'His best years were still coming'

A young athlete just approaching his prime died Monday, almost exactly a year to the day after one of his best moments in the sport.

Belgium's Wouter Weylandt crashed on a descent in Stage 3 of the Giro d'Italia, and the cycling world watched with horror as medical personnel tried without success to revive the 26-year-old. He was airlifted off the course and never regained consciousness.

Tuesday would have been the one-year anniversary of Weylandt's Stage 3 win in the same race, his second victory in a three-week Grand Tour. His passing is a reminder of the terrible tightrope, far thinner than the slender tire of a road bike, that elite cyclists tread every day. Deaths in major races are mercifully rare, and that is a tribute to the remarkable athletic and psychological gifts of the athletes in this sport.

The risks in road cycling at this level are truly beyond comprehension for those of us who don't do it for a living. We tend to focus on the strength, endurance and tactics required in the climbs and the reflexes it takes to survive and prosper in bunch sprints because they easily translate to television, which is how 99 percent of us see races.

But there is absolutely no way to convey what these athletes do when they go downhill. The speed, the body control, the fluidity, the instinct and science of picking a line -- they make it look easy. Some of them even revel in it. We talk about "making up time" or "catching back on" in descents as if it's routine, but five minutes as a passenger in a team car in the Dauphine Libere race in the Alps years ago was enough to convince me that it is the most underappreciated aspect of the sport. Perhaps the only non-riders who have anything resembling a real sense of it are the motorcycle drivers who parallel the peloton's moves and the photographers clinging to the backs of the motos to capture the action.

Monday's course was benignly described as a "medium mountain stage" in descriptions of the Giro. Riders know full well how perilous "medium" descents can be, especially in the first week of a Grand Tour when legs are fresh, speeds are high and teams with sprinters are trying to keep the bunch together. Details on exactly what happened may never be completely reconstructed, but we know the descent of the Passo del Bocco, about 15 miles from the finish, was very technical -- cycling-speak for narrow, twisting and requiring almost inhuman focus. Race maps and even race radios can only go so far in helping riders anticipate the myriad dangers, and even the most able bike-handler can be undone by bad luck or the tiniest flaw in form.

No rider gets to this level without a strong ego and tremendous pride in their nerve. It's amazing to recall that helmet use was optional in professional cycling until eight years ago. It wasn't until the death of charismatic Kazakh rider Andrei Kivilev in the Paris-Nice race that the UCI, cycling's governing body, implemented the rule. The 2003 Giro d'Italia was the first race in which headgear was mandatory in UCI-sanctioned races.

There are too many hearts broken by this tragedy to mention. Weylandt's partner is expecting their first child in September; the couple recently visited the United States on vacation. My thoughts turn naturally to Garmin-Cervelo's Tyler Farrar, who described Weylandt as his best friend in the peloton. Farrar, born a few months before Weylandt in Wenatchee, Wash., moved to Ghent, Belgium, Weylandt's hometown, as a young professional and immersed himself in the language, culture and cycling ethos of the city. The two were frequent training companions. Farrar, whose surgeon father Ed lost the use of his lower body in a bike-car accident three years ago, has already endured more than his share of heartache. I'm certain he will handle the tragedy with his characteristic reserve and dignity, but the impact on him is inestimable.

Farrar said he was "unbearably saddened'' by the loss.

"As many know, he was my friend, training partner, and in many ways, another brother to me," Farrar said in an e-mailed statement. "His death marks an irreparable change in my life, but, more importantly, in the lives of his family and most loved. Wouter was one of the kindest, funniest, and most admirable people I have ever had the opportunity to know and his death is a tragedy to his family, his friends, and to the sport as a whole.

"I can only convey my deepest of sympathies to everyone who cared about him as deeply as I did, especially his family, his friends, his team and his fans -- we celebrate his life and mourn his death in equal measure. Wouter was and is the soul of this sport we all love -- an athlete who sacrificed himself for the better of many and a champion who celebrated each glory as a victory for his family, his team, and his friends and fans. I will remember him always, and will always strive to do him proud, as he has always done for the sport and people he loves."

Weylandt was a versatile rider whose dream was to win the Paris-Roubaix cobblestone epic, in which he finished 11th in 2009. He'd had some success in smaller classic races, as well as winning stages in the Giro and the Vuelta d'Espana, and showed he was capable of supporting another sprinter or pursuing his own stage win.

Veteran Belgian cycling journalist Hugo Coorevits, who knew him well, was struggling with his own emotions as he tried to capture Weylandt's career and personality when we spoke Monday afternoon.

"It's hard to comprehend that he is gone -- his best years were still coming," Coorevits said.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.