After a late night meeting with race director Angelo Zomegnan, the plan had been laid out that indeed the race would go on, and each team would ride 10k at a time at the front of the group and then with 1k to go, race leader and Maglia Rosa David Millar (Garmin-Cervelo) would usher the Leopard-Trek team to the front to finish off the race. The stage is to be officially neutralized. Firstly, at the behest of Wouter Weylandt’s family, the Leopard-Trek team will indeed stay in the race after today’s stage 4. Other riders have decided to leave after this stage, including Tyler Farrar, who was very close to Weylandt, his training partner and friend in Ghent, Belgium. Hard to blame anyone wishing to leave and mourn the passing of Wouter Weylandt.
The peloton paid respects to the Leopard-Trek team before the start, passing through a special fenced off section by the team bus to offer condolences. As the peloton gathered at the start, the Leopard-Trek team was last to arrive greeted by applause from the crowd and they were ushered to the front of the mass of riders.
On what would have normally been a prime chance for the sprinters, today’s ride rightly looked more like a very somber club ride. A saddened procession of brightly clad riders weaved their way southward to Livorno, but the mood didn’t match the colorful exterior. The riders weren’t talking too much. There were no smiles. There were lots of pensive looks and heavy hearts as the group pedaled on, each team taking their pulls en masse at a respectful speed and orderly fashion.
With 25km to go, Radioshack set the respectful tempo at the front. It had been determined in the planning that the teams would take the front in reverse order of the team classification at the time of Wouter’s passing. Taking over for them came the HTC team, pedaling in a 2×2 pace line at the front.
At 17km to go, the peloton crawled over the final Cat 4 climb of the day, the Castelaccio. Had this been a normal day, this climb would have been the last chance to slip away from the group to disrupt the sprinter’s affair. Here today instead the riders inched over the climb, seemingly overgeared as Androni-Giacatolli lead the group. The crowd lined the streets, but showed their support not so much by vociferously clapping or cheering, but instead with steady words of encouragement, and holding up large placards with Wouter’s “108” number written on them in bold type. It was a ceremonial affair for both the peloton, and the tifosi, and clearly very emotional for all.
Under 10km to go, the Garmin Cervelo team took to the front, faces set in stone. Tyler Farrar stayed tucked in with his mates, and the pink jersey sat down the line as well. Emotions had to be running higher and higher as the finish neared, where Leopard-Trek would come to the front to sheperd the group home.
However, in the face of the tragedy yesterday, today this peloton all wore the same jersey, and all wore the same number – 108.
Garmin on the front at 5 to go, now rotating in front of the waiting Leopard-Trek team. Soon thereafter, the race leader David Millar gave the signal, and the Leopard-Trek boys came to the front, and elegantly spread their remaining 8 riders across the road, and the peloton faded back to a respectful distance several meters behind the missing man formation. A touching tribute by Leopard-Trek, they allowed Tyler Farrar – Wouter’s best friend – clearly overcome by emotion, to sit in the line with Weylandt’s team, as if to take his place in memorium.
It’s hard to overstate the beauty of this sport at moments like this. For all its intracies and controversies and personalities, there is no sport in the world that could match the brotherhood and beauty of such a processional in such a time of sorrow. The church bells in Livorno clanged loudly as the Leopard-Trek team, with Tyler Farrar tucked in their ranks, went arm in arm over the finish line. Tears ran freely, sorrow ran openly, and the support and adoration of the crowd sang loudly along with the church bells. The peloton, lead by David Millar, crept over the line some 15 seconds back, heads hung low.
Tomorrow, with a slightly different shade, racing will continue.