He will long be remembered for his humility, his prowess and the gentle manner in which he conducted his life!
Our heartfelt sympathies, thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Cherise, his parents, family and all who were privileged to know this gentle giant.
Life is short, life is sweet but his legend will live on forever ...
Sincere condolences to all.
David Hyam and the Specialized S-Racing Team